FOOD & WINE- Supermarket sweep!

It's not futures trading on Wall Street, but if ever there was an everyday manifestation of capitalism– or consumer Darwinism it's grocery shopping in Charlottesville. Long gone are the days of the neighborhood market (unless you count Reid's), and here to stay is the era of unprecedented choice among supermarket clones– all offering not only every conceivable edible and household staple, but flowers, stamps, plants, motor oil, steam vac rentals– the list is almost endless. 

Given the undeniable similarities among the big boys, which one deserves a consumer's dollars? That's where we come in.

At 5:30pm on a Friday– what might be the busiest time of the week– we sent five anonymous shoppers to the five major supermarkets in Charlottesville to shop for five common items:

-one gallon of Shenandoah's Pride two-percent milk

-one loaf of Nature's Own whole wheat bread

-A half-dozen store-brand eggs

-one four-roll package of "regular" Charmin toilet paper 

-one bottle of Yellow Tail Chardonnay

Additionally, our shoppers had to inquire about hard-to-find pine nuts, to discover how friendly and helpful the staff was. They also kept track of how long it took from entrance to check out and, of course, saved their receipts so we could calculate the total cost before tax.

Read our shoppers' reports, and set out on your next grocery run a more informed consumer:

FOOD LION (5th Street)



It was like they knew I was with a newspaper. Upon entering, I approached the deli counter, where the woman gladly stopped slicing to help me find pine nuts. She initially directed me to a nearby area, but apparently thinking better of it, she actually came out from behind the counter, tracked me down, and pointed out that the nuts I sought were probably in the candy/baking aisle. So I went looking, but I didn't see them. 

Then I went to the customer service counter at the front of the store and waited in a short line. "Just follow me," said a man who appeared to be a manager. The pine nuts had been right behind me when I was in that candy/baking aisle. 

I continued my scavenger hunt by cheating on the milk. I just can't drink that watery two percent, so I save 50 cents by buying a gallon of whole milk. Since I cheated there, I didn't dare cheat on the half-dozen eggs, even though the full dozen would have raised the price by only a dime– from 95 cents to $1.05. 

On the way out, the friendliness factor multiplied. As I strolled near the deli counter again, a courteous voice rang out, "Did you find them, sir?'" Wow. The checkout lady was nice, too; she asked how my day was. Then she wanted to make sure I realized that my half-dozen egg carton was slightly torn. She beamed with the joy of someone comfortable with life. 


HARRIS TEETER (Barracks Road)



The parking lot at Harris Teeter is a giveaway: luxury cars of every stripe, many with out-of-state plates, almost all bearing some form of UVA decal or bumper sticker. This is clearly where students, more students, and a few town people meet.

Entering the store at 5:35, I bee-lined past the deli/sushi counter to the bread aisles. Locating a loaf of Nature's Own whole wheat was no problem, except that the only option was a large (approximately 230-slice) mega model ($2.39). This is no country for single men.

In the dairy case, the two-percent Shenandoah's Pride milk is tucked away on the bottom shelf, hard to find (and price almost impossible to locate). Eggs no problem– of the several half-dozen carton choices, we snagged one for 79 cents.

While in "the Teeter's" famed wine and beer section– seemingly a full third of the store– I found the Yellow Tail Chardonnay with no difficulty, locating the Charmin toilet tissue presented a bigger problem. Double roll, single roll, ultra, regular, big, giant, mega, two-ply, one-ply, scented, sensitive skin– ye gods! And that's just one brand! When did wiping up become so complicated?

Clueless about where pine nuts might be, we approached an affable chap in the produce section. "Steve" (every H-T employee helpfully sports a name tag) dropped everything to be of assistance.

"I'm hoping we're not out," he said, leading us anxiously toward a bin with several nut varieties, apparently store-packaged. "We usually have a couple of sizes." They do.

Although prices of the bulk nuts are nowhere in evidence, Steve led us to a smaller rack display of cellophane packages with very high prices visible: $1.66 per ounce!

Checkout proceeded smoothly, but the cashier seemed worried when I didn't want to sign up for a discount card.

Overall rating: 8 out of 10. Like all the big grocery chains, the store is too big, the multiplicity of choices almost obscene, and the price markings of items haphazard. But if you live on or near the UVA Grounds, apparently this store is the hottest thing since sliced (whole wheat Nature's Own) bread.


KROGER (Route 29 and Hydraulic Road)



Judging from the packed parking lot, I thought I was going to walk into a madhouse of busy-bees. It turned out I was only half right. There were dozens of people inside, but I never saw more than four or five people in any aisle, and I didn't see any long lines at the checkout. Props to Kroger for laying out the store in such a way that it can handle a high volume of traffic without the shopping experience becoming uncomfortable.

What did make me a little uncomfortable was what I found in my shopping cart about 30 seconds into my scavenger hunt– a balled-up Kleenex. I don't know whether it had been used, and, frankly, I didn't want to know, so I quickly grabbed it with the tips of my thumb and forefinger and found the nearest trash can. 

