EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was updated Nov. 6, 2023, to include additional information from the Laytonville Healthy Start Community & Family Resource Center.
MENDOCINO Co., 10/31/23 — Since at least April, going to the grocery store in Laytonville is no longer a time to chat with your neighbor while you pick up goodies and gossip. Geiger’s Long Valley Market is the only full-service grocery in town; it serves downtown Laytonville and the Cahto Tribe of the Laytonville Rancheria, as well as hundreds of others in the surrounding hills and halfway to the coast. Some travel over an hour on pitted dirt roads for Geiger’s barbeque, deli sandwiches, milk, eggs, produce, a good selection of wines and beers, not to mention the camping equipment, tools, plumbing supplies and paints sold in the Ace Hardware inside that took up almost half the store.
At least, they once did. The shelves have been nearly empty for ages, the produce is wilted, Kenny and his outdoor barbecue are gone, and so is the Ace Hardware, giving the store the look of a desolate beach without an ocean.
Said Tim Harris, who
helps run the Laytonville food bank and heads up the cooking team at Grange breakfasts, “They run out of even staples quickly. There’ll be no milk, just empty coolers. You might find bologna and ham and a couple kinds of cheese. The produce is horrible. Even the canned fruit is awful. You used to have low quality canned goods and cereal but they also stocked good quality so you had a choice. Now there is no choice.”
Harris compared the meager offerings in Laytonville to those of the new Geiger’s in Hopland, run by the same owners.
“They completely remodeled that building. They stocked it with top quality foods, so you’ve got good quality in Hopland and low quality in Laytonville. The prices are astronomically high at both stores,” Harris said. He cited one example: “You can buy eight cans of very good quality tuna at Costco for $14.99. It costs $7.99 for one can of Chicken of the Sea at Geiger’s.”
The effect on the community has been profound.
Jayma Shields Spence, executive director of the Laytonville Healthy Start Community & Family Resource Center, said that after new management took over at Geiger’s, the Laytonville community’s dependence on food bank nutrition nearly doubled — from 80 households participating in monthly food distributions to 150 households.
“During October’s distribution we had more people than I have ever seen come through the food bank line,” Shields Spence said in an email. “We basically ran out of food; people who came at the end of the distribution time didn’t get household staples such as bread and milk, because we experienced an increase in demand that we weren’t expecting.”
Shields Spence said the top reason new households gave when coming to the food bank for the first time was that basic food items were either unavailable at Geiger’s or too expensive.
“For November’s food bank distribution, I will have to figure a way to get more food to Laytonville, which will mean an increase in our spending, during a time when our budget is already squeezed for the food bank. With the higher costs of food, utilities and gas, we are seeing an increase in Laytonville residents asking for assistance,” Shields Spence wrote.
Another resource for hungry townsfolk is the fresh produce at Long Valley Feed & Supply. Meadow Shere, the feed store’s owner, watched Geiger’s go downhill since Michael Braught brought in a new management and ownership group. Realizing there was a desperate need for fresh produce, Shere set up a farm stand at her store for farmers and gardeners to bring in their wares to sell to neighbors.
“It’s people sharing what they have,” she said. “It’s been really fun to do. But we are not a grocery store.’
Shere said that one of the hardest parts of the Geiger’s debacle is that, “Nobody knows what’s going on over there. I have no idea how they’re keeping the doors open.”
She has not visited the new market in Hopland but says that the old iteration, the Hopland Superette, was like Foster’s with a meat counter. She said that when the Geiger’s market business in Laytonville was transferred to the new team, managers made it clear that they were chiefly interested in catering to the tourist community.
“Are there tourists in February?” Shere asked. “They ignored the fact that eighty percent of their customer volume are people who live in Laytonville and the surrounding hills. So far as I can tell, neither store is catering to the communities in which they are located.”
Shere has run a business for decades, and she understands how it works.
