Jun 232010

Building a basil economy

By Danny Mayer

Along with the downtown Farmer’s Market, which I patronize through all four seasons, I do most of my grocery shopping at Wine+Market (W+M), a shop located on the corner of Jefferson and Second Streets in one of Lexington’s oldest (and priciest) city neighborhoods. When I tell people this, I’m often met with measured skepticism. Compared to other grocery stores, W+M seems both too small—I’d guess it’s about 2% the size of a place like the Euclid Kroger—and too pricey to function well as a grocery store. Shopping there is a good idea, most observe, but not a particularly practical model for everyone.

Of course, most people I encounter do not give much consideration to the idea that any modern day shopper could get by on a daily basis using a small market store as one’s primary grocery outlet. Even for those who have considered such things, the assumption is often that shopping at such markets is not affordable. In the case of W+M, it is assumed that most patrons who use the store simply buy expensive wines, cheese, and lunchtime deli sandwiches. To my students, who comprise a healthy community college mixture of ages and world-views rooted in the middle and working poor classes, shopping at W+M inevitably classes me as “someone who could afford to eat at that type of place.” Others, my foodie friends who are vaguely aware of my community college salary (a stable though perhaps not outrageous $38,000 a year), are skeptical the other way around: they wonder whether I realistically could afford to shop regularly at such a place as W+M—no matter my idealistic reasons for doing so—on my take-home pay.

No doubt there is some truth behind the assumptions of size, cost and customer use that make my shopping at W+M seem out of the ordinary. Most people I’ve observed there do use the store primarily as a lunch destination or wine store rather than as a full-scale grocery; I cannot get, to cite one obvious example of unavailable store products, my bathroom tissue at W+M. Nor can I purchase there batteries, light bulbs, dog food and a variety of other small things that appear at least semi-regularly on my grocery list. In addition, from the cheese on down to the sandwiches, most food products are more expensive at W+M than at, say, Kroger’s or Fresh Market or the Co-Op; a sack of Weisenburger Mill flour, for example, will cost me way more here than at Kroger’s, Fresh Market or the Co-Op.

On the whole, though, I find the reflexive assumptions on cost and availability not particularly convincing. In a previous era not too distant from our own, small neighborhood markets like W+M functioned as the default provider of a household’s food needs—and in many U.S. cities they still do. Travel to Chicago, San Francisco—hell, I’d imagine even the saintly Pittsburgh—and small markets are a primary source of food for a variety of social classes, particularly the working poor, and ethnicities. It’s a surprise to me that, for all the talk of urbanity, most of it focused on the city as a sight of consumption, middle-upper class Lexington city dwellers don’t take better advantage of the nearby capabilities of small urban markets.

Lexington groceries

Over the past 50 years, the small-scale grocery has all but disappeared from white Lexington view, with traces of successful small shops now nearly erased from the landscape and replaced with strip mall supermarkets. It’s hard to imagine, but only a couple decades ago Don Pratt ran a small grocery off Woodland (at present-day Ramseys), later moved it off Walton not too terribly far from the proposed present day site of an East End community market along Third Street, and stayed in business there for several years. Equally hard to imagine, our local Co-Op, which recently finished its expansion and renovation at its suburban Southland Road site, began as a small-scale venture involving less than a 100 people wanting to pool their collective resources for healthy food in Lexington. The venture was originally housed in the space along High Street near the downtown YMCA.

These places are no longer, and in their absence, a different way of organizing groceries has gained dominance in the landscape, here in Lexington as much as anywhere else in the U.S. The supermarket, as a specific landscape, is built upon different food principals: big, cheap, and containing a greater variety of products (though most not particularly useful for cooking and preparing meals). Even the Co-Op, after all, with a parking lot twice the size of its commercial space, essentially operates as a big box grocery store. The switch from small to super markets has relied upon a re-purposing of food markets into containers of TOTAL product availability and guarantors of relative price breaks (measured in dollar currency). In that supermarkets have been successful, it has been along these lines: greater selections and cheaper prices.

There are any number of observations that may be made regarding how this switch has negatively changed us—our driving habits, our demographic patterns, our increased reliance on global food markets to keep grocery prices artificially cheap—and colored our assumptions that smaller urban markets such as Wine+Market are not affordable, diversified, economically viable and above all necessary for our city’s collective health. But perhaps the most subtle, and important, change has been the destructive way in which large grocery stores have altered our year-round diet expectations and sucked our wallets dry with useless semi-food junk.