I'm not blaming Kroger for the Kleenex; I just would have expected that while rolling the line of carts from the parking lot back to the store, someone would have spotted the nasty tissue and tossed it before the next shopper started piling his dinner-to-be into the cart. 

Most of my items were pretty easy to find– with the exceptions of the gallon of two-percent Shenandoah's Pride milk (Kroger offers SP only in  half-gallons, so I bought store brand), and the Charmin (no four-roll packages of "regular," so I had to buy a six-pack of "Ultra").

A friendly butcher directed me to the nuts aisle to find the pine nuts, but I searched to no avail. I asked another, even more amiable clerk where they might be, and she walked me right over to the produce section where I found palm-sized bags hanging alongside the salad-in-a-bag. An odd placement, perhaps, but the Kroger folks were helpful in locating them.

On the whole, I had an efficient and pleasant shopping experience. Just know, Kroger, that a balled-up Kleenex is nothing to sneeze at.


GIANT  (Pantops)



To borrow a golfing term, this shopper had a significant shopping handicap: three children in tow. As anyone knows, 5:30pm on a Friday is never the best time to run errands with kids. (But really, is there ever a good time to run errands with children?)

Fortunately, Giant does offer one particular perk for shopping parents: firetruck carts. Though it took a few minutes to scout out this critical element, once one had been located on the sidewalk, forward motion became possible. With three-year-old safely buckled in (or so I thought) and seven- and nine-year-olds racing ahead, it seemed possible we might finish our trip in less than an hour.

As we rolled through the produce section, list in hand, several Giant employees are hard at work stocking fruit bins. "Pine nuts?" I ask. Without blinking an eye, a friendly fellow says, "Follow me," and leaves his task to lead me directly to the nut rack tucked toward the front of the store. 

Note: bickering starting, as two older children debate which one will read the list and who will actually get the item off the shelf. Blood pressure beginning to rise, though no fault of Giant. 

Pushing down the paper goods aisle, it seems the stock of toilet paper may be running a bit low. There is no four-pack of Charmin, only an eight-pack or a four-pack of Giant's own. As I ponder this critical decision, I hear a small voice chime gleefully behind me, "Look!" I  turn, to discover the three-year-old, no longer buckled safely, but instead atop the roof of the firetruck, likely seconds away from a concussion. 

Bickering increasing. Pitying– or disgusted?– looks from fellow shoppers. Generic TP will have to do. This trip needs to end soon. 

Moving quickly now, very quickly. Arrive at milk section, grab gallon and run. (Later to learn I have grabbed generic, not Shenandoah's Pride.) Eggs: there are no half-dozen packs, but an eight-pack for $.69 seems like a pretty good deal. 

Nature's Own? No problem, but there's no whole wheat– just honey wheat. It will do.

Check-out, to my unending gratitude, is well staffed, so I push right up and unload the goods. Though older children are momentarily MIA, they soon reappear, I pay and make a harrowing escape. 

Giant, I decide, is a clean, well-arranged store with friendly help. But next time I will come alone.

Overall experience: 8 of 10





Lesson #1: You don't come to Whole Foods to buy name-brand milk, bread, or toilet paper. You come for the produce, the cheese, the fish, or the wine. Normally I wouldn't go there for anything on this list except the pine nuts, and a helpful young man in produce walked me right to the bulk bin where they reside in my first minute in the store.

Because this excursion was being timed, I didn't linger at the cut flowers in the entrance, another good reason to shop at Whole Foods. Alas, my shopping list didn't call for gladiolas or stock or stargazer lilies.

I had to ask for assistance again in the wine department. Mercifully, Whole Foods doesn't carry the ubiquitous Yellow Tail, and I purchased an Italian Verdicchio for $7.99 that surely can't be any worse than Yellow Tail. 

Nor does Whole Foods carry Shenandoah's Pride milk. The "365" house brand two percent costs the same– $3.49– as the whole milk, so I made another substitution, unable to bear the thought of pouring out a gallon of sour two percent in two weeks.

I required assistance a third time to find the toilet paper. I mean, who comes to Whole Foods to buy its organic TP? 

The eggs, the packaging informed me, came from "cage free" chickens. A half dozen of those babies costs $1.69.

The fourth time I needed help was to find the sliced bread. Again, surprise, there was no Nature's Own. A leaden loaf of Vermont organic wheat for $3.19 failed to entice this white-bread lover, so again I substituted a large loaf of rustic bread on sale for $2.49 in the bakery and had it sliced. Dee-lish.

Despite my frequent requests for assistance (if only sushi-to-go had been on this list– I know where that is), I was out of the store in record time. The staff was very helpful, and they all refrained from rolling their eyes when I made these idiotic requests. And the tab was the least amount I've ever spent in Whole Foods. Ever. 

Tip for shoppers and surprise to me– the store was much less crowded on a Friday afternoon than it is on a Saturday.

But recycled toilet paper? Buy your TP at Giant or Kroger, and stop and smell the roses at Whole Foods.