The Supermarket As Restaurant

Market-prepared foods are giving restaurants a run for their money.


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At Whole Foods' prepared food counter, it's not cheap, but at least you don't have to cook.

Photo: Monte Costa

 

Outside the new Whole Foods in Kahala Mall, I ran into my friend, Kaui Philpotts.

Philpotts, a former Honolulu Advertiser food editor, has written half a dozen books, including Party Hawaii, Hawaiian Country Tables: Vintage Recipes for Today’s Cooks and the Great Chefs of Hawaii Cookbook.

She’s one of a handful of home cooks who are, essentially, professionals. She can cook rings around most people, including me. But as she surveyed the long lines in the Whole Foods prepared food department, she shrugged. “Nobody cooks any more,” she says. “At best, they sort of assemble dinner.”

Even her. “When I’m busy,” she admitted, “I’ll pick up one of those rotisserie chickens somewhere.”

I said I was equally guilty. “Why wouldn’t you?” she said. “They’re almost as cheap as an uncooked chicken and, hey, everyone is short on time.”

One of the country’s experts on food trends, a guy named Harry Balzer, puts it more bluntly. Says Balzer, a market researcher who has been proffering paid advice to food retailers for 25 years: “Consumers want the easiest meal possible. They want life to be as easy as possible. We are cheap and we’re lazy.”

Oh, Harry! We’ve got a lot to do, and, when evening rolls around, we’re hungry and tired. We want dinner instantly, and it’s always pleasant to be able to afford it.

Our first refuge from the home stove has been restaurants. The average American ate 207 restaurant meals in 2007, up from 168 meals in 1984. I did my share.

But every dollar spent in a restaurant is a dollar not spent in the supermarket, so supermarkets have struck back, plunging into the prepared foods business. There’s a Whole Foods in Manhattan that has seating for 200.

There are some hazards to this strategy. Markets need skilled personnel, “prepared food production workers” in supermarket speak, or, gasp, actual chefs. And if a market doesn’t come up with food that appeals to the customer, the profits go into the dumpster at the end of the day.

But there’s also a big plus. Getting you to fill a grocery cart is highly competitive—mainly on price.

Prepared food is much better for markets. The gross markup on traditional supermarket purchases is about 30 percent; the markup on prepared foods is twice that.

Still, supermarket prepared foods are cheaper than restaurant meals. While restaurant receipts have dipped 23 percent in 2008, according to the trade journal Supermarket News, prepared foods departments have held their own, dipping only 3 percent.

It’s not like me to buck a food trend. Right after talking to Philpotts, I decided to eat this month from the prepared food departments of various markets.

On the spot, I made some rough ground rules. No fried chicken under warming lights; it looks to me suspiciously uniform, as if the supermarket bought it factory prepared and dumped it into the fryer. No sandwiches. And I couldn’t do what I’d normally do when I was assembling dinner—buy cheese, bread, pâté, olives, green salad and wine.

No, I’d march bravely up to the glass-fronted chillers, the ones filled with dishes like chili-orange salmon, seared ahi and grilled asparagus. If, Mr. Market, you’re going to be a restaurant, let’s go head-to-head on the food.

Then I drove home and put it on plates for my family, just like I’d cooked it. Lazy, yeah?
 

Whole Foods Market
Kahala Mall  // 4211 Waialae Ave. // 738-0280  // Open daily 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. // www.wholefoodsmarket.com


Whole Foods overwhelmed me: hot food, cold food, Asian food, more salad bar than I could survey in a glance. All of it packed with customers.

Through patience, I got to the front of the prepared food line. Then I tried everyone else’s patience, ordering a dib of this and a dab of that, walking away with a stack of containers that cost me nearly $60.

To be fair, that included a pound of pepperoni pizza (who else sells pizza by the pound?), a mound of salad and a cupcake decorated with a frosting ladybug for my daughter’s dessert.

Carting home dinner in my green Whole Foods reusable shopping bag, I may have felt lazy. But I sure didn’t feel cheap.
 

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