Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Verdict on The Fresh Market's Webster grocery store

Answer:  One and a half thumbs up.  It's not my favorite grocery business model.  I prefer Whole Foods, which does much of my health-related headwork for me (as opposed to a grocery store which is more gourmet-focused than health-focused).  However, at this juncture, The Fresh Market has one walloping advantage over Whole Foods:


It's not a very large store but it doesn't have to be.  Once you eliminate all the highly-processed carb- and grease-loaded crap that no self-respecting human being should be eating anyway, you don't need very much space to house a well-rounded selection of actual food.    
No stranger to leafy lamentation, late last year I published a post titled "Groceries in Clear Lake:  More ugly pictorial truth" in which I canonized a baby bok choy as the patron seasonal saint of everything that has been wrong with our local grocery market.
Screengrabbed from that post.  I was afraid that I might draw the ire of corporate attorneys if I photographed the offending produce within the stores themselves, so in the interest of public service, I purchased representative (i.e., perfectly awful) vegetable examples and brought them home for portraiture such as this.  And then I promptly threw them into my composter.  
So of course in evaluating any g-store successor, there's no question that the bok choy would have to be evaluated as the freshness flagship, the ultimate litmus test of store viability.
Bok choy in the Webster Fresh Market, Saturday June 7, 2014.  Pretty much perfect produce.  Bok choy doesn't get any better than this, at least not in the retail arena.  And this stuff is organic to boot. 
I can guess the question on every reader's mind:  "But how expensive is Fresh Market?!"

You can expect any store like this to be more expensive than the common chains because (duh) they have higher-quality stuff.  But I did not find the prices to be unreasonable.  When evaluating the overall mark-ups, it's always instructive to look at the staples.  Milk was decidedly more expensive than what lower-end chain stores offer, but inflated prices did not seem to be across the board.  For instance, you would be hard pressed to do better than this for organic whole wheat spaghetti.  
If you are a long-suffering Clear Lake foodie, welcome to your new Nirvana.
Pierogis?!  You've got to be kidding me!!  Is there anyone in Clear Lake besides myself who has even heard of pierogis??
Which brings me around to my next observation.  As promising as this store is, The Fresh Market got a couple of things wrong here, in my opinion.
The number one mistake is the floor.  Unfortunately, they installed a wood-looking porcelain tile.  What that means is that you constantly have to listen to the annoying THWACK-THWACK-THWACK-THWACK of your cart wheels pounding across the grout lines.  It kinda negates the soothing effect of the classical music that is piped throughout the store.

Remember the floor in the produce department of the Randall's at Clear Lake City Blvd. and Space Center Blvd.?  OMG, it was horrible!!! At some point in the early 1990's (??), they ripped out the original generic vinyl floor tile and installed brick-dimension ceramic tile in its place.  You couldn't even hear yourself think in there for all the bumpy noise of the cart wheels!  As soon as they made that mistake, I figured they'd come to their senses and promptly take it back out again.  But they did not - they left it in place for many years, maybe even contributing to the decline of Randall's as a chain because I, for one, would not put up with the annoyance of it - I'd shop elsewhere.  This issue didn't get resolved until they remodeled yet again just a few years ago, and re-installed a smooth, sensible quiet floor.

In this case shown above, the grout lines are not as deep so the effect is not as severe as in the Randall's case, but it's still an unnecessary annoyance. 
The number two mistake that I think The Fresh Market is making is that they've adopted a standalone store model.  If they were wise, they'd snag some of that vacant retail square footage next to them and develop cooking classes analogous to Central Market's well-known foodie fare.  Because, let's face it - of the quarter million or so greater Clear Lake residents, there are probably only five or six people who would actually know how to cook properly with ingredients such as white truffle oil (I'm not one of them).  And if people don't know how to use it, they won't buy it, and that doesn't bode well for the success of the store.  
I've always wanted to take some of Central Market's cooking classes but the time and driving distance commitments are just too great.  If someone set up shop in the Baybrook area, I'd definitely participate.

My qualified 1.5 thumbs up verdict isn't shared by everyone.
One of the early Google reviews, screengrabbed from this site.  
I mentioned in January that any new grocery entry into our market is going to have to compete with the twin juggernauts of HEB Clear Lake Market and HEB Bay Colony.  Experience-wise, I see a couple of advantages to a store like The Fresh Market:

  1. Find me a bok choy in any of our other local grocery stores that looks as good as the ones shown above.  Email me a picture because I'd have to see it to believe it. 
  2. While HEB sells plenty of good stuff, their stores are also chock full of the usual American avalanche of highly-processed junk food products that I would never eat.  I very often feel like I'm hunting for a needle in a haystack when I shop at HEB (and every other local chain) because I won't consider buying literally 95% of what they have for sale.  It's a pleasant experience to walk into a grocery store and not have to struggle with that kind of inefficiency.
  3. Both of our local HEB stores are constantly mobbed.  I feel like I'm running a gauntlet every time I walk into one of them.  Particularly if I'm planning a special meal, I would like to walk into a grocery store and have the luxury of being able to relax and concentrate on making my selections, rather than spending all of my time negotiating for physical access to the shelves (many of which are chronically under-stocked) and jockeying for safe passage down the aisles.  
Anyway, white truffle oil notwithstanding, I'm looking forward to seeing what I can accomplish recipe-wise with this new local resource. 

Besides bok choy, the other good litmus test for any higher-end grocery store is the quality of the in-store bakery.  This product above is called "old world sprouted grain bread".  In my opinion, while it is not as good as Whole Foods bread, it's not bad.  I've had much worse.

Disclaimer:  As always, this is a noncommercial blog expressing personal opinions only.  I accept no compensation from any source.  

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