Grocery shopping grown up

Food shopping has gotten a lot more interesting.

Where I grew up, there weren’t many grocery options. In rural north Louisiana in the 1960s and ‘70s, Piggly Wiggly was the dominant chain. Our household did the daily fill-in shopping at “the Pig” and then, because my dad was retired military, we made our monthly bulk purchases at the commissary on Barksdale Air Force Base, in Shreveport.

Forty years ago there were no prepared food departments, and no in-store cafes. You’d never find a coffee shop inside a grocery store, and certainly no organic departments.

That was then.

Today, I do my produce shopping at a nearby gourmet farmer’s market. I buy prepared foods and hard-to-find ingredients at Whole Foods. I shop for meats and fill-in items at Winn-Dixie. At Matherne’s Supermarket, I buy wine and have dinner.

Matherne’s, a four-store, former c-store chain based in Baton Rouge, La., has taken wine-shopping to a whole new plane. The Highland Road location, managed by Bill Hounshell, features regular wine-tasting events that have become a frequent Friday-night outing in my house. Held in a surprisingly elegant back room that is tucked away in a corner of the grocery store, the near-weekly events feature five-course meals and accompanying tastings of up to seven or eight different wines from around the world.

Last Friday evening, we enjoyed salmon cakes and New York strip steaks, followed by a chocolate ganache dessert, all prepared by Bill and his wife Kathy. We were entertained by the CEO of an Argentinean winery who flew to Baton Rouge specifically for the tasting of his wines. Afterward, the 50 guests shopped Matherne’s wine department, where we received special pricing by the bottle and case, and even had our purchases autographed by the vineyard’s owner.

These kinds of in-store events are becoming commonplace at such chains as Whole Foods and Wegmans Food Markets. Both have become destination stores, offering 500 kinds of cheese, fresh breads flown in from Parisian bakeries, cooking demonstrations, white tablecloth restaurants and, yes, wine tastings. Regional players such as Stew Leonard’s and H-E-B’s Central Market have gotten in on the action. Safeway introduced its Lifestyle concept with wood floors and a long list of prepared foods.

A food guru recently wrote that we have moved to a world of extremes in food retailing. And, despite our recession-inspired fascination with discounters, the super-grocers are drawing huge crowds.

I talked to a group of supermarket specialists for Chain Store Age’s June/July focus on grocery-anchored shopping centers – landlords who closely monitor the shifts in grocery shopping and who work to woo the top players into their centers.

All the landlords I spoke with remarked on the dramatic evolution of today’s grocery store, and even though the changes often require accommodations on the part of the shopping center owner, not a single one complained. “All of these added amenities make the grocery experience much more expansive and interesting,” Leo Ullman, president and CEO of Port Washington, N.Y.-based Cedar Shopping Centers, told me.

Check out the special section on grocery-anchored centers, starting on page 72 in the June/July issue.




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