Since moving to Portland I’ve had a chance to sample the options I have for buying food to cook with. What follows is a survey of a few of Portland’s many grocery stores, markets, and co-ops. I give a short description of the ambiance, selection, and affordability of each store, then put in my two cents about what I like or dislike about the business. There are many more places to buy food in Portland, but for the sake of this post I’ve listed places that I’ve shopped at in the North and East sides of town since arriving here in November.
Fred G. Meyer opened his first grocery store in downtown Portland in 1922 with 20 employees. In the following decades the business has evolved from a mom and pop into a bona fide big box store, adding pharmacy, jewelry, and retail departments. Two public stock offerings and more recently a $13.5 billion corporate buy-out by the Kroger Co. in 1999 can be said to have safely placed “Freddy’s” into Wal-Mart territory. Although they are a local business, they are still very much a big box store in terms of the size of their stores and the spectrum of goods and services they offer.
Walking into Fred Meyer is akin to walking into a large warehouse filled with food, connected to another large warehouse filled with retail items, connected to another large warehouse filled with garden and hardware items. The place is massive. Not many inviting smells, mostly bleach and plastic, meet the nose. The selection of food is about what you would expect from a store this size: plentiful, cheap, and shipped in from all parts of the globe. Freddy’s constantly beats the competitors in prices on Avocados, Asparagus, and most out of season fruits and veggies. This is probably because they have the ability to buy in mass from Mexico, Chile, and New Zealand and ship these items to Portland.
I go to Fred Meyer to buy most of my bulk foods, sauces, and spices. Pasta and pasta sauce is cheap, soy sauce comes by the half gallon and is much cheaper than anywhere else I’ve been yet. Rice, flour, and other staples are sold in bulk sizes which give me a better deal on the basics i need to fill a pantry. I don’t buy any vegetables or fruits here, because what’s cheap ain’t local or organic, and what’s local and organic ain’t cheap. Cheese is priced well, but often all I can afford is the Oregon produced Tillamook Cheddar.
The ambiance of the store is…well…zombieish. The music is muzak, the employees do seem to perk up every once in a while, but they are for the most part more interested in chatting with each other than with customers, and the customers rarely interact with each other. It’s not uncommon to see an obese customer with an oxygen tank and a cart filled with frozen dinners, refrigerated cookie dough, and lots of two liters of soda. Not to pass judgement on the eating habits of others, but sometimes, as a person so interested in matters of food, seeing these types of things makes me wince with empathy. Freddy’s sells plenty of products that prop up the very same bad habits I’m trying to resist myself, and advise others to resist as well. I stick to the bulk foods and staples and stay away from the frozen food, soda and chips aisles.
New Seasons is a chain of locally owned grocery stores, the first of which opened in 2000, that has quickly expanded over the Portland metro area. They pride themselves on supporting sustainable agriculture, sourcing local whenever possible, and staying connected to the community with in store events and non-profit donations. As they have expanded at such a rapid pace, New Seasons is beginning to transition into more “corporate-ish” models of management. Employees and management have clashed over unionization and employee rights, most recently in an incident where an employee who had worked for the store for almost ten years was fired for taking two scoops of tofu on his lunch break without paying for them, after another employee reportedly told him “That’s nothing. Don’t worry about it.” More information on worker/management relations can be found at http://newseasonsmarketworkersvoice.org/.
Growing pains aside, the ambiance at New Seasons is warm and inviting. Walking through the mini nursery and into the store, customers are often met with free samples of food at the “solutions” aka customer service counter. Colorful, fragrant, organic food is displayed in the produce aisles, and often sampled on site. The staff are cheerful and helpful beyond what I first expected. Recently, a conversation about wrapping veggies in bacon turned into a five-employee panel on savory appetizers. Bacon wrapped asparagus, artichoke hearts, and cheese filled jalapenos were discussed, and later purchased and cooked, much to my stomach’s delight. I get the sense that I’m building a casual relationship with these guys, recognizing familiar faces and sharing recipes.
I buy all of my vegetables, fruits, eggs and dairy at New Seasons. Everything else is overpriced in my opinion, but it’s usually my go-to store if I don’t find time to hit multiple grocery stores for the best deals. If I decide to eat meat, this is my spot. Spices and pre-made meals are too expensive for my budget, but every once in a while I splurge. The hot food line is great as well, but outside of my means. Despite the issues of expansion and the worker gripes, New Seasons seems like a great place to work. I get the sense that they are reaching somewhat of a critical mass in terms of being your friendly neighborhood store and moving towards Safeway territory, but haven’t lost that local flair just yet. The produce is great, the store is fun and friendly, and the prices are worth making this your only stop in town, if you’re strapped for time.
