A guide to an alternate supermarket universe
By Zachary Barowitz
“Blessed are you who confuse ‘Consumerism’ with ‘Freedom,’ for you shall be delighted to discover the difference … Blessed are city neighborhoods that people have flown from in fear, for your children shall return to illuminate the dark economy.”
from “The Beatitudes of Buylessness,” by Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping
On our second date, in an attempt at bourgeois liberation, I took the woman who would one day be my ex-girlfriend to Save-A-Lot. I was trying to wean her off Wild Oats. Her dubiousness turned to disgust when she discovered an open box of cereal that had been resealed with packing tape. “But the bag probably isn’t damaged,” I parried.
Some months later, I thought I had another chance to convert her when a critter scuttled across our feet at the meat counter in Wild Oats. “A mouse?” the butcher said. “They’re all over the place here.”
To the end, however, neither of us would give in.
Shopping at Save-A-Lot is like a trip to an alternate supermarket universe, where the stock room is the sales floor and the products all look familiar, yet somehow different than the brands you know.
Cans are displayed in their custom-designed, perforated-front cartons on steel shelves or pallets—employees just rip off the front of the box to stock. This saves the labor cost of removing items from boxes. Further labor savings are realized by not “fronting” cans so customers see the faces of all the labels neatly arrayed. Instead, most product labels have two faces.
The produce section is small, limited and seasonal, though they do seem to consistently have tropical staples like mangos, papayas, plantain, and yucca.
The small store and lack of brand comparison make shopping at Save-A-Lot a pretty quick chore. The hundreds of house brands boost your morale—you don’t feel like you’re buying generic. As you walk through the aisles, you tend to stop noticing that these products are not major brands, but rather re-workings of those brands’ package designs, color schemes and fonts. One might even choose to stop and admire the award-winning graphic design on a box of Harris Farms instant mashed potatoes.
To the uninitiated, the checkout may take you aback. First off, there is no grocery bagger. Instead, the cashier leans back and insouciantly grabs an empty cart in which to deposit the scanned items. Payment is by cash or card—no checks. “Bagging,” so called, is done by the customer at a long table beyond the checkout.
Most customers eschew the plastic bags—those of the standard size (and, I learned, sub-standard strength) cost two cents; thicker, larger ones cost a dime each—in favor of the recycled (and recyclable) cardboard stock boxes provided for that purpose. There is usually some heavy brown paper around that blocks the gap left by the pull-away front pretty well.
As a grocery store, Save-A-Lot has a lot going for it. The items it carries are comparable in taste and quality to those you’ll find at Hannaford, Shaw’s, and even Whole Foods (see the graph on page 17). It’s a franchise, but individual stores are locally owned, and its business practices are more socially conscious and environmentally friendly than its chain-grocer competitors’. Most importantly, it generally has the lowest prices in town.
So why aren’t you shopping there? If it isn’t the food and it isn’t the prices or even the company’s relationship with Gaia, what’s keeping you away?
Save-A-Lot was founded in 1977 by grocer Bill Moran, who ran it on the dual premise that a.) Poor people buy food, and b.) There are not enough supermarkets in poor neighborhoods. The target customers are people who “either need or want to save money on their grocery bills”—44 percent of the population, by the company’s reckoning.
Save-A-Lot’s strategy is to open stores in sub-prime (low-rent) locations near high concentrations of low-to-middle-income families—underserved neighborhoods where other chains have pulled out in favor of sprawling suburbs with wealthier demographics.
In 1993, Save-A-Lot became a subsidiary of the supermarket conglomerate Supervalu (which also owns Shaw’s), though Moran stayed on as president and ceo until last year, and is still an advisor to the company. There are over 1,150 stores nationwide, most concentrated in Appalachia and around the Great Lakes, with a big cluster in Florida.
Save-A-Lot is what’s known in industry jargon as a “hard discounter,” or, in their own corporate terminology, an “extreme value, edited assortment” grocery chain. The company runs bare-bones, no-frills operations to keep prices low, and stocks only the most popular products (and sizes of those products), including over 400 different house brands.
The idea is to provide a decent standard of basic foods—as opposed to local, gourmet or artisanal offerings—cheaply. Save-A-Lot boasts that it can save you up to 40 percent on your grocery bill. Research for this article compared the unit price of 26 house and national brands of dairy products, canned goods, meat, produce, and frozen foods, and found Save-A-Lot to be 29 percent cheaper than Hannaford.
The company claims their house brands are as good or better than their competitors’. “We have buyers in the fields,” said John Hammontree, owner of the Save-A-Lot in Portland’s Union Station Plaza on St. John Street. “We only sell grade A vegetables in our canned goods—many supermarket house brands sell grade B.”
Hammontree was a marketing director for Supervalu before he decided to open his own Save-A-Lot in 2000. The city of Portland encouraged this by giving him a loan for the Union Station store. Hammontree also owns the Save-A-Lot in South Paris.
