Here’s How Utah’s Grocery Stores Stack Up
When I lived in Pennsylvania, I was something of a gourmand. I had a close kinship with an Amish family who supplied me with raw milk and I used that ivory creme to make my own butter and curdle my own yogurt. On the weekends I baked baguettes scored with my own butter and I purchased obscure meats from the butcher for Sunday dinner. Once I stuffed a partridge with raisins and risotto only to have none of my guests wish to partake in the feast.
Unfortunately, I also had a series of progressively worsening digestive ailments no doctors were able to pin-point. After a last-ditch visit to a specialist, I discovered intolerances to gluten, dairy, and eggs, effectively nixing every food I had thus far cooked and enjoyed. Though my stomach has since recovered, my love of food, sadly, has not. Since then I’ve largely subsisted off easy-to-make, not altogether satisfying meals, and much of my epicurean nature has been sacrificed in favor of ease.
That’s why this year, after five years of living in Salt Lake City, I decided once and for all to figure out this city’s grocery game with the intention of reducing my overall food budget, making my experience in the kitchen easier on myself, and reviving my affection for the finer things in life.
Utah plays host to several grocery companies, including local favorite Harmons, and its fiercest competitor Smith’s Food and Drug, a subsidiary of Kroger. Both companies are headquartered in Utah and make a play for our daily food dollars.
They are joined, however, by national contenders such as Trader Joe’s, Costco, Sprouts, Natural Grocer, and Whole Foods, not to mention a number of neighborhood delicatessens: Liberty Heights Fresh, Caputos, Beltex Meats, Aquarius Fish Market, and The Store whose new Gateway installation has made me and all my coworkers lunchtime devotees.
How so many food shops survive within a few square blocks from one another is a testament to our complete disloyalty to them. According to the 2019 edition of US Grocery Shopper Trends, the average grocery shopper shops at 4.4 different locations throughout the month with younger shoppers venturing out even more. Millennial shoppers visit five different grocery stores in a month, and generation-z shoppers visit 6.2.
As the report further suggests: shoppers don’t care where they shop, they’re just looking for one of three things: the cheapest option ($1 avocados!), the easiest option (drive-through or delivery, please!), or a specialty item (oysters from the coast of Brittany, kind sir?). Here’s how Utah’s contenders are doing just that.
The most economical
My food budget has gotten completely out of control as of late. That’s why one of my goals for the new year was to finally figure out once and for all which grocery stores in Salt Lake City had the cheapest options. Naturally, I made a spreadsheet detailing my most commonly purchased items, and how they compare price-wise at each competing market (which you can find below).
I should note that quality remains very important to me, and I didn’t want, in pursuing price, to sacrifice taste, flavor, or health. So I set a few parameters for my spreadsheet: all food would be organic, all eggs would be free-range, all Salmon would be wild-caught Alaskan, and all beef would be grass-fed. That way, even if I’m looking for the cheapest option, I can trust it’s still a quality option.
Here’s what I discovered:
Overall, Costco, Trader Joe’s, and Natural Grocer can’t be beat when it comes to natural foods―until you head into the center aisle packaged goods, where Natural Grocer falls off. Whole Foods is frequently the second least expensive option, with Smith’s, Harmon’s, and Sprouts trailing behind as the more expensive options.
It’s worth noting that when it comes to non-natural foods, the results may skew entirely differently. Smith’s is frequently quoted as one of the state’s cheapest options, and Harmon’s has developed a program designed to contest that. Their “pricing surveyor” technology regularly checks 200 items against Smith’s to ensure they are competitive in the market.
As of this writing, 16 of those items were higher-priced at Harmon’s, 22 were lower-priced at Harmon’s, and the rest were matched in price. As their PR firm told me: “Harmons verifies the prices on those items and makes adjustments to be sure we are priced right for the market.”
The most convenient
I’ll admit, sometimes I just don’t want to go to Costco or Trader Joe’s. They may be the most economical options, but everyone in the state knows it. Aisles are overcrowded with carts and kids, and after-work hours are absolute mayhem. On my most recent excursion to Trader Joe’s, a man cursed me out for five minutes while I tried (unsuccessfully) to make a right turn out of the parking lot.