“They don’t have enough product in there to sell to pay their rent,” she said. “I used to spend an average of about $40 a day at Geiger’s. Now I go there every few weeks and spend $30. The math does not compute. Recently I saw they had a can of pinto beans for $6. I can get that same can for 99 cents at Grocery Outlet. I know that business owners go down to Costco and bring products back here and mark them up a bit. Everybody’s fine with that. But with Geiger’s letting people go, with no stock, terrible produce, and high prices, what do you have? All we [small businesses] can offer in Laytonville is convenience and customer service. If you take that away, you have nothing. There is no reason for anyone to shop with you.”
Customer service was butcher Daryl Foster’s raison d’etre. Foster worked at Geiger’s for 19 years, greeting customers by name, remembering what cuts of meat they liked, saving special cuts for special occasions. The butcher shop at Geiger’s was always busy, and Foster ran it like a custom house at a fine specialty grocery. Last week when Foster came in to work, he found himself walking out the door a half-hour later, laid off with no notice.
“They did give me my vacation pay,” he said. “They didn’t do that for other people.”
Foster said that when the new managers came in, all was rosy. The employees were told that there were new investors, and they all got a Christmas bonus. But it didn’t take long before things began to go south—literally.
“They said they had supply chain problems because of COVID, but that wasn’t true,” Foster said. “The bread company pulled out, the produce distributors, the grass-fed beef people, they all pulled out because they didn’t get paid.”
Over the last six months, the slide downhill quickened, “It got to a point where employees were responsible for washing our own linen. We lost the floor mops, the brooms… We couldn’t get dish soap. We had to buy our own. And as butchers, we have full robes to protect our clothes and to protect the product. They said we didn’t need that anymore. Morale is at an all-time low.”
It’s not surprising that after 19 years and a lot of promises, Foster feels betrayed.
“A couple of laid-off employees asked for letters of recommendation. I did too. I was told that writing a letter of recommendation was against their policy. How are you supposed to brag about your 19 years without even a letter?” Foster asked.
Like Laytonville residents, Foster can’t figure out the end game, “We’re always trying to figure out what they’re doing. They sold all the Ace stuff for 75% off. Then they buy all this stuff no one wants, this off-brand food. They’ve taken our dollies and hand trucks down to Hopland.”
A disgusted Foster has not visited the Hopland store. He heard that the vision for Hopland was to bring in $20,000 per day.
“I heard they’re pulling $600-$900 a day out of it. It’s a complete flop,” he said.
Ironically, a few new employees hired at the Hopland location only lasted a week, so some Laytonville employees — the ones not laid off — have been asked to work a few days a week in Hopland.
Hopland aside, what will happen to Laytonville?
If the store actually closes, as people are now dreading, it will be even worse for Laytonville and the surrounding community.
“A lot of older people have bad cars that can’t make it down to Willits or Ukiah,” Foster said. “Gas is so expensive. People got so desperate they were going all the way to Costco to buy vegetables.”
Another ex-employee, Tami Sizemore, was let go in January. She said that after raises and promotions, after the new regime came in, “things really changed for me.” She was told that she had not put on her deli apron on time, was cleaning too much when customers were in the store, that she wasn’t doing the ATM correctly, and other complaints.
“I’ve always gotten compliments,” she said. “I focused on customer service.”
Several coworkers were concerned about the carping over Sizemore’s work, and customers even noticed. Sizemore finally filed a complaint, saying that she was being bullied.
“Then it was over,” Sizemore said. She was accused of mishandling cash but shown no evidence despite her asking how much she’d miscounted and to see camera footage. Sizemore said she was suspended for “creating a hostile work environment.”
“It has impacted my life,” she said after losing a job she was proud of, that she’d had for more than three years. “They kept moving me up because of my customer service. They made me manager and gave me a raise. But then they put me through hell from June to January. I have no job now.”
Sizemore worked at the Chevron station in town but quit soon after.
“I was such a wreck, worried that I was going to do something wrong,” she said.
When asked why Sizemore thought so many longtime employees were being laid off, she said, “There’s so little in the store they don’t need the help, but what everybody doesn’t understand is that they’re keeping people who have been there a couple months and getting rid of the older people who have been there for ages….It’s like they want this store to fail,” she said.
