I never really minded grocery shopping before. Whether it’s because I love food or I just like getting stuff, grocery shopping was always kind of fun. I’m the kind of dork that likes to make a list before I leave the house and cross items off as I go, like making a little pencil line over “Hot Dog Buns” means I got more accomplished. It’s a concrete, self-limiting process, and it really appeals to the part of me that likes finishing a task more than actually doing it.
Here in New York, I find grocery shopping increasingly…unpleasant. In each of my previous locations, shopping has been pretty straightforward. Go to the supermarket, grab your food off the shelf, check out, load up the car, and head on home. Sure, there were regional variations, but none that really made much of a difference. Do I like Kroger or Giant Eagle? Gerbe’s or Hy-Vee? In Columbia, I typically went to Gerbe’s because it was closer, although I much preferred Hy-Vee, if only for its better lighting, nicer employees, and surprisingly tasty Chinese food.
But shopping in New York is, like so many other things, more complicated. Here are the top reasons why:
There are three true grocery stores within about three blocks of me: Fine Fare, Bravo, and Gristedes. Of the three, I tend to go to Fine Fare, since it’s the closest, even though it’s clearly the worst of the three. Bravo is a nice market, and Gristedes is good but expensive. So I go to Fine Fare (a misnomer if I’ve ever heard one) for most of my needs. The trick is finding the actual products I’m looking for.
The inventory at Fine Fare is, in a word, inconsistent. There might be a day when they have twenty different kinds of bread, followed by a week where they struggle to keep the shelves stocked. Trying to find chocolate ice cream can feel like panning for gold in a kiddy pool. Lunchmeat may or may not be stocked, but they definitely won’t have honey roasted turkey breast. Typically, there are at least two items on my list that aren’t at the Fine Fare, whether it’s because the store is sold out or they have chosen not to restock that particular item.
Sometimes one of the other stores will have what I’m looking for, although I find it extremely frustrating to walk three blocks to find decent cream cheese in a tub instead of a block. Other times, I have to leave the neighborhood to find what I’m looking for.
There are other places to shop for food beyond the neighborhood, and sometimes there really isn’t any better choice. Typically, we choose to head to the Trader Joe’s on 72nd or Fairway Market on 74th. Both locations are easily accessible from the 1 line, which hits our neighborhood, and they each offer items not available in our neck of the woods. Please note that this typically includes most produce.
We tend to choose Fairway over Trader Joe’s, if only because their produce is really nice and the line to check out is not nearly as long. I also like their whole bean coffee (which we also don’t get in the Heights). But Trader Joe’s does have a cost advantage, since their prices are the same nationwide. In any case, it does put something of a damper on our fruit and vegetable consumption to have to travel almost 100 blocks downtown to get decent produce. And the crowds can be annoying. Trader Joe’s checkout line is typically about ½ the length of the store, so long that they have an employee holding a sign to indicate the end of the line. Fairway’s checkout is easier, but the aisles themselves are usually packed, making navigating almost impossible at times. The most frustrating part, though, is getting home.
When we decided to move to New York, I was excited to get rid of my car. While I don’t mind driving, it’s nice to not worry about all the ancillary costs that come with car ownership: gas, insurance, repairs, and so on. But for me, the major tradeoff has been losing the easy transportation of goods. This is especially important for groceries.
I used to make massive shopping trips, the kind that required three trips from the car to the kitchen to unload everything. When you have to carry everything by hand, however, it changes the way you shop. While we may drink two gallons of milk in a week, is it worth trying to carry them both home from the grocery store? The other option is a collapsible cart, which is a popular solution employed by many in the city, but I haven’t quite reconciled myself to the role of cart owner just yet.
This is bad enough when trying to get a load home from Fine Fare, but it becomes something else altogether when coming home from the 72nd St. station. As I’ve noted before, the amount you have to carry is directly proportional to the number of people on the subway. Add to this the general filth on the floor of your typical New York subway car, and you can imagine that you are going to be carrying that entire load all the way home, lest you get some sort of virus/bacteria/parasite/end-of-days plague nugget on your freshly selected yellow onions.
4) Inferior store brands
I consider myself a knowledgeable consumer when it comes to food. I usually have no qualms when it comes to store brands—heck, sometimes I like the store brands better than the national version. For the longest time I ate Kroger brand peanut butter, mac and cheese, and refried beans, not to mention cheese, soda, canned vegetables, and other items. I think I’m well-enough informed to balance cost with quality, and pick the right item for me.
I tried this strategy during my first couple shopping trips to the Fine Fare, whose house brand is Parade. I tried one or two goods that, while not great, weren’t horrible. But when I tried their cheese, I knew immediately that I would never be able to eat anything branded Parade again. It was labeled either jack or part-skim mozzarella, but whatever was in the package was not. The texture was waxy and pliant, squishy and malleable not unlike a Gumby doll. The taste, though, was redolent of a wet dog crossed with ammonia, with just a touch of white vinegar thrown in to “enhance” the aftertaste. I ate only one piece from the 8 ounce block before I simply threw the whole thing away.
I realize not all of their products are that disgusting. But boy, did I get burned. Bravo’s Krasdale products are better, but even here I’m more cautious than I would otherwise be. The end result is that I end up spending more than I’d like for products I used to get from house brands, and while it does bother me to drop an extra fifty cents to a dollar for a brand name, at least I can be relatively sure it isn’t going to make me want to never eat again.
In the end, shopping here isn’t really that tough, and making smaller shopping trips help keep us from overloading our meager pantry space. We throw out less food here than we did in Columbia, and the street vendors usually have pretty good deals on vegetables, when they have what we’re looking for. But there are some days when I leave the Fine Fare and I swear I’ll never shop there again, which usually lasts for less than an hour, when I realize I didn’t buy Pop Tarts. Some things are that important.