Perhaps that’s why 32 percent of shoppers get at least some of their groceries online, and Harmon’s, Smiths, and Whole Foods all offer this option. Instacart, a national grocery delivery company also extends delivery access to Costco, Sprouts, and Natural Grocer. Here’s how they stack up:
Amazon changed the nature of grocery shopping when they purchased Whole Foods in 2017, subsequently slashing prices and upping the ante on grocery delivery. Now they’re betting big on convenience opening the first of many (non-Whole Foods) grocery stores in Woodland Hills, California which will function more like their distribution centers than a grocery store, allowing customers to shop via app and pick-up in-person.
I’m a believer. Already a Prime member for their very convenient “everything store,” I take full advantage of free pick-up. As an Amazon credit cardholder, I also get 5 percent off every purchase and 10 percent off sale items, so often―despite the price of my annual membership―my pick-up-on-the-way-home-from-work grocery order is just as cheap there as their less convenient competitors. Or perhaps I’m just rationalizing it that way…
The most artisanal
“When Amazon bought Whole Foods, everybody just thought ‘well, this is it for all brick-and-mortar retail.’ In actuality, it’s been a wonderful opportunity.”
That’s Yelena Caputo who, with her husband Matt Caputo own Caputo’s Gourmet Food Market. What started as a small refrigerated deli case when Matt’s parents immigrated from Italy and Greece, became five locations complete with cheese caves and wine and chocolate tasting classes. And despite the era of Amazon, their “slow food” movement isn’t slowing down.
“As they chase price and convenience, we will just continue to chase quality,” says Matt. “We continually find products that are more and more specialized. People are yearning for a connection to the land, a connection to our past, to traditional recipes… we have a lot of products you can’t get anywhere else.
Indeed, the delicatessens offer us something we can’t get at the big box stores. Olive oils imported from small Italian sellers, small batch bitters brewed in barrels. Or, if you’ve ever happened into Liberty Heights Fresh: the most perfect kumquat you’ve ever tasted. That attention to detail, to artisanal farmers and spiritually-minded goat herders, is something foreign countries have perfected long ago, but that America has only recently adopted. And it’s working.
Paving the way are a host of small businesses trying to keep that spirit alive. Beltex Meats, is a traditional European butcher wrapped up in a hipster vibe that sells pâtés and porchettas. Liberty Heights Fresh has weekly food boxes patrons can pick up filled with artisanal meats, cheeses, chocolates, or produce. And Aquarius Fish Market, which is attached to Caputo’s market downtown, sources seafoods and sashimis from around the world.
The boutique food market may be a little pricier for specialty items, but that’s not to say they can’t compete. Caputo’s takes care that the items they do share in common with local retailers share the same price. “Our customer base isn’t a bunch of rich folks that can just throw caution to the wind with regards to pricing,” Matt says. “The Caputos were an immigrant family… and that sort of frugality is something we never want to take for granted. We worked very, very hard throughout the years to work directly with producers so we’re able to compete.”
The best of both worlds
If old world delicatessens still have a place in brick-and-morter businesses, they have even more of an opportunity in the era of Amazon. Ruth Reichl, who was once a restaurant critic for The New York Times, now writes as a columnist for Town & Country where she extolls the virtues of online delicacies. Bleinham apricots from California, for instance, or inky pressed caviar that can be purchased for a fraction of the fresh stuff.
For those companies that specialize in slow food, the online market can be a great alternative to an in-person experience. Even Caputo’s has added an online outfit that has outperformed one of their five locations in just one year. “With our current trajectory,” Matt says, “in two years, online sales will overtake all of our retail locations combined.”
This is the best of both worlds for those producers who can find on the internet, an expanded market for a niche product. The London Tea Club, for instance, sources single-origin teas from small sustainable farms that might otherwise be too niche to sell on a local level, but are now able to sell to tea connoisseurs all around the world. Even once difficult-to-ship perishables have found a home on the interwebs. Real Oyster Cult stands out with a monthly membership for those inlanders who want a taste of the sea at home.
In the food industry, as they say, there’s a piece of the pie for everyone, but the slices are getting smaller and smaller as shoppers opt for not one, but every one of the options mentioned above. The food industry is no longer built on loyalty, but on price, convenience, artisanal offerings, and the ability to fill one of our many grocery needs.