The new Hy-Vee, at 3801 East Washington Ave., was crowded on its grand opening Friday, Oct. 30. Madison schools had the day off, so kids trailed moms and dads pushing carts; plus there were lots of seniors, because who else would be grocery shopping at 10:30 a.m.? There were armies of staff, too, asking shoppers how they were doing, and mobile cashier stations to ease checkout congestion.
As noon approached, much of the action was at Hy-Vee's prepared food counters. Most of the east wall of the store is given over to what is essentially a cafeteria (Hy-Vee calls it a food court). A bright, glassed-in dining area is furnished with tables and booths upholstered with a contempo Marimekko-style fabric, yet it feels more like eating at the Belvedere Oasis (must be all that glass) than a restaurant, which it should probably qualify as.
An Italian station serves thick- or thin-crust pizzas, with a few stromboli and calzones; a Chinese area features about a dozen different entrees. Plus there's a large salad bar, deli counter, sandwich station and soup bar. The deli offers several meal combos, like the half-pound fried cod dinner ($7) and a hot meal of the day ($5), which on Friday was roast pork with grilled vegetables and cottage cheese. There are the usual raft of pasta salads and desserts. Breakfast is served until 11 a.m.
None of this is surprising to anyone who's been watching food marketing trends, where prepared deli meals have been a major area of growth. The "All You Care to Eat" Grand Buffet, however, is a new deal. You can eat anything you want from any of these stations for $11 ($9 for seniors, $5 for kids, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. every day). Yes, any of it, from the egg rolls to the Mile High Turtle Cheesecake for dessert.
Hy-Vee seems to have taken a dab of inspiration from each strata of the grocery industry: the airy, exposed-ductwork architecture of a warehouse-style store, bulk bins from the organic segment, packaged fruits and nuts and lots of bakery and wrapped-to-go items from Trader Joe's, and even, it seems, Old Country Buffet. I envisioned a wristband like the ones you get at all-inclusive resorts, but all-you-care-to-eaters get a pink ticket to prove they've paid and are entitled to pick and choose.
At the Chinese station, there's a list of healthy hints from the store dietitian (pick steamed rice instead of fried, choose entrees with plenty of vegetables, eat just half of your eggroll). I tried the two-entree meal for $5.79, with sesame chicken and pepper duck, and found it to be similar to storefront takeout Chinese, but with fresher vegetables, when there were vegetables.
In strolling the grocery aisles, I quickly became addicted to looking for the "NuVal" number posted on the shelving below each item. (Bring your glasses; they're tiny.)
This new food scoring system out of Massachusetts condenses nutritional info down to a single number, so it's easy to compare one product to another - to see that blue corn tortilla chips in the organic aisle do score higher on NuVal's 1-100 scale (100 being the best) than regular fried potato chips but that it's still better to eat a radish. It also becomes obvious that it's hard to find processed foods that score over a 50 (though the NuVal website indicates that they do exist). It's sobering to see that the just-add-water noodle pouches my family likes to take camping score a miserable 6. M&M-peanut rates a 3. Radishes triumph at 99.
NuVal is currently being used at the big Price Chopper and Meijer grocery chains as well.
There's a weird disconnect between caring enough to use NuVal numbers and have a dietician on staff and selling $11 all-you-can-eat passes. It's true, you could probably load up on $11 worth of pretty healthy options, but with all that macaroni and cheese and pizza and cheesecake staring you in the face, it's not easy.
But then, if you keep your NuVal scores up above 75 in the grocery aisles, maybe you can justify a splurge.