At an average of about 15,000 square feet, Save-A-Lot stores are much smaller than conventional supermarkets and miniscule compared to big-box retailers like Wal-Mart. The stores stock about 1,250 items (compared to 30,000 at a typical supermarket), which are all delivered on one truck from one of 16 national distribution centers (the Portland store is supplied out of Coxsackie, N.Y., a town south of Albany). “We have virtually no storage, so everything is out on the floor,” Hammontree told me.
Running smaller stores reduces overhead expenses: lower rent, lower heating and air conditioning costs, a smaller staff with flexible responsibilities. There are no labor- and equipment-intensive departments like pharmacies, floral departments, bakeries, or delis. Security costs are low. “We don’t sell liquor and cigarettes,” Hammontree said, “so there is nothing worth the risk of stealing.”
The “edited assortment” of products means that, for example, there are two brands of ketchup, two kinds of mustard, and one kind of mayonnaise—all available in just one size. “We keep it simple,” said Hammontree. “We don’t have sales or loss leaders [products priced extremely low to lure customers into the store in the expectation they’ll buy other, more expensive items]. Our prices are consistent and sometimes go down due to greater buying power.”
All this economizing (small stores, super-streamlined supply chain, urban locations) saves not only money, but energy, making Save-A-Lot a relatively “green” enterprise. On the other hand, the cost-cutting also extends to using non-union labor, though according to their Web site, Save-A-Lot has hired over 4,000 people formerly on public assistance.
Save-A-Lot carries the types of non-food items one expects to find at a conventional grocery store (dish soap, toilet paper, etc.), and these are generally of passable quality. When food shopping there, I usually stick to the basics, like pasta, meat, fresh and frozen vegetables, and canned goods from the large Goya section. Beyond the staples, Save-A-Lot sells a downright depressing assortment of canned, frozen, microwavable, nitrate-rich prison meats, and the kind of instant foods one expects to find on a hotplate in an SRO.
For this guide, I’ll mostly stick to the highlights.
The milk, apple juice, tomato-vegetable juice, olive oil, frozen beef liver ($.99/lb.), eggs and parmesan cheese are all fine, if unremarkable. Likewise, I’ve never been disappointed with the meats, though the fresh chicken legs lacked flavor, even for chicken. The pork is generally as good or better than my local butcher’s, and the turkey wings are quite good when boiled in a flavorful broth—e.g., soy sauce and Worcestershire, or Old Bay seasoning (which Save-A-Lot stocks, but I could not find at Wild Oats
I’m not sure how it made it onto the list of the 1,250 most popular items, but the Tropical brand frying cheese (just slice and fry, no need to bread it) was very good.
The Krrrrisp Kraut sauerkraut sold here is real sauerkraut, which means it is fermented, not pickled. Fermented foods preserve the vitamins and have health benefits similar to yogurt. According to the Weston A. Price Foundation, eating sauerkraut will cure acne.
I found a bottle of Autocrat coffee syrup—a rarity outside the Ocean State. In Rhode Island they drink coffee milk like people in other states drink chocolate milk. Apart from being sweetened by corn syrup, this stuff is good, especially when added to the end of the milk in the carton and shaken ’til frothy.
I compared Save-A-Lot chocolate syrup, cling peaches, Triscuit-style crackers, and cream cheese to well-known brands and detected no distinct difference, except in the case of the crackers, which were unpleasantly oily. Neither chocolate syrup was as tasty or flavorful as the coffee syrup.
The breads at Save-A-Lot are pretty mushy and corn-syrupy, but the English muffins are OK.
I once saw a classy-looking woman in one of those expensive quilted hunting coats stocking up on $.49 Banquet chicken pot-pies. Unfortunately, I found them to be a good source of
saturated fats and not much else—especially not chicken.
For some reason, Save-A-lot abandons its limited-selection strategy when it comes to smoked, cured, and nitrate-rich meats, offering many varieties of bacon, packaged cold cuts, kielbasa, and hot dogs. The best item among these is the 8 oz. package of Armour hard salami for $1.99, followed by the liverwurst ($1.50/1 lb. package), bacon, and salt pork.
The kielbasa was adequate when cooked, but not palatable out of the package like real kielbasa (any self-respecting kielbasa-eater will find their way to Medeo European Food & Deli, in Westbrook). About the best thing I could say about the sliced turkey breast is this: it was so salty that if I closed my eyes, I would have thought I was eating ham. This is not my favorite section, but the mixed meats and sauerkraut make a decent quick-and-dirty choucroute garnie.
I’m not a big wine drinker, but for $4 a bottle, the Corq Dorq, which comes in a choice of colors, is not bad. (The new $4 Summerfield wine at Whole Foods is better, if less distinctive.) The Crocodile Rock Aussie chardonnay tastes like someone dumped a cup of sugar into a bottle of bad wine.