Whole Foods is the liberal guilt of grocery stores. Seemingly revolutionary 5-10 years ago, it has morphed into the very monster it once sought to slay. I have no kind words for Whole Foods: they destroy communities, Eco-systems, and small businesses. Whole Foods is a textbook case in the corporatization of American business: founded in 1980 in Austin, Texas as a “natural” alternative to big box grocery stores. Whole Foods Inc has expanded across America and into the UK as a “natural and organic product” store that now boasts over 300 locations worldwide. Throughout the 2000s Whole Foods began a series of acquisitions of local grocery stores that has not stopped to this day. They now have the largest grocery store in New York City, are traded on the NYSE, and board members regularly opine on matters of national politics such as health care in major newspaper op-eds. They are a corporate beast, and a sleek, savvy, greenwashed beast at that.
With this in mind, walking into the Portland Whole Foods is an exercise in keeping your enemy close. They are very good at what they do – selling “natural” products to rich white liberals who are convinced that purchasing food at Whole Foods is somehow effecting change. The store is an advertising and marketing achievement – it is simultaneously corporate yet local-feeling, with artsy signs and colorful displays of food and products. But beneath this veneer lies an 80s style corporate buy-out monster, feeding on the very heartstrings of what makes, to me, a community strong and vibrant as we transition into uncertain times.
Like Fred Meyer, Whole Foods has purchasing power to drive prices of food and products down. Like Fred Meyer, they have the ability to order from the southern hemisphere and stock out of season food. Like New Seasons, they have a hot food line that is nutritious and tasty. But unlike either store, they have little to no accountability to the community. If the community hurts, Whole Food carries on. They are so large and so profitable that their customer base continues to expand at the detriment of every other grocery store I review here. Everyone is hurt by their expansion, nobody is supported. This is why I believe Whole Foods destroys communities.
The counter argument to my claim would be that Whole Foods introduces communities that do not have an organic or natural alternative to healthy options. While this may be true, they also create a big box organic option that disconnects communities from the potential of small natural grocery stores like Cherry Sprout, reviewed below, that can also create these choices. Whole Foods distorts the concept of what a natural food store can be, and limits the creative, communal ability of a store to be a community anchor. I choose not to support such businesses.
Cherry Sprout Produce
Smaller, friendlier, and more of a market than a grocery store, Cherry Sprout is the little boutique produce store that can. Though a bit more pricey than New Seasons their produce is fresh, organic, and mostly local. Known as Big City Produce for its first 11 years of business, two employees took it over as Cherry Sprout and now regularly include art and music events at the store in the summer. The space has a community built around it: artists, regulars, employees, and casual shoppers converse openly about food they’ve eaten, cooked, or even grown. While Cherry Sprout is often more expensive than the larger stores, it also has some occasional uncommon items like unshucked shelled garbanzo beans, which were really fun to cook and share recipes about with the Cherry Sprout crew.
As the weather changes, Cherry Sprout offers some of the best seasonal fruits and vegetables I can find in Portland. These seasonal foods are priced higher, and the selection isn’t nearly as broad as their competitors. However at Cherry Sprout you get a genuine Northeast Portland connection with some neighbors who also happen to live 8 blocks away and buy a few fresh items a week. For the most part I go to Cherry Sprout when I need a few fresh essentials to make a meal: some Kale, Onions, Garlic, and Peppers for the salad, or a few Potatoes and Yams for dinner. They also have dairy and bulk foods, as well as spices, but usually I can plan out my shopping so I get those from New Seasons.
It isn’t just the quality produce that keeps me at Cherry Sprout, rather than shopping primarily at New Seasons. Cherry Sprout is a fun place to swing through once a week, and I find myself drawn to the sense of community I find around the store. There’s cool art on the walls, the employees play good music and share food stories, and produce is affordable enough yet fresh local and organic.
Lao Vieng Market
Just a short 2 block skate down the road is Lao Vieng, my local spot for kim chee, noodles, Asian vegetables, and anything dried, pickled, or salted. Another mom and pop style market, they have a great selection of Asian produce, down to the Kefir limes and lemongrass, as well as a full butchery selection that I’ve yet to sample. Noodles, pickled foods, spices, and frozen seafood balance out the hundreds of curries, sauces and other MSG-laden foods, shown below.