Given access to the immense space of large grocery stores, it should surprise no-one that we have become a city of slothful grocery shoppers. Going into Kroger on Euclid or Romany over the years and walking down the many aisles skillfully filled with untold food products, one no doubt gets conditioned to expect, first, that all food can and should be made available to the consumer at all times (tomatoes in winter! Strawberries in August!), and second, that a high variety of products (seven types of frozen pizza! Twelve types of flour!) taking up untold square feet of shelf space is a sound substitute for a high density of goods packed into a small commercial space.

Grocery shopping at Wine+Market

I’ve been shopping at Wine+Market for about two years now, each excursion mini-lessons in what makes an effective grocery store and how I can become a more effective food shopper. The small open market space is packed with a number of basic cooking necessities, though it is rare to find more than a single variety of any one thing. I may not be able to get batteries at W+M (I can do that at the Fayette Cigar Store on Main or the gas station at 3rd), but I can buy flour, spices, and salt and pepper from the four moveable racks that comprise the “dry goods” section on one of the store’s walls. On the other side of the store, 15 feet away, I can grab milk, eggs, jams, cheese, meat, garlic and bread. Seasonable perishables? You bet ya!: greens and tomatoes, apples and squash, and other produce spill out from the open spaces near the cheese and meat counter.

At W+M these valuable staples, building blocks to basic meals like salads, soups, pastas and sandwiches that I can garnish using my own homegrown produce, contribute to a densely diverse offering of food market goods—infinitely more dense, it should be noted, than any retail size grocery store in Lexington. Shopping there, I have re-learned how to grocery shop—what to buy, what I do not need, what is in season and available for me to consume, what I can grow on my own. I’ve learned to make do without, to alter and streamline the ingredients in my meals, and in many cases to alter the very meals I make. And it’s been OK. I have not been measurably damaged by the process.

For the most part, I’ve shopped at W+M without significantly increasing my household food budget. I do pay more for products purchased there, but the price increase has made me shop smarter. The store’s cheese products, for example, are priced by the half-pound; if you do the math, most cheeses W+M offers—an international selection ranging from Kenny’s local products to New York mozzarella balls, French stinky cheeses and Italian parmesans—run between $15 and $20 a pound, a prohibitively expensive price for someone who normally bought a parmesan, a blue, a swiss, a mozzarella and some other “craft” variety of cheese for home use. Rather than throw in the towel, I re-adjusted my cheese expectations. Sliced cheese went out the door; so did too buying several cheese varieties. Instead, I began to focus on using less cheeses in more different ways. The high prices, in effect, forced me to rethink what I valued—and how I used—the cheese in our household.

Currently, I’ve pared back to two main cheeses, purchased every other week or so in “hunks” that I can slice or grate at home according to my needs. I make pasta at home regularly, so my main cheese is a hunk of pecorino, at $5.95 a half pound the cheapest hard Italian cheese available, grated into plain pasta and accompanied by any trash (herbs, garlic, onions, salt/pepper) that I happen to have at hand. The pecorino also works as an excellent cheese topping when grated on top of an open face Sunrise Bakery focacia ($3?) slathered in my last year’s garden variety tomato sauce.

My complementary cheese is a Danish Blue Cheese, at $4.95 a half pound the cheapest cheese in the store, which I likewise get in “one hunk” increments. I’ve found that when crumbled upon lettuce from my garden, the Danish Blue helps make a super cheap and flavorful salad. It also works as a topper for plain omelettes made with eggs ($5 for a dozen) purchased weekly either at the farmer’s market or the W+M. All told, I spend less than $10 a week on cheese products, yet these two different cheeses normally play a significant part somewhere between 15 and 25 home-cooked meals—quite a value for the home shopper.

Of course cheese is just one product. I’ve had to re-value my costs for just about everything I purchase. I’ve found that, at $8, a sack of Weisenburger white flour suits most of my needs, making it a small cost to pay for a locally produced product that can be stored for months. Owner of a notorious sweet-tooth, I’ve found that $3 cookies are only valuable to me as an ultra-rare treat, and that I can get my sweets instead through a cheese danish for $2 at Sunrise Bakery. I now use much less butter and olive oil, traditionally staples in our kitchen but pricey to buy at W+M (though I do), as I’ve begun to substitute the bacon grease stored from big Sunday morning breakfasts for use as oil and flavor.

In aggregate, the results have been interesting: I buy less, I pay slightly more, and I eat much better (and with better products) now that I’ve mostly refrained from shopping at larger grocery stores and started retraining myself on how to adequately and economically stock my kitchen.

