Two market town?
Through the quaint, close-knit town of Forest Ranch, 15 miles east of Bruce Road on Highway 32, there runs a great divide. A new market, which in other towns might come as a welcome addition, has passions stirring in this normally quiet community.
Forest Ranch is the type of place where people move in small circles and everyone knows everyone else. Everyone definitely knew Larry Zavattero, who ran the town’s sole grocery store—known locally just as “The Store"—in the heart of downtown Forest Ranch for 25 years. The store has long served as a community meeting place.
His death at the hands of his son Nicholas last July sent shock waves throughout the community that have yet to settle.
Zavattero’s other son Kyle, now 17, grew up helping his father at the small store and pushed to keep it open after his death. Kyle and his mother, Zavattero’s ex-wife Susan Smith, now successfully run the business with the help of their employees, distributors and the continued support of the community. Though Zavattero Grocery Co. has always faced competition from larger grocery stores “down the hill” in Chico, now the competition also comes from directly across the growing town’s main street.
A sign on Highway 32 announces the population of Forest Ranch at 1,500, but no one has bothered to change the sign in years. Newer estimates place the population closer to 2,500, accounting for new residents who continue to find the town nestled in the foothill pines an affordable, fresh alternative to the city, with an easy commute to Chico.
Most Forest Ranch residents have to make that commute frequently, since there is not much to do or to buy in town. The downtown on Nopel Avenue, just north of the highway, has long consisted of little more than a tiny post office, a volunteer fire station, a church, a cramped restaurant, a local realty office and the store.
In November 2005, the town saw the launch of the new Forest Ranch Market directly across Nopel Avenue from the original Zavattero store.
This new addition fills the main part of a prominent central building that until recently housed two privately run small businesses. Now, it is a clean and tidy convenience store flooded with fluorescent lights, a wall of cigarettes behind the counter, an aisle of wine and a typical selection of snack foods and cold beer. It also offers everyday groceries like milk, frozen pizzas and lunchmeat.
Owner Alan Cornelison, a 13-year Forest Ranch resident and a sales manager for various other convenience stores, bought the building in 2003 and had intended to open something like the Forest Ranch Market for years. Local business man Sam Sayegh, who owns and runs the 99 Cent Store Plus Grocery markets in Chico and Paradise, is also a part owner of the Forest Ranch Market. That connection has spread some concern among Zavattero loyalists that the new store may enjoy a bit of a chain-store advantage.
“I was going to do it [open a convenience store] when I first bought the property,” Cornelison said, “but there was a gentleman here who had a video store and I didn’t feel like I should put him out of business.
“As soon as he said he was moving out, that’s when I decided I had to make ends meet. I talked to some people in the community, and they thought it would be a good idea to go ahead with my dream.”
The timing could hardly have been worse. Cornelison’s market seemed more like a nightmare to locals, materializing before the community could recover from the pain of Larry Zavattero’s death. Even the name Forest Ranch Market stung residents as an insult to the original store and Zavattero’s memory, and they complained that the market’s glaring sign felt out of step with the town’s traditions.
An unorganized but widespread boycott quickly emerged.
“I haven’t been in there, I won’t go in,” said 29-year resident Margie Smith (no relation to Susan), a teacher at the 65-student Forest Ranch Elementary School. “I’m having a stubborn streak in that sense, just because of all that happened, and I’m going to support Zavattero’s grocery store as much as I can.”
Smith’s sentiment prevails, though the Forest Ranch Market does have a small core of customers. Cornelison and his business partner Willy Maxot are optimistic despite some initial hostility—including minor vandalism—coming from the community.
"[Business] has not been overwhelming,” Cornelison said, pausing to greet a customer, “but you’re talking about the hardest time of year in the grocery business.” He expects sales to increase by the spring. Between locals and tourist traffic from Highway 32, Cornelison is confident that the community can support the two markets. “I know we do carry a lot of items they don’t carry, they have items we don’t carry,” he pointed out, while agreeing they also carry many similar items.
Duncan Govan, a two-year Forest Ranch resident, disagrees with Cornelison. “I don’t think the community needs it,” he said while picking up his mail at the post office. “That’s pretty much how everyone feels. It’s redundant. Everything we need is in there [Zavattero’s] and I’m not sure there’s that much overflow that’s going to allow it to work.”
Having labored alongside Zavattero nine and one-half years ago and returning to operate the store with her son in July, Susan Smith doesn’t think there is enough demand for the two markets to operate either. But, she says, so far the new convenience store hasn’t affected her business and she believes locals and tourist alike will continue to shop at Zavattero’s store.
“From what I hear of the community and see of the community, they’re not responding to that store over there,” she said. “They’re committed to us. This is their store. They are what make this store. They’ve just been awesome, really supportive. They’re just not going over there.”
Maxot, whose elderly parents often keep him company throughout the day and smile at customers from white plastic chairs, doesn’t blame locals for their loyalty to Zavattero’s store. But he also thinks that it is nice for residents to have choices, and feels that having more variety will help people make fewer trips down to Chico. With time, he said, the community will get to know him and the new business.
“They’ll find out we’re not bad people,” he said, pausing and then adding, “You can’t prove it to people who aren’t coming in.”
People from both sides of the debate agree on at least one thing.
“People have their choice,” said Susan Smith, or as Alan Cornelison put it, “Let the people decide.”
For now, the jury in Forest Ranch is still out.