When I was growing up on the near west side of Madison, summer days meant riding dirt bikes around in a pack to Hoyt Park, Quarry Park and Picnic Point. After a day of adventuring, we would be hot and thirsty. Time to hit the main grocery store of the area at the time, El Rancho on University and Farley. There we could slake our thirst with Dr. Peppers, then thumb through the Fangoria and Starlog magazines, leaving with Star Wars trading cards (the kind that used to come with a flat stick of bubble gum in the package).
Modest El Rancho is long gone, and today's west-side grocery landscape is becoming more heavily populated by relatively gigantic superstores. With the grand opening of the new Hy-Vee at Westgate Mall, choices abound.
When Cub Foods opened in 1982, it was the first really large grocery store on the west side, and a big thing. Their deal was that you bagged your groceries after shopping in a heretofore unimaginably huge warehouse to save money.
Woodman's West followed (its east-side location did predate Cub). Today it's still the champion of low-cost staples and large sizes, like vats of vinegar.
Cub Foods was something of an institution until last year, when Metcalfe's took over its West Towne site. That locally owned store also absorbed Sentry at Hilldale.
Hy-Vee is enormous but, unlike the Cub of yore, is friendly, with good customer service and quickly moving checkout lines. The perimeter is dotted with mini-stores like a sandwich shop, a deli, a bakery, and Asian and Italian sections with stir-fry, pizza and pasta.
There's a fully loaded liquor store, a florist, an organic foods section, and an on-site dietitian. Hy-Vee even publishes a good-looking in-house magazine with cooking and home features. The store is competitive on both price and selection. I was a little surprised to find Sassy Cow Creamery milk at all, and, bonus, it's also cheaper than it is at many stores.
Yes, the west-side grocery space is crowded -- but is it saturated?
Not for those who live out of walking distance from all this choice (in addition to Metcalfe's, Copps and Woodman's, there's Target, Sam's Club, Aldi and Costco). There is the option of the Freshmobile, a store in a bus, which stops in several west-side neighborhoods (including Meadowood, Arbor Hills and Allied Drive) several times a week.
Fans of smaller stores can still hit up Seafood Center on Whitney (or inside Willy Street Co-op-west) for seafood. Or visit one of the best butcher shops in town, Knoche's, on Old Sauk. It's a tiny store from out of time where the butcher gives you good cuts of carefully sourced meat, seasoned with a few words of advice.
Whole Foods and Willy-west have ardent devotees and excellent produce. Trader Joe's and the Regent Market Co-op serve near-west neighborhoods that have fought for stores within walking distance. There's liquor (and cheese) at Steve's in two locations, liquor and cheese and produce at two Brennan's, and a couple of Jacobson Bros. meat markets, too.
With the addition of Hy-Vee, we'll see how the west-side grocery marketplace adjusts.