Shopping Around

We rated 5 fancy markets on everything from takeout food to customer service

October 03, 2007|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,Sun Reporter

Not so long ago, going to the supermarket was a pretty pedestrian act -- you stocked up on necessities and got out as fast as possible. Now we want to know: Is there local produce? Gluten-free cereal? A beautiful dinner we can heat, but not cook?

Upscale supermarkets are growing to meet our demands. In the Baltimore area, the latest comer is Fresh Market, which opened in July at the Shops at Quarry Lake. Its arrival led us to investigate what the premium market had to offer, and we checked out four competitors in the northern area of Baltimore -- Eddie's of Roland Park; Graul's in Ruxton; Wegmans and Whole Foods. (We left out chains such as Giant and Super Fresh, which have been developing more upscale offerings but still operate as conventional supermarkets.)

Our testers, Tracey Logsdon and Joannah Hill, visited each store twice -- once on a weekday and once on a weekend. They found some good things (a lot of helpful service and interesting food) and some bad things (crowds, disappointing taste tests).

Mostly, they were struck by the fact that while all of these markets are courting the consumer with upscale tastes and discretionary dollars, each has a distinct identity that a shopper might love -- or not.

RATING KEY

**** Outstanding

*** Good

** Fair or uneven

* Poor

EDDIE'S OF ROLAND PARK

THE PLACE AND THE PEOPLE

The employees here are so attentive -- from greeting you at the door to loading your groceries onto the conveyor belt -- that some find it jarring. The aisles are easy to navigate and hold a nice selection of local goods, like Zeke's Coffee, and gourmet surprises, like honey from the Savannah Bee Co.

RATING *** 1/2

WOW FACTOR

Whether we're entertaining or just picking up a family meal, Eddie's gets our vote as the place to take dinner out. You can count on the market's standbys for a basic meal, and the size of the store is manageable enough that you can get the food home fast.

LET'S EAT NOW

Even though it can be predictable, we love the reliable Baltimore-style fare here, including a tasty shrimp salad and the best crab cake of all the stores we reviewed.

RATING ****

THE FRESH MARKET

THE PLACE AND THE PEOPLE

The Fresh Market aims for Old World charm. Its open design makes it easy to get around, and the employees couldn't be nicer. Favorite finds: the cubbies filled with envelopes of fresh spices and the "ripening bags" by the stone fruit.

RATING ****

WOW FACTOR

The people on duty make the difference here. Employees went the extra mile with samples, suggestions for what to drink with the Mimolette cheese and tips on how to prepare seafood.

LET'S EAT NOW

The rotisserie counter and heaping platters of ribs, chicken, turkey and crown pork roast smell good, but there's not much else to take home for dinner.

RATING **1/2

GRAUL'S MARKET

WOW FACTOR

This is the place where everybody knows your name. With fun events like cookouts in the parking lot, Graul's has the personality of an old-fashioned neighborhood store.

THE PLACE AND THE PEOPLE

The store can feel a bit cramped, especially when customers stop in the aisles to chat. Employees are welcoming and knowledgeable. The small cheese counter has burrata flown in fresh every Friday.

RATING ***

LET'S EAT NOW

You can get a square meal here, but the real draw is the birthday cake with buttercream frosting, a tradition for many families.

RATING ***

WEGMANS

THE PLACE AND THE PEOPLE

A store this big can be hard to navigate, and the crowds make it worse. But the employees, who know what to do with exotic items like tamarind and rambutan, are a silver lining.

RATING ** 1/2

WOW FACTOR

From diapers to dolmades, this is the place for one-stop shopping -- and the competitive prices on many basics ease the sticker shock of the fancier foods.

LET'S EAT NOW

One person wants vegetarian, another wants meat and potatoes and yet another wants Chinese food? Anything you're craving is probably here at the prepared-food emporium. There's a large eat-in area on the mezzanine.

RATING ****

WHOLE FOODS MARKET

THE PLACE AND THE PEOPLE

Starting with the narrow entryway and the often-crowded produce section, it can be hard to maneuver around this store. We found good help from employees at the seafood counter, but the butcher was missing in action. Cool find: organic baby clothes.

RATING **

WOW FACTOR

This store had more organic produce than any other we visited, along with local produce, cage-free eggs and lots of information on the origins of the food. You also can find tools for environmentally correct cleaning and a wide range of organic personal-care products.

LET'S EAT NOW

The prepared-food case usually has adventurous fare, such as a pomegranate-glazed turkey breast and vegetarian chopped "liver," and the cheese selection is great. For dessert, we'll have the rich Chocolate Velvet Boule, but you can find vegan apple pies, too.

RATING ***1/2

ONLINE Read shoppers' comments about what they like and dislike about these markets -- and post your own -- at baltimoresun.com / market

MARKET RESEARCH

EDDIE'S OF ROLAND PARK

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