On Grocery Stores
Monday, January 16, 2017
Both of my parents grew up in Seattle, Washington. I was born there and lived there until I was 8, and went back fairly regularly after we moved away to visit relatives. My parents had gone to high school on the south side of the city, at Cleveland, but after my father got out of the service and my brother was born, they moved over to the north side of town, near the University, first in Laurelhurst and then in View Ridge.
When we lived in Seattle, we shopped at a small neighborhood grocery store owned by a close family friend of my grandparents named Walt Landis. The store was on N.E. 45th, just before it turns into Sand Point Way, and I have many fond memories of spending time there as a child.
Walt was a joker, he liked to tease me. He’d bring me and my brother in to the back warehouse area of the store give us the freshest, juiciest strawberries. After we’d been there a little while he’d say, “I think your mother is calling you.” So I’d go out to find my mom, and she’d say, no, I’m still shopping, you’re fine. I’d go in back and tell Walt that she hadn’t been calling me and he’d say, “Oh, okay.” Then a minute later he’d say, “I think she’s calling you now
My grandparents had moved to Seattle in the 1940s and my grandmother lived there until 2001 when she was nearing 90, at which point she moved to Western New York to be near my parents. At the time I was living there, she lived in the same area we lived in, first in a house in Hawthorne Hills and then, after my grandfather died, she sold the house and moved to in an apartment off of Sand Point Way.
My grandmother sometimes shopped at Albertson’s or the Tradewell on Sand Point Way, but usually she went to the QFC in University Village. The QFC was originally on the west side of the shopping center and it was more or less a standard grocery store, but in the 90s, University Village went upscale and took the QFC with it. The store got very much larger and moved over to the east side, near the Burgermaster.
Usually when I would visit my grandmother, we would do some activity in the late morning — run errands or visit someone or do some out-of-town-visitor type activity — and then we’d go back home to eat lunch, rest for a bit and watch her shows (“… like sands through the hourglass, these are the days of our lives…”). Then in the afternoon we’d go out to get what we needed for dinner. At this point in her life, my grandmother shopped for groceries almost every day.
I remember one time when I was visiting, when the QFC was in its fancy-dan iteration, and we had gotten what we needed and were ready to check out, my grandmother looked at each of the lines to she if she could find the checkout person she liked. She spotted her and said, “Oh! Here she is. Let’s get in this line.”
When we got up to the head of the line, my grandmother introduced me to the cashier. “This is my granddaughter Becky,” And the cashier seemed genuinely pleased to meet me, which I think surprised me a bit. I think I expected my grandmother to like this checkout person more than the checkout person liked my grandmother, that the checkout person was trying to act friendly because it was her job. But it seemed like she actually enjoyed seeing my grandmother, and she was happy to get to meet me, as if she had heard about me and was pleased to be able to put a face to a name. My cousin Deanna had recently visited (and of course my grandmother had been in the store with Deanna) and the cashier commented on how lucky my grandmother was to have both of her granddaughters out to see her, one after the other like that.
When we were leaving, my grandmother said, “Most of the ones who work here, they don’t even look at you, they just run the groceries through. You know …” she put a blank look on her face and moved her hand as if she were running groceries across a scanner. “But she’s really nice, she always talks to you, asks you how you are.”
When I was self-employed and working from home every day (from 2002 to spring 2012), I shopped pretty much just like my grandmother — I went to the store almost every day. [I’ve written about my shopping strategy in a few places, like here and here.] I definitely recommend this approach if you work from home, especially if you have a store that is within walking or biking distance from your house. It gives you a break from working, gets you out of the house, and gives you something to look forward to so you don’t feel like you are trapped for the rest of your life in your office with a bunch of work you don’t want to do. Not that I ever felt like that.
Also you can spend much less money on groceries, because you can check to see what in your refrigerator is about to go bad and then buy what you need to make something to go with that. You will hardly every throw anything away, and you can train yourself to spend small amounts of money at a time at the store. Because you are walking or on your bike and you can only carry so much home with you, and also you know you will be back in a few days, you will stop feeling the need to walk up and down every aisle and buy anything you ever might use. You will just buy what you need for right now (and maybe tomorrow or the next day) and that is all.
That’s what I used to do. It was great.
I shopped mostly at Whole Foods, because it was a nice walk from my house and also it was a nice store, and very shoppable. The way I shop when I’m shopping multiple times a week, and walking to the store, is to get the necessary items first, then fill in with optional items until one of two limits is reached: either (a) I hit my price ceiling (which at the time was about $12) or (b) my basket is getting too heavy for me to carry home. This approach works much, much better in a smaller store than in a giant supermarket. You can’t be wandering back and forth willy-nilly through all the aisles in a store the size of an airplane hangar until you decide you have what you need.
The local Whole Foods (in Durham, Raleigh, and Chapel Hill) started out as a locally owned chain called Wellspring. The Durham store was originally on the north end of Ninth Street, in a space later occupied by Magnolia Grill (my father’s favorite restaurant in Durham) and now by Monuts. It outgrew that space and moved up Ninth Street to the space later occupied by George’s Garage and now home to Panera Bread and Juju (the area my friend Ann and I now refer to as “Cary Durham” because you feel like you’re in Cary when you’re there) and then in the early 90s moved over to Broad Street, across from Duke’s East Campus, taking the place of a very sketchy A & P that had been there in the 80s.
Whole Foods bought the Wellspring chain some time in the 90s and promised to keep it all just the same. Which it pretty much did, for a number of years.
I remember when I did my food projects in 2009 and 2010 and wrote about shopping at Whole Foods, and people were totally down on me for that. But I liked my Wellspring/Whole Foods then, I liked the people who worked there and I was there all the time and I knew where everything was, they had lots of specials and you could almost always find something at a good price. It was a good store.
Some time around 2011 or 2012, they renovated the store, taking over the storefront adjacent to them and bumping out the bike shop that was there, which was fine by me as the people who worked in that bike shop were the worst kind of sexist bike snobs. I hated that store.
After the expansion and renovation, the store went from feeling like Wellspring, the store it had always been, to feeling like every other Whole Foods in the country. That was obviously on purpose — of course they want to make their branding and everything consistent — and I’m sure it did what they wanted it to in terms of bringing in new people, but around that time, I stopped shopping in the store the way I had been.
Part of the problem was that they changed all the aisles around — and then right after I’d finally figured out where the things I actually wanted to buy were, they changed it around again. The first time I was willing to work through it; the second time I was like okay no.
The store got much bigger, but most of the additional space was devoted to expanded prepared foods and seating area. The actual shopping area was almost the same size as before (except for the cheese counter which was all the way down near prepared foods) so that part wasn’t a problem, but it seemed like their prices went up. I could no longer find things on special that were within my very tight price range. This caused me to start shopping at other stores, which then started a downward spiral of not shopping there enough to see any deals, which meant that even when I did go to the store, I only bought very specific things, because I wasn’t engaged enough to see what was on special and was actually affordable.
In spring 2012, I started working two part-time jobs, in addition to my self-employment work, which made my shopping and cooking schedule somewhat more complicated. Whole Foods was in the direction of one of my part-time jobs, but they changed their hours to close an hour earlier (at 9 p.m.) and often I worked until later than that, so I couldn’t stop on my way home, and it didn’t work for me to stop on my way to work. Also because my schedule was so erratic, and because one of the part-time jobs came with a fairly regular supply of leftover catering food, I wasn’t cooking at home as much.
During that time, I started shopping more at Compare Foods, which is a New York-based grocery chain catering to Hispanic customers. It has very good prices on produce, and pretty good quality, and I generally like shopping there. There is a Compare that is walkable from my house, though it is not as nice a walk as to the Whole Foods. Near the Compare is a small independent grocery called King’s, which is very Southern and very local, and which reminds me of Walt’s grocery store where we shopped when I was a child. I love King’s.
So I gradually switched from shopping mostly at Whole Foods to shopping mostly at King’s and Compare, and from walking to shop a few times a week to driving and shopping once a week or every other week. If you’re shopping infrequently, it’s much harder to walk, because you can only carry so much.
These days I’m going to an office 5 days a week, so typically I shop on the weekend (King’s and/or Compare) or I stop at Food Lion after work or the Durham Co-op Market on my way home.
The Lakewood Food Lion (or Food Dog, as one of my friends likes to call it) was renovated last year and I now completely love that store. It’s always clean, it has very nice looking produce, and it has really great prices on almost everything. Also it is mostly neighborhood people, there is usually very little sign of the hipster apocalypse that has invaded Durham in recent months, so that is nice. I feel like I’m actually in Durham, not some bizarre place that used to be Durham but is now a place that fancy people want to live in. (Ann and I were driving around town a few weeks ago and saw yet another sign proclaiming “Luxury Apartments — Coming 2017.” We started joking that we’re going to start a band and call it Luxury Apartments Coming 2017.)
I have mixed feelings about the Co-op. It’s a nice store, it’s locally owned, everyone who works there is really nice, and they have a great ice machine. (Seriously, they do.) But I can’t do my regular shopping there because the selection is limited, the prices are high, and I don’t need organic gluten free everything. I think it’s probably good for people who either have enough discretionary income that prices don’t matter or who are willing to spend whatever it takes to get certain kinds of foods (organic, local, etc.). And I know there are plenty of those people around, I am just not one of them.
I do not regularly shop at Whole Foods these days, but I do go there for specific things. The main thing I go there for is the “Can’t Commit? Try a little bit!” cheese basket, where they have small quantities of fancy cheese for less than $3. This is perfect because when I buy a regular amount of cheese I don’t always finish it before it gets funky. So this gives me the amount of cheese I should be buying, and it’s much better cheese than I would buy if I were buying a larger quantity, and I get to try all kinds of new varieties depending on what’s in the basket. This is hands down my favorite part of the store.
I also buy nuts and some bulk items (oats, popcorn), and I make a special trip for the 365 brand tonic water because it is much better than regular grocery store tonic, and almost the same price. If you like gin and tonics, you should definitely try it. It’s really good.
For a while I was going to Target for certain things that they sell super cheap — cereal, peanut butter, juice, brownie mix (and Aim toothpaste for 89 cents!). But recently they installed self-checkout kiosks, and the last time I was there they had only one or two lanes open, way down at the other end of the store. It was like they wanted everyone with groceries to go through the self-checkout, and I find the self-checkout experience generally unpleasant. I’d rather have a person with a job checking me out than using a machine that grates on my nerves … place item in the bagging area … so I only use those when I have to, or if I have one or two things and all of the lines are long. Target isn’t convenient, so between the hassle of getting over there and the pain of the self-checkout kiosks, I decided I should just pay extra and go to Food Lion for the items I used to get at Target and be done with it. (I may make an exception when I run out of toothpaste.)
I shopped at Costco recently for some things we needed for a work-related event, and I know that Costco has very good prices on high-quality items, but I find shopping at Costco a completely soul-crushing experience. The combination of walking in and immediately being faced with enormous piles of enormous televisions, and all of the food packaged, and everything in such huge quantities. There’s just no life there. It’s like everything that depresses me about the world today, everything I hate, shrink-wrapped and piled high, aisle after aisle, in one cavernous retail establishment. Also it seems to me that the prices aren’t always better, especially since you might have to buy way more than you need, so even if the unit cost is lower, the total amount you’re spending is more than you would spend in a regular store.
I’ve tried to like you, Costco. I really have. But I just can’t.
So that is the current state of my feelings on grocery stores: pro Food Lion, con Costco, and a true believer in King’s and Compare. I’m sure you are all happy to know that.