So now that the mad rush to check out Whole Food’s has died down I finally braved Short Pump traffic and drove out there last Thursday. Actually, at a little after 2 in the afternoon, the traffic wasn’t overly horrible and the placement of the grocery near to 64 limited the road rage inducing exposure to the usual gridlock of cell phone using SUV drivers who feel that the lane lines are just ’suggestions’.
Having heard horror stories about the overloaded parking lot I grabbed the first spot I saw, even though it was around the corner from the entrance. This was a good choice as there seemed to be a herd of SUV drivers circling the parking lot and wasting gas waiting for a spot that would reduce the number of steps needed to get in – while talking on their cell phones… Amazingly, even with a full lot, the store interior was big enough that it wasn’t that crowded. I guess with a store that size it’s a good thing those SUV drivers saved their energy.
The first area was amazing – fruits and veg. This past summer I had been disappointed by both Fresh Market and Ukrop’s produce. None of it seemed as fresh or as appetizing as in years past. Frankly, I’ve seen better looking and tasting produce in a freegan’s home. Even Ellwood Thompson’s produce has been looking a little sad. Whole Food’s had a really good looking spread of both the common and obscure – all at really good prices. Artichokes that I had been paying $5 a pop at Fresh Market were half the price at Whole Food’s. All the items were also clearly labeled with country or state of origin and, if local, actually named the farm. Nothing wrong with a well educated consumer.
The seafood case was also impressive. Whole snapper and trout – eyes clear and fresh looking – well cut fillets and steaks – again all clearly labeled so you can avoid countries with unsustainable fishing practices. Yellow Umbrella doesn’t need to worry but Ukrop’s and Fresh Market don’t quite measure up.
I was a bit surprised by their meats. At the store in C’ville meats seem a bit of an afterthought. Here, they have a much broader selection and are even aging their own meats in a glass aging room behind the meat case. I picked up some wonderful lamb shanks at $5.85/pound to make some rogan josh at home. The lamb was great and the price was right. I’ll still buy most of my meat at Belmont Butchery but Ukrop’s is off my list and Fresh Market is on shaky ground.
The cheese section was well stocked and had some unusual items as well as some of my favourites, like morbier. I’ve stopped buying cheese at Ukrop’s and, while their selection is good, have had too many cheeses that just taste ‘off’ at Fresh Market. Their selection is on par with E-T although they have more domestic choices. Ellwood Thompson’s wins this round, though, as when M and I have a bread and cheese night it’s something I pick up on the way home and Whole Food’s isn’t along that path.
I only got a baguette from the bakery but the rest looked delightful and, from my experience in C’ville, the breads live up to the look. Fresh Market’s baked goods look good but lack a certain crustiness and often taste like they were made from the same dough recipe. E-T comes close but doesn’t quite have the variety.
I didn’t peruse their wine selection but they do have a wine bar plopped down in the middle of the store – a fenced off area where you can sit and enjoy a glass of wine dispensed like coffee from a vending machine (ok, it’s much more sophisticated than that but you get the idea). It would make sense to me if it were near the entrance but it’s way off to the far side. Do you really want to sit and enjoy a glass of wine while your frozen foods thaw and your fresh fish comes to room temperature? Do you bring a friend so you can chat or do you sit alone and contemplate the benefits of acidophilus?
The rest of the store is where you can really get into trouble. It doesn’t take too many $20 bottles of olive oil, exotic vinegar, or obscure spices to drive up that check total. I found myself picking up items that I haven’t been able to get here in Richmond or, if I do find them, the box or jar is so old and dusty you start checking expiration dates. I went in with the idea to get enough for 3 dinners and managed to avoid going crazy on ‘necessary’ purchases that would come home and gather dust. I basically got out of there spending less and getting more meals out of it than my bi-monthly trip to Fresh Market. The question is will the low prices on produce and very competitive prices on meats continue or are they just going to just be around during the first few months.
Since I managed to survive my trip out to Whole Food’s I decided, yesterday, to follow up and make the jaunt out to the other new place, Trader Joe’s. Driving out was no problem – it was leaving. Some guy, either drunk or just a really incompetent driver, had real issues with how to deal with a parking lot – getting a few nasty stares and a couple of fingers from other drivers trying to get out of his way- who then decided it was OK to initiate a u-turn from the right lane thus cutting me off and nearly taking out the front of my car. I leaned my head out the window and posed the query: drunk or mentally deficient?
Anyway, Trader Joe’s. Well stocked with mostly their own store brands and heavy on pre-prepared frozen foods. If I were single or didn’t care to cook from scratch this would be my place. As it is it looks to be a good place to stock up on snacks or frozen dinners for lazy nights. The fresh produce and meats case were no great shakes. I did pick up some interesting things – frozen dinners, wasabi mayo, kippers – and will update as we try them. The staff, unlike the happy hippy professionals at Whole Food’s, were very earnest people who may have been recruited late at night at Alley Katz and had drank too much corporate kool-aid. Nothing wrong with cult like devotion – the cashier inspected all my purchases, made suggestions for my next trip, and had someone replace a bag of chips that had a tear in the bag – but they do make me a bit nervous.
In sum, Fresh Market may be falling off my monthly rotation of shopping trips to be replaced with Whole Food’s – and hopefully I will be able to resist the urge to shop for more than just what I need. Trader Joe’s may get the occasional visit from us for a few things although I will recommend it to our friend Miles (single and cooking challenged).