Ask a Canadian: Grocery Shopping

Before I climb into my car with my grocery shopping list in hand I plot my course in order of the three to four grocery stores I will visit along my journey. That’s how many I go to in an average week to get all the food and supplies that my household of three growing boys requires. FOUR! And I have plenty of anecdotal evidence that suggests I am not the only one with enough tolerance (or time) for these kinds of undertakings.

(Editor’s Note: this post is from the perspective of a mother of three. I am fully aware that not everyone reading this will be able to relate.)

So let’s run down the list of stores I like to frequent. I use the term “like” loosely, because I’m not sure grocery shopping is considered an enjoyable endeavor, but it is necessary nonetheless.

I’m going to start with Costco, the biggest of big boxes that requires an annual membership. 

Like most people, I go to Costco for the bulk items--meat, milk, veggies, fruit, cereal and the dry goods I need to procure once every six months (toilet paper, paper towel, kleenex, detergent). There are also plenty of impulse buys that I try to resist making like the boogie board I just picked up for my son. I walk out of there every time wondering how I racked up a bill for $300 knowing I still have to go to another grocery store to buy more food. We’ve found that bulk is what is best at this warehouse store and that prices aren’t necessarily better than other stores but it is more convenient when buying large quantities of a product. Costco offers good value with wine and meat, the latter when you need a sizable amount. 

Some people won’t need to go to Costco because they don’t require the bulk quantities or have a small army to feed like me, and that’s where the next grocery store makes more sense. Trader Joe’s is great for the “fun” stuff and smaller packaged goods I like. It’s kind of like visiting Loblaw’s and buying their President’s Choice private label goods, like sauces, trail mix, dips, chips, and don’t forget chocolate covered everything! They even put out a Fearless Flyer with all their new products, just like the President's Choice Insiders Report.

Those of you who aren’t that fond of cooking or are feeling a bit lazy will like Trader Joe’s for their fresh or frozen prepared meals, which are abundant and cover all kinds of ethnic foods. But buyer beware: my friends and I have talked about the “Trade Joe’s 10.” We are talking about those ten (or more) pounds a Canadian gains after binging on all the great Trader Joe’s treats that are so inexpensive (or could it be all that inexpensive California wine????). But back to the healthy stuff for a moment; I like to buy smaller packages of produce at Trader Joe’s. Much of what they stock is organic and tends to be priced competitively. They also have a wide variety of dairy goods, including yogurts that are a good size for adults’ and kids’ lunches. A good thing to know when you go: if you want to try before you buy, Trader Joe’s will open up a package of food and let you sample it before you commit to buying. It’s part of the store policy. Trader Joe’s can be a fun shopping experience if you want to check out something that’s a bit different from the everyday. 

Sprouts is the next grocery store on my list. I would compare it to Whole Foods Market without as high a price tag.

I really like their produce; there is great variety, including many varieties of apples (when they are in season) that make fabulous applesauce and apple pie as well as eating apples. It also has a bulk food section for nuts, chocolates, candy, granola and other baking ingredients. The packaged groceries are for the health conscious with mostly organic and GMO-free ingredients. For anyone on restricted diets due to food allergies, sensitivities and intolerances, like gluten free products, you can probably find alternatives at this store.

The next grocery store on my hit list is Whole Foods Market, which was acquired by Amazon a couple of years ago. Back in Toronto we jokingly referred to the store as “Whole Pay Cheque” because the cost of shopping there was astronomical. Prices have started to come down a bit because of the Amazon connection, but it is still pricey. However, the store is known for carrying good quality produce, meat, fish, dairy and baked goods that are either prepared in store or sourced locally and most of which are organic and GMO-free.  And if you’re pressed for time and happen to be an Amazon Prime member, you can purchase your groceries online and pick them up on the way home, all packed up and ready to go.

Safeway is my final grocery store destination, mostly because it is the closest store located to home and I can usually find all the basic necessities here. It is definitely not the most competitively priced, but it’s pretty reliable. 

If you are extremely price-conscious, check out Smart & Final. It’s a discount grocer, which is best compared to No Frills in Canada.

The grocery store market is so crowded there are almost too many to list. Among the big chains are also the many independent grocers sprinkled all over the Bay Area that hold their own.

Up in Berkeley you are likely familiar with the Berkeley Bowl, which showcases all the bounty of California’s amazing farms and food producers.

Along the peninsula you will find family-owned Mollie Stone’s. According to Wikipedia, the grocery store aims to serve its local communities and offers bus service to customers in certain locations, driving them home with their groceries. There is even one location in San Mateo with an integrated daycare called “Mollieland” so parents can shop while their kids are supervised.

Lunardi’s is another private grocery store chain that prides itself on its meat and deli counter as well as its bakery and produce departments. 

Lucky supermarkets are making something of a comeback in Northern California. The supermarket was founded in 1935 in San Leandro and all but disappeared when it was acquired in 1998 by grocery store chain Albertsons. In recent years the name has resurfaced as different players in the grocery store business have laid claim to the brand and made an effort to bring it back in Northern California.

Raley’s and Nob Hill Foods are yet another chain of grocers you will find dotting Northern California that compete for your dollar in this crowded market.

Both Walmart and Target also have grocery stores within their big box walls. So if you want to combine all your shopping needs into one, you may not find the variety you are looking for, but these chains carry all the basic necessities at competitive prices. Selection, however, is somewhat limited.

If going grocery shopping is not your jam, you are in luck. You have moved to the mecca of online convenience shopping. Leave it to those genius engineers who are too busy at work to stock their fridges to start companies that make it easy to purchase all your groceries and household goods and have them delivered right to your front door. You never have to set foot in a big box grocery store again. 

As I mentioned, Whole Foods provides this service through your Prime membership. Safeway also delivers groceries to your home.

A number of the stores I have already listed partner with Instacart to deliver direct to your home. You do pay a slight premium on the groceries for the convenience of home delivery, plus a delivery charge, but for some people it’s worth it.

There are other delivery options like Good Eggs, which sources fresh, local and organic foods as well as wine and beer for customers. For the truly time-pressed, Good Eggs also offers prepared foods and meal kits, which provide pre-measured ingredients along with instructions on how to prepare the food.

You’ll also find, sprinkled throughout the Bay Area, independent Hispanic, Asian and Indian grocery stores that stock an amazing selection of products from their home region.  Some have amazing spices, others great produce and still others fine seafood.

Sometimes the choice of stores is overwhelming and it really does come down to personal preference.

I have visited virtually all of the stores listed above, mostly out of curiosity and because, well, I  must admit I like to explore grocery stores. I’m always on the lookout for new products and dinner inspiration. 

I find the amount of packaged goods in American grocery stores at times overwhelming, so I try and stick to the perimeter of the store. I also like to poke about in the hopes of coming across a product from back home.

Whatever your preferences are, you cannot deny the abundance of choices. You are also living in such close proximity to some of the best quality produce and products (think honey, cheese and other dairy products, seafood, grass-fed beef, free range eggs, etc.) in North America. Even if you don’t consider yourself much of a gourmand, there are so many great food options out there, you can easily put a meal together that would impress even the most discerning of palates.