Sizemore has tried to help out the community by buying groceries for the elderly who don’t have cars. She said, “I would pick up stuff for them at Safeway or Grocery Outlet or the Dollar Store. Lately I haven’t been able to do that. It’s hard to find a job right now.”
Sizemore reminisced about the old Geiger’s, when the parking lot was full of locals and tourists and festival-goers, when people popped in several times a day for hose washers at the Ace section or a bottle of specialty Mexican soda.
“Everything then was customer service,” she said.
She recalls hearing one of the new managers saying, “We’re catering to the tourists. This is a poverty town.”
To Sizemore, this was poor strategy, “I said, ‘If you’re going to choose, I would cater to the locals.’ And he said, ‘It’s not really your place to say that.’”
Big building, slim margins
Michael Maciel and his wife, along with Michael Braught and Shanna (Geiger) Braught and Ken Molinaro, are partners in the Laytonville and the Hopland markets, which Maciel described as two separate businesses. Laytonville’s Geiger’s was in a smaller building for years; the Braughts took over from Shanna’s parents in 1999. Maciel looks back at what caused the Braughts to build the much larger store in Laytonville in 2005.
“The growth of cannabis was a bit unwieldy and accelerating during that time,” Maciel said. “It was certainly the majority motivation for taking the market to the size it became.”
Then things changed dramatically.
“It started a couple years ago,” Maciel said. “There was a lot of impact with members of the community, their ability to do what they want or just to maintain their living. No one really has perfect economic numbers on how much southern Humboldt or northern Mendocino County might be dependent on the overall cannabis economy.”
He said that one definite indicator was the grocery store.
“We saw a dramatic drop even when the store was completely full of inventory. Sales dropped fast throughout 2022, and as the fall of 2022 arrived, legacy growers faced whether they would be in the market at all. I must emphasize that for the rest of us, we’re tremendously empathetic to what the greater impact is on the community beyond the store’s activity and inventory. But gross sales changed by more than 60% in a 12-month period while ordinary operating costs didn’t change,” Maciel said.
Some costs went up: insurance, for example, “while the flow of business that would support them dropped substantially.”
Maciel said they’ve been looking at this year as a reset.
“We’re not waiting for the past to return,” he said. “We’ve added a new main supplier to help maintain inventory.”
He asked for patience, saying that the supplier just started delivering to Laytonville last week. He rejects the notion that longtime employees were laid off while the more recently hired stay on.
“Geiger’s Long Valley Market has employees who have remained with us for more than thirty years, twenty years, ten years.” He said.
“We held on to as many as we could for as long as we could. But the size of the total personnel in our meat department reflects much better times than today,” Maciel said, addressing the butcher shop in particular.
Independent grocers nationally face pricing conundrums.
“Independent markets are charged [by suppliers] very differently as opposed to the large chains that can wield pressure,” Maciel said. “We can’t compete with big box stores. To do that you’d just say goodbye to independent markets permanently.”
Maciel said, “A ten percent drop [in revenue] could put most out of business. Ours are down sixty, and we’re still going. We know what that store means to us and to the community. There was never an interest in letting it go. We’ll continue to move forward, optimistically and not pessimistically.”
Maciel again urged patience, saying they are seeking a solution that would amply serve the needs of the community. Last Saturday at noon, however, there were just three cars in the enormous parking lot. It was as if the store served a ghost town.
As Harris said, “it’s the overall health of people in Laytonville I’m concerned with. That’s what’s at stake here.”
Geiger’s Long Valley Market and Geiger’s Hopland Market were sued in U.S. District Court’s Northern District of California this April by General Produce — a regional supplier of fruits, vegetables and other grocery items. Michael Maciel, Ken Molinaro, Abbi Arkelian and Michael and Shanna Braught were listed as codefendants.
The federal lawsuit alleged that between Nov. 1, 2022 and Jan. 17 2023, Geiger’s ran up a $75,940 tab that never got paid. Maciel said in an interview the dispute arose because the produce delivered in November and December was of poor quality.
Court records indicate the case was dismissed in September after the parties reached a settlement.
You can read more background in our previous coverage of the Geiger’s Market locations: