What We Talk About When We Talk About Saars

by Kris Kendall

On October 7, 2015, a sign went up at Saars Market Place at 9000 Rainier Avenue, announcing that the grocery store was closing for good. Unless you’ve been out of the country, Rainier Beach resident, that’s old news. A Dollar Tree is taking over a portion of the old Saars, and soon some other commercial entity will move into the remaining retail space, if it hasn’t already.

When the news of Saars’ closing hit the Rainier Beach & Skyway Facebook group, it prompted 70 responses – a fair number for that page. And aside from the excellent crowd-sourcing of “what’s next?” information, the reflections on Saars itself proved interesting, and echoed that other social-media bullhorn, Yelp.

Customer impressions of Saars seemed to fall into one of three categories:

Saars was gross: The food was often past its sell date and some thought of the store space as dirty so customers didn’t return.

Saars was amazing: It had a robust “ethnic food” section, it once had good seafood, and the produce was cheap.

Saars was a sometimes thing: The grocery trip as “adventure shopping.”

Thanks to our collective willingness to offer up opinions about a neighborhood grocery store – a necessary institution for a healthy, livable community – a subtext to each of those categories emerges.

Ghetto groceries

A frequent term lobbed at Saars, on both Yelp and Facebook was that the store was “ghetto” in the Urban Dictionary sense.  I’ll grant that Saars didn’t have the polish of QFC or the “you must earn six figures to shop here” vibe of a Whole Foods, but clearly that wasn’t what Saars was for or about. When a store’s motto is “ROCK BOTTOM PRICES!” (caps theirs) no reasonable customer should walk through the door expecting high-end anything.

Because I’m suspicious of online reviews, I had to wonder: Was there unintentional code in the criticism of this “dirty” grocery store, intended to reflect on the Rainier Valley and its inhabitants? Did some of those reviewers think Saars was the grocery store that Rainier Beach deserved?

Oddly, for a store so often accused of being “ghetto,” local lore holds that Saars seemed to have some pretty strong attitudes about its customers. Many Rainier Beach inhabitants claim that Saars only allowed a set number of young Black males in the store at any given time. Perhaps it’s unfair to mention that, now that Saars management is no longer here to defend or explain itself.

However, it’s true that, for a time anyway, nobody was allowed to walk around Saars wearing a backpack. Customers were asked to check their packs at one of the front counters, yet the safety of your backpack and its contents could not be guaranteed while you were shopping.

Embrace the variety!

This is arguably the healthiest attitude about stores like Saars.

If you want Safeway or PCC, go to those stores.

Those who enjoyed Saars were clear about why they liked shopping there. That is, it was a grocery store that sold things you couldn’t find easily anywhere else, including a variety of imported foods from Asian and Latino cultures.

I can’t attest to the live seafood or fish fry at Saars, features of the store that are spoken of in the online equivalent of reverential tones. But I get it. Not everyone could drive to the International District or Mutual Fish, and why should anyone have to in a town the size of Seattle? In Saars, Rainier Beach had a local seafood source that seemed to trump the other chain stores.

Adventures in shopping

A small number of the social media remarks on Saars came from those who, like me, fell into the third category. For the most part, other stores in Rainier Beach, Skyway and Renton cover my grocery needs. But a trip to Saars was not unwelcome. I could be a tourist in my own neighborhood and walk home with a bag of groceries I wasn’t going to get at Safeway.

We should all mourn the loss of Saars, even those who hated it. Now that Saars is gone, Safeway is the only supermarket in Rainier Beach. The PCC, even though it’s on a major bus line now, is simply out of the price range for some residents, and neither store has any real incentive to try to match the eclecticism of the inventory at Saars.

Price-wise, the Grocery Outlet in Skyway has shoppers covered. But again, the selection isn’t comparable. And if you shopped Saars because you could walk to it, consider the prospect of making the trek to Skyway on a typically dark, rainy evening this winter. That’s no slight against The Grocery Outlet or Skyway. That store does what it does well, and provides great service.

The fact is, South Seattle is down one grocery store now. Why Saars left no longer matters. The absence of Saars already stings for those who shopped there, and, depending on what replaces it, may matter to all of us in ways we can’t predict.

Photo Courtesy Kris Kendall

8 thoughts on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Saars”

  1. With the “check your backpack policy,” I don’t think they meant any slight based on race, just based on age. With a location directly across the street from a high school (an age group probably a little more prone to shoplifting), this policy made a lot of sense to me. When I attended Roosevelt High School, the nearby QFC had a similar policy. Go ahead and cry ageism, but not racism in this case.

  2. I find it curious that we’re mourning the departure of a store that even as it boasted about its ROCK BOTTOM PRICES! that it was a store where on separate trips I wound up purchasing:

    • food that was moldy,
    • meat that was rancid,
    • and seafood that was spoiled.

    Add to that the store was always poorly lit, which gave you the impression you were shopping in a cave, and dealing with an attitude from those who worked there that we should be grateful that it was willing to sell to people like us, and I admit I won’t miss Saars.

    Prior to the arrival of the Skyway Grocery Outlet, Saars was in that location, and I experienced the same conditions at that store that I did at the Rainier Beach location, poor quality food and the attitude that we should be happy that someone was willing to open a grocery store in this “neighborhood.”

    Regardless of your economic situation, you should be able to trust that the food you’re purchasing is safe. I believe Saars took advantage of the condition of too many of its shoppers and made a profit out of selling bad food to people who could little afford to purchase food anywhere else. For that, I’m glad it’s gone…

  3. The one time I went into Saars, this was the series of events:
    First, I spotted a used condom on the floor by the shopping carts. As an anyi-germophobe, I stepped over it to wrestle carts that were mating so fiercly I thought if turning a hose on them. The one I wound up with had a giant squeaky hairball wheel and a mind of its own in terms of which direction we should be headed. Then the security guard sauntered over and demanded that I zip my purse, lest I think of stealing a bag of rancid baby carrots. I don’t even remember why I went there. I don’t remember if I bought anything. The Saars experience took on a life of its own, and the nature of that experience actually makes me truly sad at its closing. Because Saars was an example of the sometime uncomfortable nature of true diversity, which might explain why I feel slightly hinky in the tummy about its closing. Even hinkier than a hairball wheel and a used condom. Which is saying a lot.

  4. We love our Grocery Outlet. Yes, many of the brands were new to me, but after some trial and error I found great value. The also give back and support the community actively.

    My favorite thing though is that every time I shop there I manage to end up talking to someone I didn’t know. Try that in Safeway.

  5. The Rainier S was my “go to” place for reasonably priced produce and frozen (after the fresh fish and fry operation closed) fish. To be sure you had to look over the produce in your hand before dropping it in your cart. But you pay a tremendous up-charge (imo 50-80%) for the privilege of having everything you might touch being “perfect” w/o looking it over, as a Safeway/Albertson’s or a QFC/Fred Meyer (or godforbid a PCC). I’d go into a Safeway or QFC to pick up the occasional item, look at the prices and laugh or gasp!

    And the two major chains treat anything ethnic as a high-priced specialty item.

    Only thing comparable to Saars is the Asian-American owned places along King St up in the I-District.