When you say “shopping” to some people, it brings up visions of shoes or vintage finds, sports jerseys or electronics. For me, the most fun kind of shopping is in a gourmet food market.
Any city of any size has them, including Savenor’s in Boston, Zabar’s in New York, Bi-Rite in San Francisco, Foxtrot in Chicago, and Dorothy Lane Market in Dayton. The one I am most familiar with is Zingerman’s, the subject of my recent book Satisfaction Guaranteed: How Zingerman’s Built a Corner Deli Into a Global Food Community.
Now that I’m living in New Orleans, I’ve been dropping into local food markets to check on the selection, the customer service, and most importantly, whether it’s a worthwhile place to part with my money.
In this era of Trader Joe’s and Aldi, not to mention the abundance of online retailers, you needn’t spend $100 on balsamic vinegar unless it really, really appeals to you. But sometimes, these products do entice you to take them home. Rather than see you suffer gourmet shopper’s remorse, I have some tips for navigating high priced specialty markets.
Is the staff helpful and informative? Does the space look like somewhere you’d like to spend time?
Reading about a fledgling New Orleans market on Instagram, I headed over one Saturday, parked my car, and walked inside. I traversed the entire length of the store, from grocery shelves up front to a bakery display in the back, without encountering a single staff member.
Everyone seemed to be clustered at the cash registers or in the kitchen, leaving anyone interested in groceries or the food cases to figure things out for themselves. For a town built on hospitality, the disinterested vibe made me feel unusually unwelcome.
Then, I stopped by The Commissary, a gourmet grocery and cafe tucked into an industrial corner of New Orleans, which opened at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 by noted restaurant owner Dickie Brennan.
As soon as I walked in, a staff member came over and showed me the grab-and-go case, explained the take-and-bake items, and then pointed me to the restaurant and bar area where I could get a meal to eat on the spot or something to carry out. There was a row of comfortable looking booths, while in another part of the store, I could see a co-working space where a team was holding a meeting.
I wound up with boxes of frozen biscuits and shortcakes, a magic bar (also known as a Seven Layer Bar), and a Cobb salad to go. The experience was so pleasant I’m already plotting my return.
At The Larder in suburban Metairie, Louisiana, prepared salads are visible in big refrigerator cases inside the front door, and you can see the chefs at work in the kitchen just beyond the front counter. There’s an ample display of pastries and two bins of gelato from Piccolo Gelateria, a locally owned New Orleans shop. You can dine in or get food to go through the window of what was once a Burger King.
Zingerman’s, meanwhile, makes a significant portion of the prepared foods at its original deli, from menu items to groceries. As you can read in my book, the business opened Zingerman’s Bakehouse so it could have bread for its sandwiches rather than drive to the Detroit suburbs and bring it back. The same goes for the cream cheese served on its bagels. It also packages olive oil and tea, and sells potato chips and salad dressing.
Deli managing partner Rick Strutz estimates that gourmet groceries make up about 25% of the shop’s annual sales, while menu items and catering account for the other 75%.
In recent times, stores and restaurants have begun to more generously identify the farmers and other businesses that supply them so that shoppers know where the items are coming from.
One such place in New Orleans is Coffee Science, which began as a coffee bar in 2018 and has since morphed into a gourmet shop selling fresh produce, baked goods, and cheese. It holds a farmers market each Sunday, with a variety of sellers who bring bagels, smoked salmon, tamales, and treats for pets.
On a recent visit, I watched as a staff member from Covey Rise Farms delivered a big vat of sunflowers for Coffee Science to sell as bouquets. Their products were featured throughout Coffee Science’s refrigerator cases, which told me they had an active working relationship.
In these days of supply chain shortages, there’s really no excuse for anything to hang around very long. Many stores are ordering or making only as much as they can turn around quickly.
Recently, I went into a nearby market in late afternoon on a hunt for a turkey sandwich—a simple enough quest, but a number of po’boy shops close by 4 p.m., and many don’t have turkey anyway in this seafood-focused city. I spotted a sign for a turkey panini in the shop’s gourmet case, but the section was empty. When a clerk asked me what I was looking for, I half expected her to go in the back and come out with more turkey sandwiches. Nope. When they’re out, they’re out, she politely explained.
Conversely, if you see a shop that’s overflowing with too many baked goods or boxes of sushi toward the end of the day, that might be a signal that these things aren’t selling. Either the shop is going to throw it all out, or it’ll pawn off the unsold inventory on the next day’s customers. Either way, this isn’t a place you want to shop.
I’ve had what I call a “food museum” experience in cities from Tokyo to Chicago and now New Orleans. I’ve gone into shops where the items are so artfully displayed that no one will disturb them. Additionally, the prices are so high, compared with what other shops charge, that the owner might as well post an illuminated “sucker” sign pointing to the display. It makes you wonder how such spots actually make money, if people aren’t actively making selections and taking their choices up to the counter. Food museums are fun to breeze through, but probably not worth any money you could spend there.
You might remember the episode of Sex and the City in which Miranda is about to buy a chocolate cake, then balks at the $75 price. She goes home and bakes one from a box mix instead. But sometimes, the food is so enticing that you are willing to get out your credit card, even though you know that you could make it yourself for a fraction of what the market is charging.
I’m completely guilty: I gave into the temptation to buy a canister of $48 hot chocolate mix from Angelina, the famous Paris cafe. In my defense, it was the pandemic, there was no chance I’d be visiting Paris any time soon, and Angelina’s hot chocolate is more like warm chocolate mousse—exactly the comfort food I wanted.
Absolutely go ahead and do this once in a while, but make it a practice to also comparison shop. If the price makes you gasp, ask the staff if there’s a less expensive alternative. In the case of baked goods, can you get a slice or half a loaf instead of the whole thing? If it’s meat or cheese sliced to order, what’s the smallest amount you can purchase?
In the end, it’s your money and you can spend it however you like. But food shopping should not leave you with the feeling our parents had when they bought a car and learned that a neighbor got it for $5,000 less.