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Store Wars: Rating Charlotte's best (and worst) grocers 

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Seasonal items include German Stolen and Yule Log cakes at Christmas and King Cakes during Lent. The meat department, which will cut and grind meat, has organic turkeys at Thanksgiving. Fresh Market is one of the few places to get freshly ground lamb. Additionally, Fresh Market sells locally grown food including South Carolina's McBee peaches and, in the fall, North Carolina apples. For those picky strawberry eaters, in spring, Fresh Market has the preferred Florida strawberries.

FRESH MARKET QUICK TAKE

Layout: Small and aisles are difficult to navigate when crowded.

Produce: Above average in quaintly; many local and organic items.

Fish Department: Small, but well chosen.

Meat Department: Excellent. Whole pigs available, meat cut or ground to order, prepared meat and poultry items ready to cook.

Bakery: Frequent sales on popular items such as loaf cakes and key lime pies. Seasonal items.

Prepared Foods: Above average; good salads and sandwiches ready to go. New: empanadas.

Finds: Excellent aged vinegar and salad dressings selection; Frostie Root Bear; Nueske's bratwurst; nostalgic candies such as Chuckles; Mary Jane; Pixy Stix; NECCO wafers; Bazooka bubble gum.

Hours: Monday through Saturday 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Fresh Market, 4223 Providence Road in Strawberry Hill Shopping Center

HARRIS TEETER

The Morrocroft seafood counter has at least one person manning the counter at all times. Typically, mussels, clams, scallops (both diver and bay from American coasts), North Carolina wild shrimp -- head-on shrimp, too -- and lots of fin fish are on ice.

Harris Teeter, headquartered in Matthews, first opened in 1936 and is the only grocery store with a road named after it. Currently, Harris Teeter has stores in seven states; that's a lot of buying power. The two flagship stores in the Charlotte area are Morrocroft and Cotswold. These stores have such amenities as freshly baked pizza, house-made mozzarella, hot and cold buffet lines (including an Asian buffet), large ready-to-eat counters, a bakery, sushi made to order, as well as an expansive fresh produce section with a growing quantity of organic and international fruits and vegetables. The Morrocroft wine shop has a knowledgeable wine steward. Bread is from L.A.'s La Brea and a proprietary brand.

But the real finds at HT are the manager's specials -- often whole carts of products which have been discontinued. At a smaller neighborhood-styled HT, I picked up a $42 bottle of champagne for 20 bucks last February. Harris Teeter has remarkable sales. This week, Grade A white eggs were $.88 a dozen -- the cheapest in town.

HARRIS TEETER QUICK TAKE

Layout: Takes a few visits to get the pattern down.

Fish Department: Above average.

Meat Department: Above average. Dried aged beef has its own locker. Lamb cuts include chops and shoulders and usually in stock.

Prepared Foods: Very good. Panini and antipasto bar recommended.

Specialty Items: Average.

International: Above average with a variety of Indian, British/Irish/Australian, Asian and Latino items.

Finds: Foods to go: Call in your order and drive by to pick up.

Hours: Open 24 hours daily. Closed Dec. 25.

Harris Teeter Morrocroft, 6701 Morrison Blvd.

HEALTHY HOME MARKET: HEALTHY AND SPECIALTY FOODS (formerly the Home Economist)

This locally owned chain of three changed its name from the dowdy The Home Economist to Healthy Home Market: Health and Specialty Foods. Healthy Home started life as a bulk supplier in the late 1970s in Plaza Midwood. Today, these stores specialize in natural foods and have an extensive selection of vegetarian and vegan prepared foods.

The fresh produce section is small and organic, with some local products. Of all the products I found at these 12 grocery stores, one favorite was the falafels by Falafel Republic sold here. These fully cooked falafels can be reheated in a conventional oven, microwaved or fried, and are quite good. Conveniently, the bakery carries the thin, large pita breads required to make a falafel sandwich.

Home Market also offers a variety of game meat. Bison (aka buffalo), venison and elk are generally higher in protein and leaner than beef. Home Market sells all three. In addition to groceries, the store sells inexpensive but quality incense, vitamins and homeopathic items.

HEALTHY HOME MARKET: HEALTHY AND SPECIALTY FOODS QUICK TAKE

Layout: Easy and organic -- lots of wood.

Produce: Small, but organic. Local honey from Ritter. Sushi from Cyros.

Meat Department: Packaged. Frozen local meats from Grateful Growers (pork sausage $5.79/lb) and T&D Charolais Beef from China Grove.

Bakery: Great pita bread. Baker's Blessing from Matthews.

Prepared Foods: Excellent with many vegan and vegetarian dishes. Prepared foods such as Mac and Cheese and Baked Ziti from Beverly's (of the Mecklenburg County Market).

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