Store Wars: Rating Charlotte's best (and worst) grocers | Food & Drink Features | Creative Loafing Charlotte
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Store Wars: Rating Charlotte's best (and worst) grocers 

In the ever-growing phylum of food retailers (supermarket, grocery store, warehouse, supercenter, flagship, convenience store), Charlotte seems to have them all (except those "w" stores we are missing: Wegmans Food Market and Whole Foods Market). Having a mixture is a good thing for food lovers, bargain hunters and minimalists.

Once again, Creative Loafing sent me to find out what's out there, what the current state of affairs is in our local food retailers. This year, I explored 12 stores: ALDI, Super Bi-Lo, Bloom, Compare Foods, Costco (the only membership store), Earth Fare, Fresh Market, Harris Teeter, Healthy Home, Lowes Foods, Trader Joe's, and Walmart Supercenter. For comparison sake, I kept all locations within eight miles of SouthPark.

Why one area? Most people are territorial and shop at the store closest to their neighborhood, a decision made either by price or quality. Shoppers then shop at this store, adding a monthly or bimonthly run out of their neighborhood to stock up on specific items found elsewhere. The SouthPark area and its neighboring suburbs offer a variety of food retailers.

What has changed in the past two years is the increased variety of packaged and ready-to-go foods, as well as the abundance of bargains. Additionally, some stores have changed product lines and departments. Lowes Foods, for example, have cut back on their wine selection in light of the Total Wine planned to open soon in that shopping center.

Remember two important caveats as you read. First, not all stores within the same chain carry the same products. Grocery stores tend to reflect their neighborhoods. For example, pricier neighborhoods have stores with higher end wines, USDA PRIME beef, and more specialty items. Stores located in ethnic neighborhoods tend to have a larger selection of ethnically diverse foods.

Second, quality is not the same as price. I compared prices of six commonly bought items: a store brand gallon of whole milk; a dozen Grade A large white eggs; a store brand pound of butter; a whole chicken; limes; and a pound of vine-ripened tomatoes. Some stores carry only organic milk, free range eggs and organic, locally grown vine-ripened tomatoes, which cost more.

What surprised me was the result of my exploration. This was the first time I have written about Walmart Supercenter. I had anticipated Walmart to have the lowest price in at least one category. It did not. Instead, ALDI, a German-owned warehouse-styled store, did. ALDI had the lowest prices in two categories: the dozen eggs and butter. But then ALDI was beaten that week by Harris Teeter's eggs, which were on sale for a penny less, and Costco's butter actually costs a few cents less per pound, too, but is sold in four-pound packages. ALDI was also tied with Super Bi-Lo for having the least expensive whole chicken at $.79 per pound; the chicken was on sale at Super Bi-Lo.

Compare won again in the lime category. On sale, their limes are 15 for a dollar. The normal price is 10 for a dollar. It's hard to beat that price unless you have a lime tree in your backyard. Earth Fare won the tomato category at $.97 per pound and Costco had the best price on a gallon of whole milk at $2.49. Walmart was in second place for a gallon of milk at $2.94, but this was only a nickel less than the group tied in third: Super Bi-Lo, Compare, and Harris Teeter.

Food finds included the ground elk and ready-to-go falafels at Healthy Home Market (nee Home Economist), and freshly made and still hot corn tortillas at Compare. Harris Teeter has the largest variety of seafood available on a daily basis.

Visiting these 12 stores made me realize that an educated shopper can save a lot of money. I saw the same product, Fago yogurt, vary as much as two dollars in price. Other products, such as Martin's Potato bread, cost the same, $3.19, at all stores.

The economy has had an impact on these stores, too. As they price fight for a larger piece of the pie, we shoppers are the winners.

ALDI

The customer beside me gushed, "You really need to get their mixed nuts. They are the reason I come here." A discussion then ensued among strangers pushing carts, extolling the shopping bliss found at ALDI. This store has its share of devotees.

ALDI is a no-frills German discount supermarket that trades in cash or debit cards. To get a cart, you must insert a quarter into the lock. You get it back when you return the cart to the corral. The appearance is also no-frills. Items are kept in box frames and the floors need to be swept more often. Employees here wear many hats. My seated cashier said she gets to work at 5 a.m. to unload the trucks and then stock the shelves.

