Living in a small town certainly has its advantages, but it isn’t always smooth sailing. Recently, the Southampton Center has been a real challenge to navigate—especially during the holidays. Parking difficulties combined with the construction phase of the major overhaul at Raley’s had locals clenching their teeth. However, the remodel, which is being billed as the flagship prototype for other Raley’s stores, is nearing completion and the end is in sight for the project.

The redesign, which began last summer, is expected to be complete by the end of this month. And what a difference! Although adjustments to the lighting and improvements to the exterior are still underway, shoppers can now enjoy a hassle-free grocery shopping experience. That is, once we all figure out where everything is.

According to Raley’s Store Team Leader Jose Sosa, when the remodel is complete it will be a great addition to Benicia. “The open ceiling combined with wood elements gives the store a warm, industrial feel. We wanted to reflect the community—we even delved into Benicia’s history with displays at the back of the store. I’m really excited about the food court area along the front of the store, and the expanded seating.”

The deli and prepared foods area has a whole new look, but has happily retained the Peets Coffee bar. Since Peets was aced out by Starbucks for a space downtown (since closed) a few years back, it’s probably the closest we’ll get to having an actual Peets in town. “Coffee Bar personnel are currently being trained in the Peets method for espresso drinks. We have a fun, new area to sit and enjoy coffee and something from our new hot foods bar. Two chefs and two prep cooks have been hired in the Raley’s kitchen to offer a greater selection of pre-made options for lunch and dinner. You can eat in or actually get dinner to go.” The department also sports a brand-new juicing machine.

The biggest change, reflected partly in the beautiful new produce section, is that the general merchandise was significantly decreased to fit all the new food items. It’s much more food-centric. “We’ve increased our natural and organic offerings by over 900 items. Natural foods used to be just four aisles. Now it’s integrated into the shelves storewide,” says Sosa.

Another big difference is the checkout area—the layout has a much more open and efficient feel, and the front of the store, with all the new seating, is no longer just a pass-through to the front doors. However, the taller shelves in the grocery aisles may take some getting used to, along with the massive food cases along the back wall.

Change can be hard and I’ve certainly heard the grumbling from neighbors and friends, but this former skeptic is saying Bravo, Raley’s! I’m a huge fan of the new look of the store and its increased food options—especially the long-anticipated expansion of organic produce. Overall, it’s a wonderful and welcome addition to the Center.

The rest of the Southampton Center has also seen recent changes with businesses coming and going, but it seems to have reached a point of stability. Along with the additions of Goodwill, the Dollar Store, Panda Express and Huckleberry’s, long-time merchants have also made significant upgrades to make the shopping/dining experience nicer for customers. Keeping up with the times and Benicia’s changing demographic, Round Table Pizza has just remodeled their entire space, where everything from the booth seats to the layout has changed for a more contemporary look. Flat screen TVs have been added and the game room has expanded. For a fun twist, local musicians get together on Sunday afternoons to play live Celtic music in the back room.

In addition to Ace Royal Paint, Ace Hardware has been adding national paint brands to its Paint Studio. Along with Benjamin Moore and Clark & Kensington, the store now carries Valspar, making it truly unnecessary to leave town to buy paint. In addition, the checkout area has been reconfigured. According to owner Gene Pedrotti, the new, single queue checkout offers a “fast and fairer checkout.” Another new feature is the ability to replicate remote/smart keys with a Sidewinder cutter that uses a router- like device to make high-security keys.
Sport Clips, a unique hair salon catering to men and boys, is still going strong after opening in 2012, blending  a bit of the old barbershop with a sports atmosphere. It features flat screen TVs to watch the latest game while getting a hair cut, which, if opting for the MVP treatment, includes a hot towel head wrap and neck and shoulder massage. Pet Food Express has added a new area inside for kittens, Little Thai recently sold to new owners who have made changes to the menu, Ensenada Restaurant serves breakfast basics starting at 10am, Steve’s Hallmark impresses shoppers with ever-changing products and displays and Huckleberry’s continues to entice customers with their New-Orleans style menu.

Happily the Center has retained old favorites like Jamba Juice and The Game Stop, and essential services like The Mail Place and many others that make our lives easier. So take another look at the Southampton Center, and enjoy the changing landscape of old and new. Sections of the parking lot have been also been repaved—now if we could just have more parking!