Monday, January 17, 2011

Rating the area’s grocery stores

Clevelanders love to eat, and it’s not for nothing that we have one of the highest obesity rates in the USA (a nation not exactly known for svelteness). There’s no shortage of places to shop for food in Cuyahoga County, from standard supermarkets to health food, ethnic specialty stores to wholesale outlets. Here are a few with my opinions on each.

The list here – in no particular order - is not comprehensive, but rather representative – and it’s primarily geared toward the east side. So if I didn’t mention any place you either love or hate, don’t pillory me for missing it – but by all means comment and let me know.

General Markets:

Heinen’s: Cleveland’s premiere family owned grocery chain, currently with 17 stores. Slightly higher prices are more than made up for by the freshness and variety of produce and meats. The stores are beautifully designed with spacious aisles and intuitive layout, the grocery carts are well maintained (no stuck wheels here!), and every location I’ve been to is invariably spotlessly clean. Heinen’s is one of the rare chains that has bucked the unfortunate trend toward self-service checkouts – and curbside pickup is not just an option, it’s standard.

West Side Market: A Cleveland staple for over a century. Two decades ago, WSM had seemed to fall on hard times, but now seems to be undergoing something of a renaissance – as is the surrounding area. Simply put, when it comes to fresh food, WSM has nearly everything, from fruit & veggies to hand-made pierogis, rare cheeses to whole pigs (and I mean whole – head to tail). WSM stubbornly holds onto its 19th Century heritage – and is closed on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays. We just went there this past Saturday – in additional to the usual whirl and rush, a band was performing on the upper balcony. Go early to snag a decent parking spot, be prepared to haggle – and bring cash.

Whole Foods Market: Sometimes called Whole Paycheck market, America’s largest “health-food” chain came to Cleveland a few years ago. It’s true the prices on many items are on the high side – particularly premium items like venison. However, for more ordinary fare WF has its own store brand, 365, which includes everything from pop, milk, and cereal, to frozen veggies and pizza, to household items like detergent. A few years ago, WF’s CEO John Mackey caused a stir when he was caught making negative comments about competitor Wild Oats Market on an internet chat board (using an inversion of his wife’s name – not too slick there, John). WF eventually acquired Wild Oats – and that company’s former location on Chagrin Boulevard has been converted to WF. There was also a boycott of WF stores after Mackey, a strict Libertarian, penned an op-ed opposing President Obama’s health care plane. But that boycott never gained traction locally: Business is never less than brisk at the Cedar Center location – and it’s not advisable to shop there on Friday evenings when the store hosts social events. While there are now two WF locations on the east side, west siders have to commute or go to the next company listed.

Trader Joe’s: In my opinion, TJ’s is overrated. Both the Chagrin Road and Crocker Park locations are small and uncomfortable to navigate. Because of the small physical space, TJ’s cannot carry a broad selection of brands or items. Some would state that shopping, like art, can thrive on limitations, but I’m not buying. Others consider TJ’s the more politically correct alternative to Whole Foods. While I understand those who take issue with WF’s CEO John Mackey’s business practices and politics, need I remind anyone that Trader Joe’s is owned by ALDI’s? Despite that, items there are in the same price range as WF.

Giant Eagle: Currently the dominant supermarket chain in northeast Ohio, many branches are open 24/7. In terms of quantity, SUPERmarket does apply here. GE carries just about any food imaginable, including a generous selection of “ethnic” foods and brand names, like Goya. Most locations also have a formidable selection of alcoholic items – and I’ve even seen lawn furniture and local high school T-shirts for sale there. But the quantity does not always extend to quality: most GEs I’ve been to are only indifferently cleaned, the staff is unhelpful, and those self-service checkouts guarantee a long wait in line. Truthfully, I seldom go there unless it’s after hours.

Dave’s: Priced like Giant Eagle, Dave’s stores have a happier vibe. The chain is locally owned by the Saltzman family. Staff seems to enjoy working there, rather than just relieved to have a job. Good selection at reasonable prices. Dave’s has taken over many former Tops locations, (including the Hilltop Plaza location, which was briefly owned by Zagara’s). They currently have 13 stores.

ALDI’s: Cheap uber alles, this German owned chain is strictly for the budget minded who think price over value. The produce is not optimal. Brand name items are not available. Cash only – bring your own bag or pay extra for theirs, and bag it yourself. Bring a quarter for the privilege of using a grocery cart. Previously confined to more downscale neighborhoods, in recent years they’ve infiltrated Lyndhurst and Westlake.

Italian food stores:

Ferrara’s: Italian-American specialty grocery in Mayfield Heights. The selection is fair, the prices are a bit high – and they don’t accept plastic payment of any kind. Whenever I’m there, which is seldom, I half-expect to see Don Corleone looking for oranges.

Alesci’s: Locally owned, their South Euclid branch has a better selection than Ferraro’s. Very friendly staff, and great deals on pies. Not the place to go if you’re on a diet, but definitely the location for those who love food.


Costco: What can be said of the world’s largest members-only wholesale chain that hasn’t been said? Sam’s Club and BJ’s may be cheaper at times, but for selection, they are not in the same orbit. One either loves Costco or hates it. At times, for me, it’s both. I love shopping there – my pulse rate increases whenever I approach their doors – but hate braving the long lines and self-checkout when leaving. Costco has everything and then some. But for now, let’s concentrate on the food: Costco carries name brands for most types of food, usually packaged in bulk sets: frequently there are coupons for 8-packs of Progresso or Campbell’s Soup. These guys are master marketers: They send out a booklet of coupons every month, cannily timed. Expect to see a coupon for four 8-packs of hotdogs as the summer starts, for example. Their own brand, Kirkland Signature, offers excellent value on everything from oatmeal, canned veggies, soup, frozen items including hamburger patties, veggies, and pizza, even beer, ale, and wine. (Recently, Costco stopped carrying Nature Made brand orange juice, retaining only Tropicana – which I despise – and the KS brand, available in condensed only. I hadn’t had condensed OJ in decades, but tried it and love it – and expect to save about $15/month.) KS also makes non-food items including batteries, clothing, shampoo, conditioner, bar and liquid soaps, cleaning products, and that cookware I’ve had my eyes on. Often, the KS value is superior even when there’s a coupon for the big brand names. For those with large families or who frequently entertain, Costco’s value is indispensable. Even though it’s usually just Dan & me at the dinner table, our membership pays for itself with the savings on gasoline alone. One note to those who’ve never been there: Costco does not accept Visa, Mastercard, or Discover credit cards. They do accept debit cards, American Express (Costco has a program where you get a rebate coupon for a percentage of your AMEX purchases) checks (who even pays via check anymore?) and, of course, cash.

The Departed:

Tops: This chain took over Finast, which had been going downhill for years. A cheaper and more downscale version of Giant Eagle, all local stores closed a few years ago. Not missed.

Catalano’s: RIP. My market of choice when I lived in Lyndhurst, one of the last family owned grocery stores went downhill after it was taken over by Giant Eagle. Sales plummeted and the Catalano family briefly took over again before closing for good around 2007. The very simple store layout could be overlooked on account of their stellar bakery and deli. One of the rare grocery stores where bag stuffers wore ties in the 21st Century.

No comments: