Kia Patterson places new green plants on the shelves while working at the Grocery Outlet in Long Beach Wednesday, March 3, 2021.Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

This is the third—fourth?—attempt at connecting with Kia Patterson at her place of business. She’s owned the Grocery Outlet, located at 1340 Seventh St. in Long Beach, since the summer of 2019, though sometimes she needs to be reminded of that.

“She’s a worker bee, she’s still growing into being the boss,” says Shakira Bryant who, in her role as the store’s office manager, and Patterson’s cousin, feels compelled to protect Kia, mostly from Kia. “I’ll find her fixing [a display] of garlic and I’ll say, ‘We have an associate who can do that.’ She needs to be doing boss things. But it’s just in her nature to do things herself.”

This morning, 6 a.m., the boss was outside helping unload the half dozen trucks that showed up with deli items, milk, groceries, meat and frozen food. Patterson comes by her bee tendencies honestly, honed by working nearly 18 years for Smart & Final–she was a store manager by age 24–and by the four women who raised her.

Now, on this media tour of the store that took three—four?—passes to arrange, she admits the hardest thing about owning a store is “turning on that switch that says I’m the business owner as opposed to being a manager. They are two completely different things.”

She says she noticed the difference right away, especially when something would break.

“All of a sudden, you realize you have to pay for that,” she says.

“Yeah, and it seems every time something breaks, it’s $2,000,” Bryant adds.

You can actually see the switch as Patterson moves from boasting about her store’s impressive organic produce section to quickly pivoting to assist an associate not only load a pallet on a pallet jack but then offer a quick tutorial in operating a pallet jack, finishing the lesson with a “Now, be careful.”

And just like that, the boss turns around and goes right back to talking about organic produce—much of it 40% to 70% off what you’d normally expect to pay—which isn’t necessarily what you’d expect to find in an “extreme value” grocery store.

“A lot of people have an image of just a bunch of dented cans,” says Patterson, who, yes, is aware the chain’s original name was Canned Foods. Her store’s interior looks pretty much like any other quality supermarket: very clean, very organized, rows of shelves neatly stocked, including an impressive wine section that not only sells directly from wineries but manages to keep a lot of bottle prices around $4, $5 and $6. Twice a year, the store holds a wine sale featuring 20% of all individual bottles.

“It gets crazy in here when that rolls around,” Patterson says.

Upfront today, are such featured items as organic mangos—very popular—organic avocados—most popular (three for $5)—and bunches of organic bananas for $1.99.

“A dollar ninety-nine,” she says with incredulous pride. “Where else are you going to find that?”

When she bought her first Grocery Outlet in Compton in 2017, there was virtually no place to find organic produce or much food of any quality, causing the region to be declared a “food desert.”

She quickly changed that, not only by the products she made available but by bringing in dieticians and chefs to educate her customers as to their uses and benefits.

News of what she was doing, and where she was doing it, quickly spread. In purchasing the Compton store, Kia Patterson had become, at 36 years of age, the first black owner of a supermarket in the city.

As the story spread, Kia noticed the store getting more and more crowded as requests for media interviews became more and more frequent. Having just ended her nearly two-decade stint at Smart & Final, having stumbled upon Grocery Outlet’s franchise program online and struggling to make the worker bee-owner switch in her brain, she suddenly felt uncomfortable with the level and type of attention she was receiving, i.e. very few people wanted to talk about bananas.

“When the story first broke, the next month and a half, the store was insane,” she said. “And yes, it was good for the sales, but suddenly everyone was pulling at me. I’ve always thought of myself as a pretty outgoing person, but my level of anxiety was just crazy. People were coming at me like I was a celebrity and I would explain ‘Hey, I’m just stocking groceries. I’m not a celebrity, I gotta work.’”

It wasn’t that Patterson didn’t appreciate the significance of being the first black-owned store, quite the opposite. She cared so much that the weight of the matter became crushing at times.

“I felt I had immense pressure, every day. I just wasn’t able to be Kia, the owner-operator of Grocery  Outlet. It was as if I had to put the culture on my back, to say ‘Yes, I’m female! Yes, I’m Black! And yes, I own the store.’ I had to wear that every day. I was willing to do that, but there were days that I felt defeated, you know I don’t know if I can do this, and learn how to be an owner. There was so much pressure. It wasn’t just me keeping the store stocked.”

Oh, and keeping the store stocked was no walk in the park, either. In fact, she says the biggest thing she’s struggled with as an owner is ordering merchandise.

“When I was a manager, I’d order hundreds of thousands of dollars of merchandise for the store. It wasn’t my money. Now that it is, I find myself much more conscious of what I’m bringing in the store and how much.”

It’s a process that continues in Long Beach. She bought this store, and sold Compton, in 2019. The move had everything to do with her quality of life. Patterson attended Lynwood High and went on to Long Beach City College and has lived in Long Beach pretty much ever since. She was raised by four women whose work ethic she says she tries to emulate. Her mother who recently retired after more than 30 years at the post office, two aunts, one a recently-retired school teacher who decided to go back to work because “what else was she going to do?” And her grandmother—“My world”—a seamstress who worked for years sewing parachutes for the military and, Patterson says, if she was still alive, would no doubt be on the payroll.

“She’d probably be the store greeter.”

The store will be expanding soon, taking over a vacant space next to it. Business is good and diverse, with low-income shoppers sharing aisle space with shoppers who park Teslas in the store’s large parking lot.

“How you think rich people stay rich?” Patterson laughs. Her brother, Deron Larkin, notes that the store now has a steady stream of regulars joined by five to 10 new customers each day.

“It really has the feel of a community market,” he said.

One Kia Patterson says she looks forward to growing with as she learns to think more like a boss. Shakira Bryant, for one, says she’s already on her way.

“You learn and you grow when you’re cutting the checks and she’s learning,” she says. “I mean, I’ve seen her bring the hammer down. I tell people here, ‘Yeah, she’s cool, but she’s not that cool.’”