ALDI has excellent prices on dairy products. A gallon of whole milk costs $2.79 and a dozen Grade A large eggs are $.89. A whole chicken is $.79 a pound. These are not sale prices. Store brand cereals are inexpensive, too, including cornflakes for $1.19 (18-ounce box) and an oat cereal for $1.59 (14-ounce box). You bag your own with your own bags. Some boxes are available. Note: Some people believe ALDI and Trader Joe's are sibling businesses. They are not. Two sons of ALDI's founding Albrecht family split the company in 1960 after an argument. ALDI South came to the U.S. with the low-price ALDI while ALDI North acquired Trader Joe's from California. They are separate companies.

ALDI QUICK TAKES

Layout: Small store, but wide aisles.

Produce: No local or organic produce. All prepackaged.

Fish Department: Frozen.

Meat Department: Packaged.

Bakery: Only on shelves.

Prepared Foods: None.

Specialty and International Items: Lots of German and Canadian items.

Finds: Beers from Holland and Germany.

Hours: Monday through Thursday and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Friday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sunday, Noon to 6 p.m.

ALDI, 555 W. John St., Matthews

SUPER BI-LO

Super Bi-Lo was just opening the last time I checked out area grocers. Privately owned Bi-Lo is native to Mauldin, S.C., where it was established in 1964.

This Super Bi-Lo in Matthews smells good. At every turn -- the bakery, within the aisles -- the place has a charming aroma. The interior is bright and friendly: The wood floor of the produce department is set off by the vaulted ceiling painted sky blue with fluffy clouds. A proprietary coffee shop is adjacent.

Even though there is music, televisions are scattered throughout the store touting specials. Near the meat department is a recipe finder which will print out a shopping list. The pet area is quite good with a refrigerated dog food section. In addition to its BONUSCARD, Bi-Lo offers FuelPerks, a program which gives customers a discount at participating gas stations.

SUPER BI-LO QUICK TAKES

Layout: Large and easy to navigate.

Produce: Excellent and attractive; some organic items; local peaches priced at $.88/lb.

Fish Department: Advertise their catfish is never frozen. Lobsters are $10 each.

Meat Department: Beef is mainly USDA Choice. Certified Angus beef available.

Bakery: Above average.

Prepared Foods: Small. Sub shop and rotisserie chicken.

International: Italian, Indian and Latino.

Finds: Section for "Natural Foods"; Turkey Hill Dairy Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough premium ice cream from Lancaster, Penn.

Hours: 24 Hours daily. Closed Dec. 25.

Super Bi-Lo, 3110 Fincher Farm Road, Matthews

BLOOM

Over the entrance is a sign proclaiming "Hi There" -- the Northern equivalent of "Hey" -- which might seem too informal in this store, which is part of the Food Lion family. (Food Lion LLC is a subsidiary of Delhaize America, the U.S. division of Brussels-based Delhaize Group.) In fact, the first Bloom test-marketed was in Charlotte in 2004.

However, Bloom does not resemble any Food Lion I have ever shopped. This store is fresh, clean and well-designed. The shelves are lower for people who have a problem reaching back on the top row.

Bloom in Dilworth has a good ready-to-eat food section with sandwiches and entrées; and a large gluten-free section with a freezer running along one side and shelved products on the other. On the downside, my favorite yogurt product, Faye (regular, not the non-fat or 2 percent fat), costs almost two dollars more than it does at Fresh Market.

Bloom has a good Latino product section with spices and even a can of hot and spicy menudo ($3.29 for 29 ounces). Clif bars were on sale for $1.

BLOOM QUICK TAKES

Layout: Excellent.

Produce: Very good.

Fish Department: Not all products labeled with country of origin.

Meat Department: Average.

Prepared Foods: Excellent.

Specialty Items: Gluten free section.

Finds: Latino spices; Clif bars $1 a piece; mix and match microbrew wall.

Hours: Monday through Saturday, 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Bloom, 2226 Park Road

COMPARE FOODS

In the bakery at Compare Foods on Arrowood, corn tortillas are made and packed hot for consumers. Each bundle of 25 ($2.50) is wrapped in paper, and then placed in a large white cooler blanketed with a white terry cloth towel. These make exceptional tacos. In addition to tortillas, the Compare bakery has breads, cookies and sweet breads. Celebration cakes can be ordered.

