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i can no longer shop happily
time to bag the supermarket
by russ carr (@DocOrlando70)
7.24.06
general


A cattle prod. Or a whip. That's what I want in the grocery store. The two little old ladies standing in front of the doors to the ice cream freezers? zzzzPOW! And a cowcatcher on the front of my cart to bulldoze remote shoppers (their side of the cellphone: "Well they have 'vegetable beef' and 'beef vegetable.' Which do I get?") away from the soup.

I've had my fill of supermarket shopping. The crowds. The prices. The parking. The arbitrary pricing. The E coli.

Getting your foodstuffs for the week used to be a weekly ritual. Mom would toss the kids in the back of the station wagon and roar down to Safeway. Shopping was interactive; she'd go from counter to counter, asking "what's good?" of the seafood guy, the butcher, the deli clerk.

Now? Now it's standing at the butcher counter pushing the little white button to see if there's anyone back there, giving up after four minutes and unsticking one shrinkwrapped slab of colorized meat from another. It's buying a pound of sad, gray shrimp that's one-quarter ice. It's Batman soup.

It's the realization that the lone nod toward consumer serendipity put forth by supermarket chains in the past five years has been depersonalizing the checkout process and creating automated cashiers because — as long as you're leaving anyway! — you'll believe you'll get out faster if you swipe your own UPCs and bag your own eggs.

(You won't. You'll be stuck behind the same yutz who can't suss out the ATM.)

So, for the cost of a few extra bucks each week, I've bought myself peace of mind. I've dumped the big chain stores. Here in St. Louis that's Schnucks and Dierbergs; in your neck of the woods it could mean Giant or Winn-Dixie or Publix or Kroger. The bulk of my shopping now takes place at far smaller grocery stores (with two exceptions) and the difference is remarkable.

Within three miles of my house are four routine stops that go a long way toward filling up my cart:

LeGrand's Tom-Boy. Back before the days of megalomarts, Tom-Boy was a smaller chain with locations in places so far afield you'd never realize they were connected. The franchise is gone, but the individual attention — and cool neon sign — remains. The guys behind the counter at LeGrand's are real butchers, ready to trim any cut to your specifications at no charge. Their deli counter is phenomenal, and so, by extension, is their made-to-order sandwich business. There's a real old-fashioned pickle barrel, and one of the master butchers (or their apprentices) is always quick with a free Little Smokie for my son.

G & W Sausage. The first time I ventured into G & W, I was brushed back at the door by an unexpected bellow from behind the counter: "Hey, want a beer?!" Half a can of Busch Bavarian later, I was cheerfully ordering half a pound of this, two pounds of that, and half a dozen freshly made bratwurst. It's hard to leave without a tyrannosaur's portion when there's such a festhaus environment inside. At 10 a.m., no less. This is the place where farmers and hunters bring their meat to be butchered, and where European emigres still order in their mother tongue.

Viviano's. Our neighborhood is adjacent to "The Hill," St. Louis' primarily Italian neighborhood (childhood home of Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola) which is peppered with bakeries, salumerias and markets providing all the staples you'd need to open your own trattoria. I hit 'em all, but Viviano's remains my favorite. If your idea of mozzarella comes wrapped in plastic with a Kraft label on it, or your brand of pasta sauce is a four-letter word, you could use an afternoon's worth of education at Viviano's. Fresh sausage, locally-made tortellini and thick basil and garlic spiked marinara are always in my basket, and they have the best value on wines in town.

La Tropicana. Just as Viviano's is the best place for Italian foods, La Tropicana is my go-to grocery for Latin American fare. Do people actually go to supermarkets and buy Taco Bell brand salsa? Bag after bag of dried chiles hang on racks, while packs of tortillas in various colors and diameters stand in towering pillars inside a refrigerator case. I can get in, grab a bottle of cachaca, some queso fresco and a couple of perfectly ripe avocados, and be out again in five minutes...unless it's a Saturday afternoon and I'd rather sit on their patio slurping a margarita and listening to a live band.