Lao Vieng also has Vietnamese rolls, lots of Asian candies, and Asian cookware like woks and rice steamers. Rice is available in bulk, at about the same price as the local competitors. This is a great place to put together some mean curries, noodle soups, and won tons. It’s kind of plastic and dusty inside, but the folks that run the place are friendly enough, and the selection of spices you can find in the place are unique to the area. I’ve heard there’s a larger Asian grocery store on 82nd, but this is about as close as I can get to my home.
Like Cherry Sprout, I like stopping in here once every two weeks to get supplies for a big meal: some dried mushrooms, kim chee, egg noodles, dired sardines, canned bok choy, and fish sauce make a great cold weather stew. I feel it’s always good to support the smaller shops, especially when they bring an added spice and diversity to the neighborhood.
Don Pancho Mercado y Carneceria
Speaking of spice…this place is a Peppertopia. I just made that word up because I haven’t seen these many dried peppers, spices, salsas, and generally spicy things in one market. And I love it. I got an $8 kilo of Yerba Maté here, and three weeks later the whole shelf was sold out. Don Pancho was a B-reel Mexican actor who opened both the taqueria and carneceria back in the day. His picture hangs on the wall, welcoming us into the vast word of salted and marinated meats the carneceria boasts.
Don Pancho’s is the place I go when I want to BBQ, eat well, and probably spend a bit more money than I should. This place has what I need for the perfect summer night: 2-3 lbs of marinated carne asada, 2 onions, a pack of tortillas, and some peppers to grill. Add some beer and a bonfire to that and you’ve got all you need to fiesta.
I don’t buy any essentials or basics at Don Pancho’s, except for my 64 oz monthly ration of Tapatio ($3.50!). This is purely the hangover burrito / BBQ prep market, and I love it for that. Nothing particularly fresh, healthy, or organic – but lots of things that are good for the soul. Down to the warm pan dulce cooling in the rack or the chicharons by the pound, this place is an authentic gem, and I’m happy to support it.
Meskel Market is something between a bodega and a corner store, that just happens to sell every Ethiopian spice you’ve never heard of. They also sell teff, which is the flour you use to make injera, an Ethiopian flatbread kind of like naan that is amazing stuff. When eating Ethiopian food, you use the injera like a utensil to pick up sauces, curries, and other amazingly tasty dishes. I’d love to learn how to cook Ethiopian food someday, so if you have any recipes send them over! Until then, I’m looking forward to needing to shop here for my first Ethiopian feast!
People’s is an old school hippie co-op. It’s been going since 1970, has an amazing bulk food selection, and hosts a Wednesday farmer’s market. The outside and inside of the store are decorated with ornate cobb benches and stools, the staff is helpful and full of perhaps too many smiles, and there are yoga classes and tai chi in the rooms upstairs. The co-op is co-owned by over 6000 member-owners, who have access to all of the classes, events, and speakers hosted in the community rooms on the second floor.
On a Wednesday evening in the Summer, People’s is the spot for fresh food and ideas for how to prepare it. Regulars converse with farmers, foodies with hippies, hipsters with chefs, chef hipsters with foodie hippies, you name it. The prices are not affordable for me. If I purchase something, it’s usually something special, like chantrelle mushrooms or a jar of homemade pickles. In terms of selection, People’s is better than Cherry Sprout but worse than New Seasons. Add to that the farmer’s market at the peak of the season, and it’s the best in town. Like Cherry Sprout, it’s pricey, but the choice and the community surrounding the food are what keep me around, even if I’m only buying one or two things.
From large to small, big box to boutique, there are an abundance of choices for groceries in Portland. From my perspective, which is that of a debt laden college graduate urban farmer, New Seasons is my go to store. People’s is where I go when I have a little extra to spend and want to splurge. I love to swing by Cherry Sprout, Lao Vieng, and Don Pancho’s for my specialty items, and have been known to stop by Fred Meyer every two months or so for bulk items. I spend what I have to support the type of food industry I want to see in my community: organic, local, and filled with friendly faces and stories. I stay away from the big guys even though they are cheaper because they don’t promote these personal connections around food, and in many ways alienate us from the source of our food.
As the food industry evolves and as gasoline becomes more expensive, much of what big box stores sell will become too expensive to ship in. Creating a network of local producers is an investment in the cultural fabric and future food security of your community. Making the connection between what we eat, how it got to our table, and who grew it is an exercise in observation that allows us to define our own food justice values. To be conscious of others that do not have access to healthy food or choose not to buy and eat healthy food is another step in understanding our local food system. It is a system that is making a transition away from what does not promote health and community, and towards health, local resiliency, and food security accessible to all. Our purchases can either support or inhibit this transition.
Nick The Green Man