Supermarket shopping is, for the most part, a chore. But the suburban branches of Hannaford and Shaw’s offer a more pleasant experience than the overcrowded scene at their Portland counterparts.
I recently searched the aisles at Hannaford for a package of State of Maine beans, either yellow eyes or Jacob’s cattle, because it has the definitive recipe for baked beans printed on the back of the package. The store has always carried them — but no more. Instead, what’s offered is their own store brand or the Goya product, both of which have a basic guide printed on the back of the package on how to prepare dried beans. The same held true at Shaw’s. As it turned out the independent Smaha’s Legion Square Market in South Portland sells State of Maine beans as they’ve done for years.
What exactly is going on at our two mega supermarkets?
Welcome to the 99 percent world of supermarket shopping with the remaining 1 percenters who favor local products, smaller stores or products that are sustainably produced. In Portland, traditional supermarkets no longer hold sway as your one-stop source. For basic items like paper towels, laundry detergent and canned goods, supermarkets like Hannaford and Shaw’s are necessary evils, unless you’re a devout 1 percenter who only buys what’s “correct.”
Hannaford promotes itself as a mecca for local food. Other than the canopied counter in the produce section displaying a modicum of local provisions, it’s mere lip service as a source for local farm fresh.
I used to think, however, that Hannaford was a great store when I first moved here from New York. The produce was the best and freshest looking (and often still is). And at the time is was unique to see old-fashioned bottled milk — notably from Smiling Hill Farm — in a mainstream market.
The stronger Hannaford became, Shaw’s, its only big-box competitor, hit the skids with stores that were dowdy looking and whose vegetables weren’t pristinely on display but instead wrapped in plastic. Yet Shaw’s has been on a tear lately to spiff up its image and the difference is becoming noticeable. Their product lineup is much more diverse than at Hannaford, which sometimes discontinues brands or offers diminished stock without explanation. At Shaw’s they have all the basics in size and quantity. Their two special departments, Shop the World and Wild Harvest, are in boutique-style settings and have some interesting foodstuffs worth checking out.
Though out of habit I go to the Forest Avenue Hannaford for basic groceries, increasingly I often don’t find what I need. A case in point was Carbona Stain Devils — hardly an everyday product — a costly cleaning solution that removes stains left by blood, gum, tea, chocolate, etc. from clothing. It was always displayed in its own section at the end of the detergent aisle until one day it was gone. Upon inquiry I was told that they stopped carrying it. I went to Shaw’s at the Westgate Plaza off outer Congress and found it there.
Then there was, for me, the Rose’s Lime Juice debacle. This is the essential ingredient for my favorite cocktail, the gimlet. It’s a nasty, high-fructose syrup that would be more sensible to avoid. Whole Foods does not carry it because it’s not a natural product. Still its sweet-tart flavors are what makes the drink. The store was out of it for months, saying that their supplier was having trouble getting it. Other sources like Shaw’s and RSVP liquors had it in ready supply during Hannaford’s meltdown. Other examples at Hannaford abound of discontinued stock or sparse inventory of basic products.
Perhaps the final blow to shopping at supermarkets more regularly occurred during the pink slime scandal, the icky ingredient that was the subject of an ABC news investigation in 2012. Pink slime in ground beef is made by putting meat scraps into a kind of centrifuge machine that separates the lean trimmings from the fat which is then treated with ammonia to kill bacteria. This is used as filler in ground beef and produced by various national suppliers who sell it to supermarket chains. Both Hannaford and Shaw’s sell it in packages of ground beef that’s labeled 85 percent lean (or higher). Conversely, fattier ground beef labeled 80 percent or under is ground at the store from beef trimmings — and is the more palatable product if you don’t mind the extra fat.
Of course with so many other, better choices like Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and the new Portland Food Co-op for groceries and fresh food, we have alternatives. Whole Foods has the reputation of being expensive, but that’s not always so. Buy their store brand 365 products and you’re on a par or better with supermarket pricing. Their house brands, for instance, of cream cheese, extra virgin olive oil, conventional butter, to name a few, are better priced than either Shaw’s or Hannaford. But there are lots of temptations at Whole Foods that push the cost of the average shopping spree (when you intend to go just for essentials) sky high.
Perhaps my dissatisfaction with the city’s supermarkets was merely lifestyle and location issues. The Hannaford on Forest Avenue is bursting at the seams with the quintessence of inner-city shoppers. Whole Foods— with its million dollar days — and to a lesser extent Trader Joe’s, cater to the cream of the crop.
So last weekend I decided to check out Hannaford and Shaw’s in their respective suburban settings at Yarmouth and Falmouth (on Route 1) to see how these differed from their urban counterparts.
As for shopping ambiance, it was a novelty to hear crying or fussing babies in the aisles with soccer moms and dads pushing wagons instead of the vicissitudes of urban sturm and drang. Product or lack thereof, however, mirrored the Portland stores. Still it’s very pleasant to shop there.
At Shaw’s, frequented by Foreside shoppers, the store is on a par with Hannaford if not marginally better in terms of products available.
Shaw’s international foods aisles — Shop the World— were pretty compelling with items not generally found elsewhere: From English kippers to Lidia Bastianich pasta products to Chanukah candles and Wolff’s kasha to name a few. And the natural foods section, Wild Harvest, has its own department too, unlike the confusing array at Hannaford’s where it’s all displayed together after a store-wide reorganization that put natural products next to conventional foods.
As shoppers we have the freedom to go where we want and we usually chose the most convenient place. I’m the type, however, who makes food shopping an expedition beyond necessities. From farmer’s markets to specialty shops these excursions are fulfilling even if it’s merely for the mundane, the exotic or the fixings for a good cocktail to enjoy at the end of the day.