MERCED -- Sam's Food City, a small, family-owned grocery chain that dates back nearly 60 years, will close its doors this month.
Sam's operates stores in Livingston, Turlock and Modesto. At one time, the grocer also had sites in Newman, Patterson and Oakdale.
The decision to close wasn't an easy one, but it was necessary, said General Manager Gary Lowe.
"Things are changing in the industry," he said. "It's getting harder and harder every year to compete, especially (for) family-owned types of businesses such as ours."
Grocery stores have struggled in the area for years, with other smaller chains such as New Deal and Richland going out of business in the face of increased competition. With very thin profit margins and increased threats from companies that pay minimum wage or close to it, longtime grocers have had a troubled recent history.
Raley's, Save Mart and Safeway have been tussling with their unions, with Raley's workers walking out over proposed benefit reductions last year. Fresh & Easy, which opened stores in Northern California in recent years, announced it will be closing some grocery outlets.
"It used to be that you would have discount stores like FoodMaxx, then conventional stores like ours and upscale stores like Raley's or O'Brien's," Lowe said. "Now everybody's into selling groceries."
He cited discount giants such as Wal-Mart and Winco, as well as niche stores such as Trader Joe's and Sprouts and even local dollar stores and minimarkets.
"There are so many players in the grocery industry now," he said.
Larger companies also have deeper pockets, Lowe pointed out, and can regularly remodel aging stores.
"We don't have the kind of resources to put into stores and upgrade them," he said.
Customers who live near the stores lamented the loss of having groceries, as well as quality meat and produce, at low prices within walking distance.
Builders of a low-income housing complex across the street from the Modesto Sam's lauded the easy access of a grocer for those who don't have cars.
Debbie Giese of Modesto was shopping at that store Wednesday.
"We been coming here since I was 9 years old," she said, adding that she shops with her children and grandchildren. "It breaks my heart that they are closing; this is a staple for us."
Derrick Ramsey said he's also been shopping at the store for decades.
"I'm disappointed a good-standing business falls to the wayside," he said, calling Sam's "more like a mom-and-pop store."
Lowe said there is a possibility some members of the family that owns the stores will go into a meat specialty business at the Modesto location.
He said the saddest part about closing, besides losing longtime customers, is the effect on employees who will lose their jobs. He would not say how many people the chain employs, but said several were longtime employees, "really loyal people."
"It was a tough decision to make," he said. "But we could probably argue at some point in time something had to happen."
Modesto Bee photographer Ed Crisostomo contributed to this report.