If I can't get what I need at one of these four places, I still don't have to fall back on the supermarket. We make regular weekend forays to Soulard Market near downtown for fresh vegetables, fruit and even meat. Many of the St. Louis suburbs have started farmers' markets of their own as well. If I need seasonings, it's less than 10 minutes to Penzey's Spices, where the selection is so much better and the herbs and spices always fresh. Bob's Seafood is my most distant stop, but they're the fish market in town that supplies St. Louis' best restaurants with just-flown-in fresh seafood. I couldn't imagine going elsewhere.

What few gaps remain in the pantry and fridge I admit to filling up at two chain grocers: Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe's. But each of these markets is so far removed from regular supermarkets in terms of selection, quality and customer service that I can't lump them in with the paper-or-plastic masses.

Ditching the supermarkets has, as I hinted, meant a slight nudge upward for our budget. If nothing else, having to drive to more than one store has added at least a dollar a week to the gas bill. But to my mind, that's offset by the assurance of knowing I'm buying a lot of locally made products from stores that are often family-owned and operated. The food is high quality, the prices are more than reasonable, and the stress of dealing with parking lots, wobbly-wheeled carts and wet cleanups on aisle four is a thing of the past.

Think about that next winter when you're stuck in line with two hundred other schmucks trying to buy bread and milk at the first sign of snow, and suddenly Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery looks Pretty Awesome.


ABOUT RUSS CARR

If the media is the eye on the world, Russ Carr is the finger in that eye. Tune in each month to see him dispersing the smoke and smashing the mirrors of modern mass communication. The world lost Russ on 2/7/12, but he lives on.

more about russ carr

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COMMENTS

sandra thompson
7.24.06 @ 8:16a

I shop at two Publix markets and Costco. The Publix are so customer friendly they'll order odd stuff that I want (buffalo cubed steaks and Norwegian goat cheese, for instance) The butchers are friendly and helpful, the seafood people ditto. I don't get much from the deli but the bakery is excessively sinful and has some of the best baked goods in town, and it's baked on the premises. The produce department has a large organic section. I buy house brand products when they're available. I stopped shopping at the other supermarkets over fifteen years ago because of all the reasons you wrote about, and discovered that Publix really was different. I buy bread, fruit juice, some seafood, books, software, prescriptions, ziplock bags, gasoline, and miscellanous other stuff at Costco. The quantities are so huge that we can't work our way through most perishables from Costco before they spoil. Maybe we're just lucky here in Orlando with the quality of our Publix markets, but that's been my experience. What I can't get at Costco, I get at Publix. I'd shop at Whole Foods but it's ten miles away, which in these days of high gas prices is a defensible consideration. The Publix managers seem to be keenly aware of the competition, and know I can shop at the two supermarkets which are on my way to Publix. All of their employees go out of their way to be friendly, helpful and accommodating.

No, I don't own any Publix stock. Yet.....

sandra thompson
7.24.06 @ 8:28a

My snide remark about Publix stock led me to look it up and here's what the website had to say:

"Publix is the largest employee-owned retail grocery chain in the United States. Publix is owned by more than 58,000 stockholders and more than 84,000 participants of its Employee Stock Ownership Plan. During designated offering periods, Publix's common stock is made available for sale to eligible active employees and non-employee members of its Board of Directors. Publix's common stock is not publicly traded on a stock exchange and, therefore, does not have a "ticker" symbol. The market price of Publix's common stock is determined by its Board of Directors, based upon appraisals prepared by an independent appraiser.


Current Stock Price: $17.65 per share, adjusted from $88.25 for the 5-for-1 split
(effective July 1, 2006."

Employee owned! Well, no wonder!




tracey kelley
7.24.06 @ 9:29a

I try to stay local when I can, but our farmer's market prices are outrageous, I have to be very selective with what I purchase.

I haven't been cooking much lately - don't know what the problem is, but I just haven't been into it.

jael mchenry
7.24.06 @ 10:09a

Our Safeway is utterly miserable, but I shop the sales, because their sale meat prices are tremendous. I just try to go at off-peak hours and only buy 15 things so I can use the express aisle.

And we have this totally awesome "online farmer's market" option here, where I go online on Wednesday and pick out what I want (a pound of eggplant, a pint of okra) and they bring it to the local farmer's market on Saturday. Great produce.

