The off-season at Albertsons provides a respite from the queues that form behind the cash registers like so many long lift lines on the slopes around town.
But even in September a visit to the store usually means killing some time at the magazine rack while the clerks ring somebody else out. That's the way it is in a city with only one supermarket.Albertsons' busy monopoly has come to pass by an odd combination of booming demographics and a cautious development approach by city leaders. Though there are a handful of small mom-and-pop stores in the area, the Idaho-based company's outlet at 1800 Park Ave. is the only supermarket for almost 30 miles in any direction. It serves a growing ski-resort area that, according to county planners, is home to more than 10,000 residents but whose population swells by thousands during the ski season.
Some shoppers aren't entirely pleased with their grocery-buying options.
"It is a big problem. . . . The lines in the wintertime are horrendous," said Michelle McReynolds, a 13-year resident of Park City who emerged from the store with an armload of groceries one afternoon this week.
But Mary Lou Mylet, more of a newcomer to Park City than McReynolds, said it's just a matter of scheduling. Mornings are least crowded at the store. "You just have to get your timing down," she said.
Some customers said they're angry with the city for its refusal earlier this year to let Smith's Food & Drug Centers Inc. build a store. The Salt Lake City-based company had proposed a sprawling 83,000-square-foot supermarket that one critic said wasn't "quaint" and "funky" enough for the mountain town. The company scaled back its proposal, but the impasse was never resolved and Smith's withdrew its bid.
"The City Council wants to legislate the size of grocery stores, and I think that's stupid. I think competition was how America was founded," said Colin Stephenson, another Albertsons shopper. "I'm sure they're under a lot of pressure from local retailers to keep it out.
"It's the closest thing to price control we have," said Stephenson.
Calls to Albertsons Food Centers offices in Salt Lake City weren't immediately returned, but the company doesn't appear to be gouging shoppers in Park City. Prices at the Albertsons at 2040 S. 2300 East in Salt Lake City were exactly the same as the Park City store's this week on five popular items that included coffee, tin foil, laundry detergent, toothpaste and milk and actually higher at the Salt Lake store on one product - chicken breasts.
But Park City Manager Toby Ross said Albertsons' corner on the market might be approaching its twilight.
"There's interest on the part of other grocery stores," he said, noting that the city is considering entering a partnership with private interests to buy an undeveloped 52-acre piece of land at the intersection of U-244 (the highway into Park City from Interstate 80) and U-248, which hooks up with U.S. 40.
The property currently is owned by the Resolution Trust Corp. and would be a development challenge because its wetlands status would require preservation of certain natural aspects. Dubbed the Snow Creek parcel, it is zoned commercial and because of its high-traffic location would be a prime place for any retail business. Ross said the city expects from three to five bids from developers by early October.
"The problem is there are not a lot of sites here big enough to accommodate a grocery store," he said, which means grocery chains might be eyeing locations beyond the city limits.
Several shoppers said a Kanis Junction location would better serve residents of growing subdivisions north of Park City.
"If they put it out there, it'd be perfect," said Tom McLaughlin, a Silver Creek subdivision resident who drives 10 miles one way to shop at Albertsons.
But some residents of outlying neighborhoods said the long trip to Albertsons can be worthwhile for the pure entertainment experience.
"It's one of the locals' favorite places to go for people-watching on Friday nights," said Summit Park resident Tom Smart, who lives 12 miles from the store. "You've got several different languages going, the beautiful people dressed up in their minks and moon boots right off the lifts shopping beside the granola crunchers.
"It's a funny mix."