Madison is undergoing a Renaissance of sorts in its grocery options.
The grocery climate in Madison has changed considerably since the city formed a special committee on the topic in 2003 in response to a number of store closings.
The trend toward larger stores on the periphery has continued, with a new Wal-Mart Supercenter in Monona and a SuperTarget on the southwest side. In Sun Prairie, there's a new Copps and a proposed new Woodman's; Middleton is set to get a Costco this summer; and Iowa grocer Hy-Vee is headed for the former Kmart space (90,000 square feet) on East Washington Avenue.
Yet Madison has managed to maintain a mix - with smaller neighborhood stores, a growing number of ethnic groceries, farmers' markets, organic co-ops and trendy specialty food chains co-existing with big warehouse stores and national superstores. Neighborhoods that lost smaller groceries earlier this decade are back on the map - Monroe Street with a branch of the national chain Trader Joe's; the north side with a locally owned Pierce's Market. And the Willy Street Co-op is still hopeful about opening a second location downtown at Metropolitan Place, which recently
went into foreclosure, although plans are now delayed.
On the downside, two fledgling grassroots food co-ops failed to launch, and the downtown's Mifflin Street Co-op closed. Another small natural-food store, Magic Mill, gave up the ghost last fall. And this January, specialty fruit-and-cheese mart Brennan's closed its north-side location.
Still, Madison's grocery store market is thriving, so much so that folks in these parts shop around - perhaps buying staples at one store, produce somewhere else and specialty items or to-go dinners at a third location.
Local stores, mindful that competition is hot and options abundant, are trying to stand out from the crowd.
What are the differences, after all?
check: More often than any other store, Woodman's had the lowest prices on a
list of common items, and it never came in as the most expensive.
Reasons to shop here: Big ethnic food sections including Indian, Asian and Mexican; big selection; low prices.
Aisle find: Grass Jelly drink - a Vietnamese concoction made from boiling grasses from the mint family and mixing the result with syrup.
If the best time to go to giant Woodman's is during a Packers game, the worst must be before a blizzard. Before one of our many recent storms, I found myself in a long line with a well-heeled older couple, two lesbian moms entertaining their restless toddler, and a large Spanish-speaking family. If Madison has a melting pot, it's probably Woodman's.
While shoppers tout the store's wide selection and low prices, many don't like the produce, which varies in quality and is displayed in big, well, heaps. But there's a lot of it, and it's competitively priced. The green peppers can be too ripe, the bananas not ripe enough. Bagged varieties are typically bred more for shelf life than taste - not unusual in an American market.
In the grocery aisles, selection is king, with an entire section for sausages and a whole aisle of ice cream. It can be overwhelming. (I overheard one man making an exasperated call on a cell phone by the balsamic vinegar: "They have a million different kinds, and none of them is the one you want.")
Choice at Woodman's is sometimes illusory. When I was searching for an ice cream made without high-fructose corn syrup, I came up with exactly one.
But Woodman's checkouts are set up to move, and checkers and baggers are efficient. You can make it through rapidly even at peak hours.
Copps Food Centers
check: Middle of the road. A Copps card can knock quite a bit off your total if
you shop the specials.
Reasons to shop here: The bulk bins. While many contain candy and snacks, you can also buy organic flours and grains.
Aisle find: Mexican telera and bolillo rolls in the bakery.
Copps, with the greatest number of area stores (nine), is the prototypical American supermarket. (The chain is owned by Milwaukee-based Roundy's.) Older-style Copps like the Shopko Drive store on Madison's east side have been remodeled to expand the deli and prepared-food areas; newer Copps, like the Middleton Hills location, have made these areas the most attractive store destinations.
While Madison shoppers I talked to like Copps' produce, the selection when I dropped by Shopko Drive on Super Bowl Eve looked a little tired, despite the misters. Of course, it is February.
Copps stores feature a "natural and organic" shelf area in each aisle, instead of segregating those items in a single area. Even so, a recent attempt to find hamburger or hot dog buns made without high-fructose corn syrup or a lot of unpronounceable additives proved futile.
But the large salad bar is attractive, and deli meat can be "sliced the way you like it" - shaved, wafer thin, thin, medium or thick. There are also lots of different deli salads, three soups a day and muffins, bagels and doughnuts. Unfortunately the deli sandwich I sampled was bland, as were the bakery muffins.
Willy Street Co-op
check: High on produce, middle-of-the-road for other groceries, even with the
greater selection of organic items.
Reasons to shop here: Produce that tastes great and is good for you, local sourcing, vegan-friendly deli.
Aisle find: "No ATC" yard sign, chickpea flour.
Shopping at "The Co-op" is a cultural rite of passage in Madison. The produce is beautiful (procured when possible from local growers), the selection of organic fruits and veggies can't be beat, and everything is labeled and sourced. Moreover, the people who work here care about food and what's good for you. That's not to say you can't find products like tortilla chips, but the store recommends the Guiltless Gourmet brand - baked, not fried.