To Tracey's point, our Adams Morgan farmer's market is reasonably priced but almost everything at the Dupont Circle market is outrageous. They're like a mile apart physically but cater to a totally different market. Sure, I like exotic mushrooms, but I don't like them enough to pay $20/pound.

juli mccarthy
7.24.06 @ 10:44a

We've got Woodman's here, which is also employee-owned. They are an enormous, warehouse-looking store, and for the most part, their prices are consistent with the warehouse theme (i.e. about 25% lower than Jewel/Albertson's, our big local chain.) I have no personal idea how their meat department is, though I know others have sung its praises, and most of their fish is frozen, but to me, they more than make up for that in their excellent selections of organic produce, ethnic foods, and stuff you just don't find everywhere else.

It's a mile to Jewel, five miles to Woodman's, and six miles to Trader Joe's from my driveway, and I find I shop at Jewel less and less every month. We do have a plethora of local Hispanic and Asian markets, but sadly, none of them are noticeably friendly to garden-variety Americans.

ken mohnkern
7.24.06 @ 3:03p

Great article.

We have few alternatives to our local grocery chain nearby, but we do subscribe with a local organic farmer to pick up a crateful of organic produce every other week from spring to fall. One advantage is that we have a much better understanding now of what foods are in season. Another is that the food goes bad if we don't eat it, so we stay home more often and eat well.

Pittsburgh has a Whole Foods, but we usually make the trip across town only for special stuff - gourmet cheeses an' 'at. We've also got a hippy-run co-op (again, we stop in there just for specialty items) and there are rumors of a Trader Joe's coming. I'd love to find a real butcher nearby.

tracey kelley
7.24.06 @ 4:08p

Ken!

Everyone, meet Ken, of ISWF '06. Ken, everyone.

pout No Whole Foods. No Trader Joes. A couple of okay health food stores with extremely high prices but an interesting selection of locally lockered organic meats, which is handy.

We have some CSA options in DSM, too (community supported agriculture, for the uninitiated) but my husband and I just wouldn't eat enough of the crate to warrant the cost or supply. He's not nearly as much of a rabbit as I am.

russ carr
7.24.06 @ 4:51p

We have already scouted ahead for our upcoming vacation and found an organic co-op type grocery called Shenandoah Farms at which we can buy most of our fruits, veggies and meats. Well, at least our little family unit; I can't speak for what the extended family might sink to.

I agree with you on the spoilage issue, Ken, which is why we have to do some shopping every few days. That just means our food is fresh! Still, that's akin to the European model to which I quickly grew accustomed when I was studying in England...which happened to also be the first time I was solely responsible for feeding myself! Laziness and convenience got me back in the supermarket line. Happily I've learned my lesson.

jael mchenry
7.24.06 @ 5:32p

I wouldn't be able to handle a CSA, since you have to sign up for a long-term commitment and you often can't choose what they bring. Don't like eggplant? Or potatoes? Or tomatoes? Tough. Which is why the online farmer's market works so well for me. It's too bad they don't have that sort of thing in more places.

I agree that having fresh food in the house really makes you stay on track for eating at home. This weekend, we could have had dinner out both nights, but I had okra that needed to be cooked, and I didn't want the basil to go to waste so I made panzanella, etc. etc. It's a big change -- a year ago we couldn't even keep milk around, because it would spoil long before we used it! Granted, this week I'm backsliding to Lean Pockets, but once you get into the shopping/cooking routine it generally holds for a while.

dan gonzalez
8.5.06 @ 11:19a

Shopping of any kind - tech toys, cars, food, clothes - sucks outright and no one male can possibly get any joy from it. In fact, we're content and actually celebrate our hatred of it.

And then goddamn Russ shows up and makes it sound cool and now I have to say that if you're ever in Pennsylbama, there's this place run by Mennonites called Sunnyway foods with a diner and deli and everythings fresh and delicious and the average plate is 6 bucks.

Now I feel all dirty. Can we talk about fantasy football or Orange County choppers or Bonzo's drum solos now?



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