Noe Valley Voice October 2006

Bell Market's Future Owner Is a Natural

By Olivia Boler

After months of speculation, the fate of 24th Street's Bell Market is about to be settled. Supermarket veteran Harley DeLano and Kroger Co., the owner of Bell, have signed a deal for DeLano to purchase 11 Cala Foods and Bell Markets in Marin County and San Francisco, including the 24th Street Bell Market.

DeLano and Kroger are scheduled to complete the transaction in early December. The deal was first reported in the San Francisco Chronicle on Aug. 29, and DeLano confirmed the report to the Voice last month.

Even though DeLano is upbeat about the transaction, his attitude is cautious. "We are in escrow, and anything can happen with escrow," he says.

If everything goes according to plan, the sale of the 24th Street location should be wrapped up sometime between Dec. 1 and Dec. 10. The escrow closing is contingent on the landlords of the different grocery locations, who initially signed leases with Kroger, approving new rental contracts with DeLano. Those are the types of issues that get worked out during escrow, in which a neutral third party holds deeds and deposits until all details of a purchase contract are finalized.

DeLano is set to become the new owner of Bell Market smack dab in the middle of the holiday season. Because of that, he isn't planning on making any big changes for a while.

"What we'd like to do is start serving customers as best we can," he says, and leave any major innovations for a later date.

DeLano Meets His Customer Base

On Sept. 21, DeLano met with Supervisor Bevan Dufty and a group of concerned citizens spearheaded by Friends of Noe Valley. Many residents have lobbied for, among other things, a wider choice of organic foods at the 24th Street store, particularly since the 2003 closure of Real Food Company, the neighborhood's natural foods grocery, across the street.

The get-together, at St. Philip Church on Diamond Street, basically was to introduce DeLano to the neighborhood. He's been invited back to another meeting, to be scheduled in early 2007.

DeLano says he is eager to talk to "groups and homeowners to see what they really would like to change about the store. Most independent grocers depend on the needs and wants of our customers, and usually we only get input if we don't provide what they want."

DeLano is an enthusiastic advocate of natural foods. He promises that meat and dairy products will be all-natural, meaning raised on feed without additives or preservatives and free of growth hormones. In addition, his store will strive to sell certified organic products whenever possible.

"We will certainly do all we can to provide all-natural choice beef, pork, and chicken products and have suppliers for that," he says. "We also have to be cognizant of things that have additives and hormone treatments and so on."

DeLano, who lives in Greenwood in the hills above Auburn--where he raises beef cattle--is particularly sensitive to the controversy surrounding bovine growth hormone, also known as BST. The hormone has been linked to cancer, but has not been banned by the federal Food and Drug Administration. DeLano says he will not sell any milk products that come from cows injected with the hormone. "I don't know if it actually does any harm to people, but it does take its toll on the cows."

As for locally grown produce, DeLano says he won't necessarily look to carry it because not a lot of local growers carry the all-natural products.

What's in a Name?

DeLano has the option to keep the name "Bell Market" but isn't sure at this point whether he will. He will stock some "house brands" like the Ralphs' products the store carries now under Kroger Co., but what those brands will be depends on what customers want. "There's nothing dictated to us that says we have to carry a particular brand," he says, "but we are responsible for accommodating more of what the customers want."

The 69-year-old DeLano got his start in the grocery business when he was 14, as a courtesy clerk bagging groceries, helping customers to their cars, and retrieving carts. He rose to president of Cala Foods and Bell Markets in Northern California from 1990 to 1999 before retiring with his wife in 2000 to raise horses and cattle.

In returning to the grocery business, DeLano will become CEO of the family-owned venture. His son, Dennis DeLano, who has been in the supermarket industry for 32 years, will serve as general manager, and his daughter, Desiree DeLano, will head up the community relations and human resources division.

DeLano says he will come to the Bay Area to perform his duties when needed, staying in an apartment he keeps in Tiburon.

"I love San Francisco, and I'm happy to be back," says DeLano. "It's one of the most exciting cities--cosmopolitan, European, all of that--and we're just really excited to get back there."