Fish & Meat
Save-A-Lot has a large selection of frozen, uncooked/unbreaded fish fillets, including whiting, tilapia, salmon, orange roughy, ocean perch, and pollock. Nearly all of these are products of China. Aside from general concerns about the safety of food from the People’s Republic, the frozen fish is excellent, though I find the ocean perch somewhat bland. Save-A-Lot also has quarter-pound packages of Chilean salmon that’s smoked in the USA. The flavor is mild, and at $14/lb., the price is good, though I prefer the grab-bag of sinewy lox trimmings sold in other stores for $9/lb.
Save-A-Lot carries Mississippi catfish nuggets (fish pieces lightly battered and coated in corn flour) that are great fried, though I usually microwave or boil them. The frozen, pre-cooked shrimp, a product of Thailand, are decent.
In the freezer case, near the ice cream (which, along with the fudge bars, friends tell me is excellent), you’ll find ground turkey meat at $1/lb. in tubes similar to sausage casings. This is good for chili, Bolognese (especially with canned roast beef mashed in; more on that later), or as Thai meatballs with a can of red curry mixed into them.
Potato-and-cheese-filled pierogi (Polish dumplings) are the gateway item I use to convert friends to Save-A-Lot. The flavor is essentially potato; the cheese adds richness. I prefer boiling to frying. Add frozen peas (or shrimp or other vegetables) to the water and serve with a sauce containing one or all of the following: butter, olive oil, caramelized onions, anchovies, ricotta cheese, feta, and salami. At 18 pierogi for $1.20, this works out to about 40 cents for a meal-sized portion.
The cheese ravioli ($2/lb.) is of much the same quality and taste—just thicker and minus the potato filling.
The frozen burritos are not bad, but they benefit from being served enchilada-style. Whip up a sauce from canned tomatoes, canned chipotle peppers (available in the Goya section) and melted cheese.
Of the assortment of microwavable sandwiches, the White Castle hamburgers and Marketfare Deli Pride fish and breaded-chicken sandwiches are the most distinguished. (Avoid the composite substance called “Barbeque Rib.”)
Frozen veggies generally go for $1 per 1 lb. bag. All are good. The collard greens, pepper mix, and Asian vegetables (broccoli, peppers, water chestnuts, etc.) are my favorites. Try the collards mixed with caramelized onions and water-packed feta from Micucci’s.
The papayas, at $.89/lb., are of pretty consistent quality, but they can take up to two weeks to ripen—like many tropical fruits, they should be eaten only after they turn truly ugly.
The grapefruit, at $5/5 lb. bag, are also of consistently high quality, juicy and sweet. As with all citrus, find the heaviest ones.
Among the potatoes, both the super-enormous bakers and the Green Giant boilers with the red skin and yellow flesh ($3/5 lb. bag) are of above-average quality. The celery is good, as are the Hacky Sack–sized avocados. At press time, red peppers were at $1.59/lb.; they can go as low as $.79/lb.
A 14.5 oz. can of Diane’s Garden tomatoes ($.54/lb. unit price) is cheaper than the same size can at Hannaford, but Hannaford’s 28 oz. can was less by unit price (I did not compare quality). Buy the whole tomatoes, since the diced-with-peppers variety comes with added sugar.
Among the other canned goods, I usually stock up on sardines. Aside from being packed in soybean oil, these are about the best fish you can buy in terms of being cheap, sustainably harvested, high in Omega-3’s and, due to their small size, low in toxins. Serve on buttered toast or in a sandwich with cabbage, mayo, and vinegar-miso-molasses sauce.
A curious item is the canned roast beef (stew meat, really) in thick gravy. This is a product of Brazil. Although it can be used in a pinch for a quick stew, try mashing it up in a heavy skillet, then add canned tomatoes and tomato paste for “spaghetti and gravy.”
The canned octopus ($.99) is good and firm, and can be eaten as a salad with chopped celery, peppers and onions, or skewered on a toothpick with an olive, a pimento, a pickled carrot and a caper. By contrast, the canned smoked oysters are typically mushy.
At Save-A-Lot, you don’t pay extra for an attractive environment, attentive staff, or the convenience of one-stop shopping. That said, the lack of variety and specialty foods are drawbacks. Save-A-Lot works best as a complement to the offerings of local butchers, bakers, specialty and ethnic shops, and seasonal farmers’ markets—all of which have their own advantages over the large chains.
Other big grocers hype up their environmental credentials and worldliness (or, alternately, localness), but carbon atom for carbon atom, none are greener than Save-A-Lot. As for being worldly or local, consider that it’s not uncommon to find the Union Station Save-A-Lot entirely filled with customers from the neighborhood wearing native dress or speaking a foreign tongue. Seen that crowd at Whole Foods lately?
Though Save-A-Lot is firmly entrenched in the logic of capitalism and sits at the anus of the Big Food-chain, there is nevertheless hope for liberation within the system. To borrow from Marx:
The abolition of [the grocery shopping experience] as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.
In other words, eat a pierogi.