The produce section has the best deal on limes: 10 for a dollar. Mexican beers are sold nearby. Dried chilies such as pasilla, puya, monta, chipotle, ancho, arbol and guajillo are sold by the pound as are banana leaves, corn husks, Hass avocados, and green and mature plantains.

The fish counter offers many fin fish including whole butterfish, croaker, mackerel and ribbon fish (from India). Baby octopus is $2.69 a pound. The meat section has a beef shirt and whole pork leg (not smoked) for $1.89 a pound. The sausages are made in-house and include Mexican chorizo, Longaniza and Colombian and Argentinean sausage.

Bahia de Gracia, a restaurant against the back wall, has excellent hot tamales, empanadas -- not so good -- and so-so grilled maduros. A half aisle is devoted to corn oil, and several dairy cases contain brands of quesco fresco. The meat bins are filled with packaged ox tail, goat shoulders, seven-bone steak, offal, smoked pork neck bones, as well as a variety of beef, pork and chicken.

One aisle in the center of the store is devoted to foods from other Central and South American countries. There is a selection of aji peppers from Peru and chimichurri sauce from Argentina. Language can be challenging (especially in the butcher shop and the prepared food areas). Spanish is helpful, but cashiers do speak English.

COMPARE FOODS QUICK TAKE

Layout: Easy to navigate, good signage.

Produce: Excellent fruit price. Inexpensive, extensive root and chile section.

Fish Department: Good selection of the less expensive fin fish, whole catfish.

Meat Department: Includes house-made sausages, whole pork legs, and offal.

Prepared Foods: Excellent tamales.

Specialty Items: The entire store.

International: One center aisle is divided into foods from various Latino countries including Peru, Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia, Costa Rica, and some island nations of the Caribbean.

Finds: Freshly baked corn tortillas (25/$2.50).

Hours: Hours: Monday to Saturday, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday and holidays, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Compare Foods, 818 E. Arrowood Road

COSTCO

COSTCO is a membership store and food is only part of what the store sells. As a warehouse, though, not all items are on hand all the time.

In the cost comparison, Costco won for having the least expensive whole milk in town, and if you buy in bulk, produce can also be a deal.

COSTCO QUICK TAKES

Layout: Gargantuan, but the food section is easy to navigate. Chilled produce section abnormally cold.

Produce: Good.

Fish Department: Limited, but good. Crab claws, wild and farm raised salmon and tuna normally on hand.

Meat Department: Above average.

Bakery: Best deal on large cakes for birthday parties.

Prepared Foods: Rotisserie chicken, chicken pot pie. Packaged dinners.

Specialty Items: Depends on when you go.

International: Large international cheese selection offered in large pieces.

Finds: Good deals on some wines; frozen cooked lamb shanks $5 a piece (4 to a package)

Hours: Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.; Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Costco, 500 Tyvola Road

EARTH FARE

Earth Fare's interior reminds me of mushrooms -- dark, earthy -- but this regional grocer based in Asheville has an extensive selection of local products, including an assortment of goat cheese. Bosky Acres (Waxhaw), Split Creek (Anderson, S.C.), and Carolina Moon (Chapel Hill) are all available here. Honey and bee pollen produced in Charlotte is available here as well.

Also in the cheese bin is Belle Chevre Pimento cheese from Birmingham, a sensational product. Earth Fare offers a good selection of organic wines and carries Hickory Hill Farms dairy products from Edgefield, S.C. Bins of grains and spices can be bought by pound. Earth Fare has an excellent prepared food area with entrées, sandwiches, soups and smoothies. Employees are very knowledgeable and helpful.

EARTH FARE QUICK TAKE

Layout: Moderate. Overall, the store is dark.

Produce: Small, but lots of organic and locally grown foods.

Fish Department: Average, but all items labeled with country of origin.

Meat Department: Above average. Australian grass-fed beef, whole organic and domestic legs of lamb, helpful meat cutters.

Bakery: Scones, including spelt cranberry, cookies, breads.

Prepared Foods: Excellent with a soup counter and an eat-in café. Kids eat free on Thursday from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. (with an adult meal of $5).

Specialty Items: Abundance of products for people (and pets) with dietary restrictions.

International: Not the focus here.

Finds: Belle Chevre Pimento Cheese.

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

Earth Fare, 12235 N. Community House Road

FRESH MARKET

Many of my friends go to Fresh Market, Strawberry Hill, for their extraordinary orchids, which greet customers at this store. Add to this the soothing effect of the classical music, free samples of good coffee and the exceptional meat counter, and the popularity of this store can be understood.