The deli carries a large number of salads and entrees (many vegetarian or vegan). Instead of the usual raft of pasta salads, you'll find more vegetables and more brown rice. The emerald sesame kale is reliably fantastic. The pre-made sandwiches here are the best in town, and the salad bar is stellar.
This is the only store in town that publishes a free monthly newspaper, a pretty good read (don't miss the letters!). And like Sentry Hilldale, it's a neighborhood gathering place, not just a store.
On the minus side, checkout is often slow and the perception that you were really expected to bring your own bags can be a bummer. If you're not a member, prices are 10% higher than the labels show. On the other hand, a membership is only $10 a year ($58 for a lifetime).
Metcalfe's Sentry Hilldale
check: If you're buying all your food from the deli, beware, but regular
grocery prices are in the middle of the pack.
Reasons to shop here: Good bakery and produce, quick meals for busy nights, convenient stop-on-the-way-home location for much of the west side.
Aisle find: Free hand wipes and hand sanitizer found everywhere from the deli counter to the checkout lanes!
Like the Sentry on Cottage Grove Road, this store is independently owned and managed. It's taken that as a license to become one-of-a-kind. The Hilldale Sentry resembles a corporate cafeteria more than a grocery store. The whole experience seems civilized, right down to the classical music being piped through the speakers.
Where this store really excels is in prepared foods. Besides the soup and salad bar, there's an olive bar, a wing bar, a Chinese food station, a sushi station, a huge deli with items ranging from pizza and sandwiches to stratas, pasta salads and main dish entrees - all overseen by super-friendly staffers continually asking if you want to sample anything.
There's an on-site bakery, as well as items from Bread Barn, La Brea, Madison Sourdough Company, La Brioche and Carl's Cakes. The produce is above-average, with a decent organic section (dandelion greens, kale, broccoli rabe), although most of it comes from Cal-Organic.
On a recent weekday morning, Metcalfe's Sentry Foods was hopping. Its coffee area (run by Alterra) was populated with people sipping coffee, reading the newspaper and eating their deli finds.
check: Low on Whole Foods' "365 Brand" products, high on prepared foods.
ReasonS to shop here: Lavish meat and fish counter, gluten-free line of baked goods, big selection of whole grains.
Aisle find: $1 cans of 365 Brand tuna.
The natural foods chain plans a major expansion, into a 60,000-square-foot space near Hilldale Mall, in 2009. That's good, because the current 35,000-square-foot store is in serious need of elbow room. It's jammed with end-cap and mid-aisle displays and is hard to navigate; the most frequently heard words in the store are "Excuse me."
Lush produce is attractively displayed, and Whole Foods is a good place to buy high-quality meats and fish and cheeses. The meat counter features premade kebabs and stuffed chicken breasts; the expanded deli and bakery rivals those at Metcalfe's Sentry and will expand even more at the new site. There's also a serve-yourself soup bar, salad bar and hot bar. The massive hot bar is the biggest around, with everything from couscous salads to turkey dinner, and plenty of veggies - for $6.99 a pound.
check: Modest to quite low on some staples (like $2.29 for a gallon of milk),
although your total bill may inflate due to throwing fun extras into the cart
Reasons to shop here: The fun extras.
Aisle find: Bresaola (an Italian air-dried, salted beef). Actually, what isn't an aisle find here?
Shopping at Trader Joe's is fun. Yes, fun. The store has the hippest soundtrack in town (everything from Sufjan Stevens to bebop), and the staffers wear Hawaiian shirts; but it's really about the food. Sure, you can end up buying $50 worth of trail mix, but TJ's has low prices on milk and yogurt, olive oils and the much-lauded wines. What at other stores would be pricey gourmet items are affordable here. On the other hand, it can be hard to find something as ordinary as hamburger buns, in lieu of ciabatta rolls.
Trader Joe's small size is a plus. You can go from the wine to the produce and back a couple of times in the time it takes to walk down the cereal aisle at Woodman's.
The produce - most of it pre-cut, pre-chopped or in cellophane - is in keeping with much of TJ's product ethos, which aims to simplify the process of making dinner. The store carries a lot of frozen foods, from chicken bits to pastas to curry sauces to egg rolls and quesadillas. Some are pretty good.
Its breads and breakfast cereals, frozen macaroni and cheese, spanakopita appetizer, and chipotle hummus have earned permanent spots on my shopping list.
Can I escape an incipient addiction to the parsnip chips - and other stuff I never knew existed until I went to TJ's? Fortunately, it's far enough from my home that it remains a "special trip" destination.
check: Middle of the road.
Reasons to shop here: Clean and quiet, with good selection.
Aisle find: I have to go with the canned treacle.
I've shopped Cub East and Cub West in the past, but for this story tried the one on Verona Road and was pleasantly surprised. Instead of being confronted by a wall of special warehouse buys at the entrance, there's a deli area with tables. The deli case is small, and the hot bar offerings are limited (wings, fried and rotisserie chicken). Signs assure that "all fried foods are prepared in trans-fat-free oil."
The produce section boasts that Cub is committed to local produce, but much of what I saw was tagged as coming from spots as far-flung as Peru, Chile and Brazil, as well as Canada, Florida, Texas and, of course, California. Hey, it's only local if you're in those places.