The big picture on small markets

I don’t want to come off as having things figured out. I do, of course, still shop at Kroger and the Co-Op, and I am still developing my home economics skills, so I’m not as thrifty as the above statements suggest. My interest in food economics dates back to my first trips to the Lexington Farmer’s Market in 2002, when my wife and I first began to set aside a $20 weekly “market” fund to purchase summer produce. In the intervening eight years, I have begun to grow most of those products I once bought—tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, squash, potatoes, herbs, watermelons—and so we’ve been able to switch and grow that fund to other products: locally produced bread from Sunrise, chicken and brats and pork from Carey Farms at the farmer’s market, Weisenburger flour purchased at Wine+Market. It’s been a process, one that continues, and my shopping at Wine+Market is an outgrowth of that process and how I want to support my community businesses.

And while W+M is incredibly do-able as a primary grocery, its historic district location means that it does cater to a more upscale clientèle. I wouldn’t suggest to Victor, my recently unemployed neighbor across the street, to travel the 7 blocks from our home on MLK to buy his groceries at W+M—at least not right away. But I do think that we can work harder toward tailoring what W+M offers to the needs of other distinct neighborhood communities.

This means, I think, first acknowledging how far off Lexington’s need for “an urban grocery store” is from the reality of needs for the large downtown area. The singular description, “an urban grocery” rather than the use of the plural, “urban groceries,” worries me. As a singular vision, it doesn’t fit the area—physically, socially, or economically. First, the very concept of a downtown anchor is striking suburban, a concept seemingly adapted from descriptions of Sears or JC Penny’s as mall “anchors.” A single urban grocery store, located perhaps near Buster’s in the Distillery District or nearby urban warehouses alongside Jefferson Street or Louden Avenue, only contributes to our reliance on box store thinking: more products, more driving, and because of the high price of land and the need for shitloads of it, expensive prices. The very reason there’s been no grocery downtown, after all, is because it’s too damn expensive to locate anything downtown requiring that much space. In the words of economists and business leaders, such a venture at that scale is un-affordable and therefore not practical.

A far more workable solution to the uber-money shot of “a downtown grocery store,”would be to emphasize the development of ten, fifteen smaller groceries, housed in already-built market buildings, and patronized by neighborhood populations on a daily basis for immediate cooking goods. Admittedly one that would require a vastly different approach by you and me to our current big-box way of grocery shopping—we would need to actually patronize and small compact markets similar to W+M.

Lexington markets

Luckily for us, downtown Lexington is already well-suited to such markets. Though the north-side has been described by University of Kentucky researchers as a food desert, small markets are in abundant supply here. Beyond the Wine+Market, you just have to get over thinking white (high capital cost suburban grocery with plenty of parking and shopping aisles) and start thinking ethnic, small budget, and city. Hispanic markets like ones open on North Limestone, Bryan Avenue and Sixth Street are already in operation but await a downtown population sophisticated enough to know how to shop locally at them. In the East End along Third Street, Becca Self has reported for Progress Lex on the coming appearance of a community market that will sell local produce and allow neighborhood residents to sell home-made products to a larger market.

Other urban models might look to better use of the city’s current small urban markets. A number of prominent brick corner markets dot the downtown landscape, most notably for me the Progress Market, located a block away from the street where Victor and I live, that simply do not provide necessary food. Most of these small places are located amidst dense city neighborhoods, but not all. Many successful small markets are found in the suburbs. The African grocery at Eastland and other international markets located at strip malls ringing New Circle certainly can offer sound local ideas for food density and product diversity for both suburban and urban shop owners.

There are plenty of models; things are already happening. The new Lexington food economy awaits either a population smart (creative) enough to know how to use its markets, or owners willing to value their communities enough to make their livings providing affordable good food in addition to beer, cigarettes and lottery tickets. Not all the stores need to look alike or have the same price-point of products. Not everything needs to be the W+M.

What will you do?

Markets are a funny thing. They shape our desires and needs, and at the same time they reflect those desires. Big grocery stores have arisen through both market pulls. We’ve been told that we need all the crap in them in order to have our food needs met, while at the same time, we’ve bought, and desired, the superficial cheapness and accessibility that 40,000 square feet of shopping space and a 10 minute drive can offer. Here in the city, we will continue to be ill-served by these overly large groceries so long as we do not change our buying habits, routes and assumptions.

A good start in pushing for local markets, then, might be as simple as re-asking negative questions as positive ones: not, what do stores like Wine+Market not carry, but rather how much of value do they carry; not what can I not afford in here, instead, what can I afford? Different questions, after all, elicit different responses and enable different actions.

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  One Response to “Shopping at a city grocery”

  1. […] live within walking distance may have noticed and appreciated W+M first (see here, and here, and here) but now a lot of people know, thanks to Food & Wine magazine, which recently included W+M in […]

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