Spencer’s Fresh Market has two grocery stores located in Santa Maria and Morro Bay. Before I knew how extensively involved they were with CalCoastNews, I used to shop there regularly. Objectively speaking, they have a great inventory and customer service. Even though grocery trips are understandably far and few between these days, I still can’t support them.
We are slowly getting accustomed to the “new normal” with COVID-19. When it comes to grocery shopping, we’re either using apps like Instacart to have groceries conveniently delivered to us or we’re braving the supermarkets, hopefully wearing a mask and socially distancing, at the risk of infection. More than ever, we should be grateful for all the essential workers, including grocery store employees, for serving the community while risking their lives on a daily and hourly basis. In the larger picture, small businesses everywhere deserve all the love and support we can give them during this difficult time.
When it comes to advertisers, there’s a plausible deniability factor. They may advertise somewhere because it gives them exposure, but it’s difficult to presume they’re keeping tabs on the website they’re advertising on. But owners Beatrice and John Spencer are involved in the shaping of CalCoastNews’ content, tacitly approve their defamatory content and illicit activity.
From 2014–2018, the City of Arroyo Grande’s mayor was Jim Hill. Hill, a listed CalCoastNews contributor, urged volunteers to write CalCoastNews on hand-painted neon campaign signs as a way for people to learn more about his campaign. For his initial mayoral run, Hill relied heavily on their coverage. CalCoastNews wrote about a “sex scandal” between two city employees drunkenly spending the night in Arroyo Grande City Hall. While the city employees were reprimanded for improperly using city resources and creating the appearance of additional impropriety, there was no evidence that the scandal was actually a “sex scandal.” But Hill’s campaign used the controversy to propel himself into office, replacing incumbent mayor Tony Ferrara.
In 2016, Hill sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission — on the City’s non-consenting behalf — urging the agency to support Spencer’s Fresh Markets moving into a vacant grocery store location. The problem was the Spencers were avid supporters and donors of Hill’s campaign. The move led to concerns about favoritism. One year later, an investigation into Hill’s conduct concluded he may have acted outside the legal boundaries as mayor when he wrote that letter. In 2018, Hill’s campaign surrogate, CalCoastNews contributor and Spencers’ ally Julie Tacker attempted to spun Hill’s actions and oddly appeared to be acting as some sort of spox for the grocery store chain. Tacker has routinely failed to disclose her involvement with Hill’s campaign.
And it’s also probable that the Spencers were instrumental in targeting a local business. Last year, Megan Souza, owner of marijuana dispensary Megan’s Organic Market, contacted Spencer’s Fresh Markets about their involvement with CalCoastNews. According to Souza, she reached out to educate them about the website. But according to CalCoastNews, Souza called their advertisers (plural, but the website didn’t specify who was contacted) and reportedly “threatened” them in an “attempt to get them to pull their advertising.” Naturally, CalCoastNews didn’t state the nature of the threat. Souza insisted she only contacted Spencer’s and no one else. It’s more likely than not that someone from their company contacted CalCoastNews.
Since then, CalCoastNews has repeatedly targeted their business, implying they were actively engaging in illegal construction of their dispensary in San Luis Obispo.
I found it problematic that the Spencers would be involved in that particular incident, given CalCoastNews’ extensive rap sheet of retaliation and shaking down political enemies.
But if you take a step back and look at who CalCoastNews has targeted locally, it’s seemingly inconceivable that an essential business that people trust would advertise or endorse a demonstrably untrustworthy tabloid. How can a grocery store stand idly as a CalCoastNews advertiser when they targeted a Los Osos family grieving over the suicide of one of their young loved ones or when they lied and sensationalized the untimely death of a Cayucos resident, claiming without evidence the decedent’s hand was “chewed off” by a mountain lion? That’s only a few examples. Do they think none of the victims or their loved ones ever shopped at their store? And how can Spencer’s Fresh Markets morally and financially support a website that lost a $1.1 million defamation lawsuit?
The answer: politics. Sadly, their politics supersedes human interest.
When I’ve written about Spencer’s French Markets before, I’ve had locals approach me and say, “Aaron, leave them alone. Don’t suggest a boycott. They run a great business. They’re good people.” When they said that to me, I immediately thought of restaurants that people enjoy but they’re actually a mafia front. As far as I could tell, there’s nothing wrong with their hard-working employees and cashiers. But behind that professional veil is a couple that actively supports and bankrolls people involved in predatory and illicit conduct. They’re essentially supporting terrorism and they’re way past the point of claiming ignorance.
EDIT (5/6): I wrote most of this column a while back and updated it with references to COVID-19. Obviously, Spencer’s does provide a valuable service during this critical time. If you need to shop there, please do so. I’m not advocating otherwise. But personally speaking, I won’t shop there.
Aaron Ochs is the author of “Defamers: How Fake News Terrorized a Community & Those Who Dared to Fight It,” a nonfiction uncovering the defamatory, deceptive and criminal practices of online tabloid CalCoastNews. Click here to subscribe to his Patreon, check out exclusive news features and more.