Landmark Mecca Leaving Wallingford

Passions are running high in Wallingford - well, not quite as high as the glittering Food Giant sign in the heart of the neighborhood. The impending loss of that landmark has upset a lot of otherwise mild-mannered men and women.

"All my friends are in shock, horror and disbelief. We're all mourning it," said Wende Barrett as she unloaded groceries in front of the store, which will close in October and reopen as a QFC supermarket.

Indeed, anyone eavesdropping in the churches or laundromats of Wallingford will hear a keening that hasn't been heard since the GRANDMA'S COOKIES sign (220 feet long with 30-foot-high letters) disappeared from the neighborhood in 1978.

Homely supermarket had charm

Since then, Food Giant's neon sign has become the local beacon, beckoning all to the homely supermarket on the corner of Wallingford Avenue North and North 45th Street. Nothing personal intended, they would say to QFC, but a chain with 62 stores - and others popping up every day - just doesn't have the same familiar feel.

The owner, Randal West, is selling all four Seattle Food Giants and is getting out of the grocery business.

What's to become of the dorky crepe-paper apples hanging from the store's ceiling, which hovered over the sweet potatoes in orange sauce that West stocked just to please one customer?

"She said, `I'll trade with you every week if you can find them for me,' " recalled West, who searched nationwide until he located a distributor in Louisiana. "She shopped here 10 years until she retired."

Giant pork-and-bean display

That kind of loyalty is legend. Generations of families have been nourished here, on a fad-free diet, though tofu did make its way onto the shelves. Produce has been unpretentious but fresh in a store that also has been known for its prices and pluck. In April 1972, for example, Food Giant trucked in 24,960 cans of pork and beans for the "World's Largest Display!" to help impoverished shoppers get by after income-tax day.

Not surprisingly, "big" has always been a theme at Food Giant. The logo, of course, is huge - shining brightly if not brazenly into the Queen City Apartments across the street. And, during the grand opening in 1958, the celebration featured a wheel of cheese so large it had to be hoisted through a window to get it in the store.

In less ostentatious moments, the store also has helped community organizations.

"They've been very generous with us," said Jan Barrett of St. Benedict's Church. "At Christmas and Easter, they give us a good deal on Easter lilies. Food Giant is part of who we are."

Icon of Seattle kitsch

Hollywood has certainly discovered that. In two recent movies about Seattle - "Sleepless in Seattle" and "Singles" - the Food Giant was featured. Obviously, there's a soft spot in the heart of kitsch culture for the store. Maybe that's why a group of young musicians, including some who grew up in Wallingford, are thinking about naming their band Food Giant.

They'd better hurry. QFC's takeover is scheduled for Oct. 19 and will be followed by a remodel that will probably expand the store slightly toward 45th and re-orient the aisles and checkout stands in that direction. It won't be as big as the groc-opolis that QFC just opened in the University Village, but it will be more of a giant than Food Giant was.

And that has some folks worried.

"I like this store," said loyalist Lee Taylor. "New stores are so high tech it kind of takes the fun out of shopping. You have to read a bulletin board on every aisle to find out where everything is.

Lotto to latte

"But here, it's easy to park, you can buy your Lotto, have your latte, and the store has everything you want."

Taylor turned to Kate Hanauer, who runs the popular Mi Piace Caffe cart parked outside Food Giant, and ordered a "single short nonfat on the rocks."

"It makes me think I'm drinking the real stuff," Taylor said with a grin at Hanauer, who's been told by QFC her cart can stay.

That's about the only consoling news to Food Giant fans. And oh, the stories they tell.

"I lived in the Caribbean and went through Hurricane Hugo just before we moved here," said Laura Schmidt. "The first time I went in the produce section at Food Giant, I actually broke down and cried because of the selection and price."

After dealing with "bruised tomatoes for $5 a pound" on St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, Food Giant's fresh produce overwhelmed Schmidt with relief.

Now, she's worried about higher prices, as is Mary Hanson, who raised another concern.

"The first second I heard QFC was taking over Food Giant, I thought, what about the sign? Who do we call?'

Hanson paused for a moment and then launched into an ode to the store:

The Food Giant sign tells you you're in Wallingford. It's got to be that way. It isn't that it's beautiful. It's not. It isn't that it's terribly meaningful. It's not. But it does mean you're in Wallingford.

Among my friends, we've always called it Food Midget.

No one knows what's to become of the sign, and QFC isn't talking.