I’m pausing on recipes to talk a bit about how we shop for food. Between big box American grocery stores to market squares in France and Mexico, to the tiniest of farm stands in the hills of Vermont, I’ve lived and, quite frankly, fallen in love with all the ways we shop for good food.
This love has blossomed into a mission — gosh, a duty — to figure out a way to get only the very best foods into everyone on the regular. I guess that’s why I’m working my little heart out to open a permanent Eat Boutique space, to provide a new way to shop for the very best foods. While this is still in progress, I stay motivated each and every time I walk into a big box grocery store because, sheesh, they let me down big-time.
But before we go too far, I want you to know that this post isn’t about me.
It’s about you.
During the dozens of pop-up food markets I’ve hosted, you’ve sought me out in person — to talk about shopping for really good, organic, small business food. You’ve filled in surveys, telling me what works and what needs work. You’ve asked me to open a boutique somewhere near you, whether you’re in the city or the suburbs. And we’ve gabbed a lot about how big box grocery lets you down. Yeah, me too.
I don’t remember a time when big box grocery was the place I wanted to be all the time. In fact, I want in and out as fast as possible because the lighting is awful; the staff don’t always have a bunch of whole food knowledge; and the products are just not what I want in my life every day. You’re way more likely to find me at a farmers market than a big box grocery store — and I’m pretty sure I’d bump into you there, too, right? Right.
But I’m a realist, too.
I can’t go to farmers markets every week and I know you can’t, too. I know that, for some of you, your only option is to shop at a big box grocery store. I get it.
Because of that, I want you to know what I’ve learned about big box grocery stories. And then I want to ask you how we can make it better. (You can skip directly to the survey too.) And then I want to share a few ways to make it better immediately, like stat.
Please stick around for this because once you tell me how we can make it better, I’ll share my secret tips for food shopping success, wherever you may live. Because summer is still many moons away and we’ve got to brave the fluorescent lights a bit longer. <insert sad face here>
Five Behind-The-Curtain Insights From Big Box Grocery Stores
1. Big box grocery makes its money from big packaged food companies.
The margins around selling food are tiny. That means, a big-box grocery store doesn’t make a ton on actually selling you food. This is because you, me, and everyone we know find it troubling to pay what food is actually worth. We’ve become so accustomed to paying low prices for food that big box grocery can’t make enough by just selling good food.
To make up for those lost profits, big box grocery began selling prime shelf space. This is a problem for you and me because prime shelf space isn’t allocated to the very best food consistently. In fact, it goes to the food companies who can afford that shelf space and, let’s be real, that’s typically big packaged food companies (like Nestle, General Mills, and Kraft Heinz.)
2. Many food products at eye-level pay big bucks to be there.
Since big packaged food companies pay for prime shelf space, they stock those shelves with the packaged food that will make the most money for them and that have the longest shelf life (sometimes using unnatural preservatives). They’re not thinking about whether the packaged food is actually good for you or even important to you.
The thing that happens is, food that you may not even want to buy becomes way more attractive at eye-level (because no bending down or reaching high up). Consequently, you, me, and everyone we know starts to buy the food at eye-level and creates an inflated notion that we actually want that food. And, unfortunately, the good for you stuff isn’t always at eye-level. <insert sad face here>
3. The good-for-you food is hard to find.
Produce is offered at waist- and eye-level in most big box grocery stores. This is pretty cool. But many of the other more wholesome and natural foods like unprocessed nuts, seeds, whole grains, canned veg, and all the “organic” foods are often on lower shelves or in out of the way aisles.
Sometimes, the good for you foods are even relegated to an aisle full of odds and ends, and no one likes to purchase food products from the random aisle. Well, I do and you do now, because we know their game — but the regular consumer prefers to purchase from a full aisle of like items at eye-level.
4. Big box grocery stores are designed to keep you shopping.
You see, big box grocery has spent millions of dollars researching the best ways to get you to give them all your money. Just like how Las Vegas casinos are optimized to keep you pulling that slot machine handle, big box grocery stores are made for you to keep filling up your cart.
Big box grocery offers super tall aisles that tower over you and zero windows (except for the storefront). The aisles keep you from being distracted by what’s happening elsewhere. And if you can’t see out a window, then maybe you won’t leave. Big box grocery wants you focused on filling up your shopping cart.
Do all of these insights make you sad? They make me sad, too.
5. Bargain basement price tags on food is the real problem.
Bargain basement price tags on food started all of the problems. And I need to tell you the truth here: I’ve come to terms with the fact that you and me cannot pay bargain basement prices for high quality food forever. For real.
We benefit in the moment but the farmers and makers of that high quality food suffer — they have to work twice as hard, make a lot less money, and maintain a quality of life that’s not possible long-term.
The thing is, if we lose all the smaller farmers and makers, we lose a lot of the high quality food. We end up buying packaged food and we all know that’s not the healthiest choice for our bodies or our families.
I don’t know about you, but I prefer no chemicals in my foods. I prefer to support people who make a living wage. I prefer to a pay a little bit more now to ensure I get all the good foods into me, always.
I want to create something different.
I want to create an open, convivial space filled with local and organic ingredients, culinary knowledge, and real food community — the sort that makes a place you want to be all the time. Well, not all the time, but you know what I mean.
I’d really like to get your opinion on how you shop for food today. In an ideal world, I’d call each and every one of you on the phone for a quick chat. But we can do this all online too. Would you mind sharing your opinion in my quick online survey? I’d be very grateful.
After you fill in the survey, I’ll email you a list of Five Ways to Shop for Food with Success to help you get through big box grocery shopping. That is, until you can visit me someday. I hope you do!
Eat Boutique is an award-winning shop and story-driven recipe site created by Maggie Battista. After hosting pop-up markets for 25,000+ guests, Maggie is now focused on opening her first permanent Eat Boutique–a food-retail concept space with a new way to the very best food. Her second cookbook, A New Way to Food: Recipes That Revamped My Pantry & Made Me Love Me, At Last, will be published by Roost Books/Penguin Random House in 2019. Her first cookbook, Food Gift Love, features more than 100 food gift recipes to make, wrap, and share and is available wherever you find favorite cookbooks.