Still, Cub has a fair organic area ("Naturally Cub"), which goes beyond chips and cereal to goat's milk and organic eggs.
This particular Cub has a broad range of ethnic foods, with larger-than-usual Mexican, Asian, Italian, kosher, Middle Eastern (including bags of za'atar and sumac) offerings and a jumble of other European items, including surprises like canned treacle, McVitie's digestive biscuits, lemon and barley water, and kipper fillets.
I like a store where I discover things I had no idea existed. Lemon and barley water?
Jenifer Street Market
check: Mid to high, but never the highest.
Reasons to shop here: Excellent meat market.
Aisle find: Fresh veggie burgers in the deli; frozen soup from the Original Soup Man (Yev Kasem, the "Soup Nazi" of Seinfeld fame).
Shopping here is practically a religion for some east-siders. It stands alone among Madison stores in that it's not on a major street, but tucked away off Atwood Avenue - built back when siting was not something stores paid consultants thousands of dollars to determine.
Still the small (approximately 10,000-square-foot) store manages to pack in the amenities of a supercenter, with an olive bar, gourmet cheese area, walk-in beer cooler, wine shop, modest deli, small salad and hot bar, bakery, a large meat market, and even a live lobster tank! I hope I haven't left out anything.
The tradeoff is that it's a pretty tight squeeze. If you're not familiar with the layout, you could easily miss, say, the organic breads, which are pigeonholed near the checkout, or the olive bar, tucked into a corner. But the bakery - East Side Ovens, out of Milwaukee - is a nice touch, and the store offers enough selection to function both as a main market and as an after-work stopgap for the neighborhood.
More shelf life!
For being the #1 grocery chain in the U.S. in terms of sales, this latest entry into the local market market is underwhelming. As with all Wal-Marts, it's impressive only if you have no other choices. The checkout isn't designed for heavy grocery shopping. There's no conveyor belt, or even an easy way to transfer goods from your cart to the small checkout pad. And on a recent visit, there were no paper grocery bags at the checkout - just plastic.
I know this is apostasy to say, but the food is not all bad - the bakery sold a pretty tasty marble rye, and I found good pastrami from the deli. The dairy case even sold Organic Valley milk.
Are the prices low enough to warrant getting off the Beltline and navigating a confusing traffic roundabout? My "price check" sampling showed that while Wal-Mart never had the most expensive price on a checklist of common items, it didn't usually have the lowest one, either.
Branding is key. There's an in-store Starbuck's, and the bakery carries Einstein Bros. bagels. The store brands are "Archer Farms" for "organic-themed" and upscale products, "Sutton & Dodge" for meats, and "Market Pantry" for the value line.
It's through the Archer Farms line of frozen entrees and hors d'oeuvres, ready-to-eat meals and meal mixes, pastas, cookies and the like that Target takes aim at Trader Joe's. Often, it's just attractive junk food, like "Milk Chocolate Monster Bites" or "Apple, Pear and Gorgonzola Puff Pastry Crowns."
While Target ranked second to Woodman's in having the greatest number of low prices on my sample items, it also featured the highest-priced items several times.
Pierce's Northside Market
The north side badly needed a grocery presence after Roundy's bought and closed the Kohl's store there in 2003. Pierce's, an independent grocer with other stores in Baraboo and Muscoda, opened in March 2006. It's a smaller store, at 24,000 square feet, but stocks all of the essentials, and feels open and pleasant.
There's a nice produce selection with some organic that thoughtfully includes items from the Troy Gardens farm in the summer. (Even in the dead of winter, the store stocks Troy sprout mixes.) The deli has fried and rotisserie chicken, and the seafood case offers a coconut-breaded tilapia that's great for a quick dinner. Prices are middle of the pack, but can range to very high.
Pick 'n Save
Pick 'n Save has a separate section for its deli, produce, bakery and cafe area, called "Central Market." It's owned by Copps, and everything is similar to Copps, although with scaled-down meat and seafood counters. With just one Pick 'n Save in Madison, the store may have an identity problem. (There are also stores in DeForest, McFarland, Stoughton and Sun Prairie.)
Capitol Centre Market
The downtown's only grocery recently upgraded, doubtless to prepare for the arrival of the Willy Street Co-op. There's now a better produce area (it's still small) and a bigger walk-in beer cooler (now that's knowing your audience), and some prepared sandwiches and rotisserie chickens. The store is cramped and hard to navigate and, along with Regent Market Co-op, came in at the high end of the price check.
Regent Market Co-op
I made the mistake of going during the noon hour, when the place is packed with teens from nearby West High. Neighbors like the convenience, and there are good organic options at the meat counter. But prices are high, and, unless you live nearby, it's probably not going to become a special trip.
Unlike other stores, Aldi seems to stock food not because of customer demand but because it happened to find a bunch of it real cheap somewhere. Items seem to be stocked in the aisles almost randomly. The brands are unfamiliar. Aldi has no deli or bakery counter, and only a limited selection of fruits and vegetables. Prices are cheap, but the product unappealing.