Fresh Market is a regional grocer established in Greensboro, N.C., in 1982. They now have more than 15 stores in North Carolina. At times -- especially during lunch and after work -- both Charlotte stores are plagued with aisles congested. In general, customers do not go here to get "bargains"; instead, they come for the prepared foods, ready-to-eat meals, and such items as aged balsamic vinegar and Moravian spice cookies.

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).

Finds: Gluten-free beer section; venison burgers; ground elk; Falafel Republic's falafels.

Hours: Monday through Saturday 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Healthy Home Market, 2707 South Blvd.

LOWES FOODS

The Lowes Foods, a supermarket chain headquartered in Winston-Salem, started in Wilkesboro in 1954 and has more than 112 stores in the Carolinas and Virginia. The three Lowes Foods in Charlotte and nine in adjacent communities offer the same selections and are approximately the same size.

Lowes' pet section continues to be the best in the city, offering a choice of organic and refrigerated dog food. The produce section, with the roaring thunder when misting, has a selection of organic products and offers some locally canned items such as Hiatt's jalapeño pickled eggs ($2.99). The seafood department is still relatively small and the meat department is dominated by beef.

Wide aisles make shopping easy. A large freezer section contains such treats as excellent frozen pizza dough and New York City styled boxed-in-cardboard raviolis. Organic cereals are intermingled with regular cereals.

LOWES QUICK TAKE

Layout: Easy to navigate. Curved aisles.

Produce: Good.

Fish Department: Small.

Meat Department: Will cut beef to order. Organics available.

Prepared Foods: Good, mainly sandwiches and sushi.

Specialty Items: Above average, especially frozen Italian dishes.

International: Average.

Finds: Italian Bread baked in store; labeled section for barbecue sauces; wines segmented by varietals; beer cave.

Hours: 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily

Lowes Foods, 10828 Providence Road in the Promenade Shopping Center

TRADER JOE'S

Trader Joe's is fun: Employees and customers seem to be in a perpetual good mood. After shopping here on a fairly regular basis for a couple of years, I have learned to trust this store. I do not have to read labels for high fructose corn syrup (which I banned in my house several years ago). Plus all the products I tried -- from the one dollar marinara sauce to the frozen buffalo burgers -- were flavorful and a good value.

The Piper Glen store is small, and usually very crowded. The midtown store is much larger. Two buck Chuck (wine) is now three bucks, but is still the rallying cry of the wine department, a stack 'em high section. The produce section is small, 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.

My favorite butter, Kerrygold from Ireland, is sold here for $2.69 a pound. The only problem with Trader Joe's is the addictive factor. If you have baked their frozen pain au chocolate on a cold winter morning, you will know why people crowd this store. The drawback is once you get hooked, a product may not be offered again since there is a constant turnover of the 2,000-plus unique items on Trader Joe's private label.

TRADER JOE QUICK TAKES

Layout: Bright, tall shelves, wide aisles, laid-back, happy employees.

Produce: Average.

Fish Department: Not a department. All packaged. Frozen paella ingredients.

Meat Department: Not a department. On shelves, packaged.

Bakery: None on site. Good pita.

Prepared Foods: Primarily sushi and salads.

Specialty Items: Excellent, and constantly changing.

International: Large and mixed in.

Finds: Great prices on almost everything including Spanish olive oil, roasted red peppers and nuts.

Hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily

Trader Joe's, 6418 Rea Road

WALMART SUPERCENTER

Walmart did not impress me. The floors were littered with trash, while screaming or crying children were distracting. This is not a place for a leisurely stroll through the aisles. I know people who swear by the prices at Walmart, but of the six items I compared at the 12 grocery stores I visited, Walmart did not beat the price in any category.

WALMART SUPERCENTER QUICK TAKES

Layout: Easy. Wide aisles.

Produce: Selection is adequate, but the appearance of many items is less than appealing.

Fish Department: Small, frozen shrimp.

Meat Department: Prepackaged.

Deli and Bakery: Adequate variety.

Prepared Foods: A McDonald's is immediately inside the entrance.

International: Large Latino section.

Finds: Inexpensive flour.

Hours: 24 Hours daily. Closed Dec. 25.

Walmart Supercenter, 1830 Galleria Blvd.

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