Once upon a time, I'd buy groceries from anyone who would sell them. In college, we'd sometimes drive to the Market Basket in one of the hoodier parts of Somerville to save a few bucks on the total bill. Otherwise we'd hit the nearby Star Market -- not exactly regal, but at least it was clean. The times, they have changed.
I went into Ralph's last night to buy some mojito supplies and, frankly, I felt a little dirty about the whole thing. Mind you, that place is cleaner than a hundred Star Markets put together, about as nice as a giant soulless supermarket can be, but it's got so much wrong with it that I don't even know where to start. Do they think the stuff they're selling is good? Could any of the people working there actually tell you which brand/type of Product X is the best for what you plan to use it for? Ah, what silly questions. You can't hold Ralph's up to that kind of standard. C'mon, they don't have a single bottle of olive oil selling for more than $10.
But Ralph's isn't in the running anyway. The smackdown in question is between Trader Joe's and Whole Foods, both worthy contenders in the arena of places actually worth buying food from. I might as well say right now that I can't really declare a winner. At this point, if either one of them dropped off the face of the earth, I'd probably drop with it.
In this corner, Trader Joe's, with about 200 stores -- approximately 190 of them in greater Los Angeles. I'm not even kidding -- if you stood on my balcony and swung around a 2-mile long bat, you'd hit no fewer than three. Anyway, TJ's kicks some serious ass when it comes to bang-for-the-buck. They're very committed to not letting you go broke, which is why they usually only sell one moderately-priced brand of everything (generally their own brand). You can pop in there, buy all your stuff with the confidence that none of it is crap, and pop out having spent less or the same than at Ralph's or Albertson's or any of those other evil empires. Then there's the shopping experience, which they manage to make enjoyable but not in that try-hard commercialized kind of way. The chalkboards with their little pitches about why you should buy this kind of beer for your 4th of July cookout, and so forth, are pretty infectious. At mine, they even have jokes and quotes and stuff written in front of the checkout lines so you have something to amuse you while you're standing in line. Where they kind of suck, and I don't feel disloyal in saying this because it's the truth and they probabyl know it, is in fresh produce. Sure, they have it, and what they have is good, and they bother to tell you where it's grown and whether it's organic. But they don't have as much as they should, and they don't sell anything loose -- you have to buy it in a package or box or bag with more of the same thing. If you want one red onion, sorry, you're getting 5. Come in for two avocados for guacamole and you end up with double that amount, and you know those other two are ending up mush before you can figure out what to do with them.
And, in the blue corner, Whole Foods, with around 175 stores in America and the UK. Unlike Trader Joe's, Whole Foods will happily steer you towards spending your every last dollar, then selling your mom's antiques to pay the rest of the bill. Yep, you have to be careful there. Nonetheless, if you like to cook (even if you're as much of a novice as I am), the place is your absolute fucking mecca. To paraphrase Trent in Swingers, the hottest 1% of foods from all over the world come to Whole Foods' gene pool. Their produce is fucking great and you can get as much or as little as you want. And they have everything -- all that stuff you thought only came dried in little spice rack jars, they have nice fresh bundles of. In a lot of cases you can even choose between organic and non-organic versions of the same thing. Basically, they exist to indulge every possible cooking fetish a person could have. If you're only willing to use unfiltered olive oil harvested from a town in Italy where the grass grows upside-down, you can either get some serious therapy, or buy said oil from Whole Foods -- and actually buying it is probably cheaper, though only by a small margin. Then there's the samples. Trader Joe's tends to be pretty consistent with them, offering 1 or 2 things regularly, but on a good day Whole Foods can have as many as a dozen throughout the store. Free lunch! (Then, when you buy all the stuff you just tasted, free second mortgage!) Also, let's not forget all those little extras like the cheese shop, salad bar, catering service, bakery, and so forth. All awesome, but every one of them a little cash vacuum waiting to lock onto you.
Oh, and one last thing -- apparently they're opening a 75,000 square foot Whole Foods in London in 2007. No, I don't think you appreciate how insane that is. The Santa Monica Whole Foods is about 27,000 square feet and, I kid you not, it is already approximately the size of Missouri. The salad bar alone has 3 congressional representatives. And they're going to build something almost 3 times the size of it? WTF? You just know they'll have an entire aisle dedicated to, like, marjoram. So on an unrelated note, who wants to plan a trip to London for 2 years from now?