Once again, Creative Loafing has tasked me, the paper's resident food critic, with the mission of seeking out what's good, or lacking, in Charlotte's grocery stores. Since last year's edition of "Store Wars," much has changed in the local supermarket scene. Trader Joe's opened in south Charlotte and in the University area, with a third store planned for Midtown. Whole Foods has a planned store in SouthPark without an opening date. BI-LO is testing out its new super store in Matthews, and the light rail has finally stopped at the 7th Street Station location in front of Reid's.
The newest battle in the grocery store wars is that of the eco-friendly bag. Soon, baggers will no longer ask "paper or plastic?" Instead, savvy shoppers will tote "environmentally sound" bags sold from $1 to $5. These bags herald the return of the proverbial market basket; expect an explosion of creativity to define these new bags now that plastic is passé. Some grocers have banned plastic altogether. Whole Foods prohibited all plastic bags on Earth Day this year.
In Charlotte, store bags vary from the plain-Jane Harris Teeter bag to the colorful onslaught of Trader Joe's surfer bag. I haven't seen much cross contamination -- shoppers carrying other store's bags into a competitor's -- but as the design wars heat up, this will surely follow. Should it matter to a store whether a competitor's bag is used at checkout? John Bauer of the Home Economist wryly noted, "I don't care whose bag it is, as long as they fill it up at our store."
With rising food and transportation costs, the competition among grocers has intensified. A sign on Trader Joe's eggs reminds their customers that the Grade A large white eggs are still $1.79 a dozen. This month, the independently owned natural food store Talley's Green Grocery in Dilworth announced their closing, noting it had become more difficult to compete with larger chains. Indeed, more and more area grocers have expanded their organic and natural foods selections.
While Charlotte still does not have markets like some European cities, the amount of prepared and organic foods seems to have expanded exponentially during the past year. Here's my take on what some of the Queen City's grocery stores have to offer:
Sometimes Trader Joe's is so mad with shoppers, you can't find a cart or a parking space. And that's outside. Inside can be just as chaotic. The store is small, but packed with great buys. Two Buck Chuck is the rallying cry of the wine department -- it's not really a department ... more of a stack-'em-high section. And the cost is three bucks, not two, for the Charles Shaw proprietary wines.
The produce section is small and can be easily eclipsed by a visit to a farmers market. But, one of my favorite buys at Trader Joe's is the guacamole basket: two avocados, a jalapeño, garlic, and Roma tomatoes packaged together for $2.49. The bakery has bread for people with food allergies, good pita, and hand-braided challah. The all-cooked sushi rolls, on the other hand, are not good and should be avoided.
What brings folks back to Trader Joe's, however, are the thousands of private-label items like the $1 jars of marinara sauce or the $2 jars of roasted red peppers. The frozen food aisle is filled with fantasy: three pieces of naan for $1; a stack of burritos for a couple of bucks. The store's lime chili peanuts have an independent following. The drawback is once you get hooked, a product may not be offered again since there is a constant turnover of the more than 2,000 unique items on Trader Joe's private label. Hence the chaotic frenzy inside.
TRADER JOE'S QUICK TAKE
Layout: Bright, tall shelves, wide aisles, laid-back employees.
Fish Department: None, all packaged. Frozen paella ingredients.
Meat Department: None, all packaged.
Bakery: None on site. Hand-braided challah.
Prepared Foods: Avoid the sushi.
Specialty Items: Excellent.
International: Large and mixed in.
Finds: Great prices on almost everything. Frozen naan and empanadas, inexpensive olive oil, marinara sauce, candies and nuts.
Hours: 9 a.m. until 9 p.m. daily.
Trader Joe's, 6418 Rea Road
In the late 1970s, Home Economist started selling bulk flour in a small storefront in Plaza Midwood -- when Independence had a couple of lanes and lots of stoplights. Betty York created the store to provide quality ingredients to home cooks. Her employees were all graduates with degrees in, you guessed it, home economics.
Today, Home Economist has expanded to three stores and is known for their variety of natural foods and their vegetarian and vegan prepared foods. The 18,000-square-foot store in the Sedgefield Shopping Center in South End is only a block from a light rail stop (behind the Pepsi plant), and the building itself was formerly a Teeter (not a Harris Teeter). The ambiance is created by the wooden floors and shelving not higher than eye level.