Sunday, July 26, 2015


   In my idealist youth, I tried to help a family of Russian immigrants adjust to life in Chicago. Intending to show off the bounty in this great country of ours, I unthinkingly took this poor Igor to Cub Foods, a pioneering 24-hour-a-day mega warehouse supermarket.
     To my surprise, he froze on the threshold, and would not go in.
    "Is too much," he said.
     His frame of reference was whatever small, shabby, bare-shelved, white-tile Leningrad corner grocery he was used to, cuing up for hours to get his bunch of turnips and package of mystery meat wrapped in paper and twine. 
     But his words often come back to me, while navigating the profusion of food emporiums all around me: Sunset Foods and Jewel, Garden Fresh, Heinen's, Caputo Brothers, plus TWO Whole Foods and TWO Trader Joes.
     And those are just the ones my wife frequents. 
    Plus this place at the corner of Waukegan and Lake Cook, Fresh Thyme, which I had never noticed, but we popped in Saturday after walking at the Botanic Garden. The store was nearly deserted, even though it had a cheery, well-scrubbed, natural-goods purveyor vibe, sort of a Whole Foods without the hauteur. 
     Well, maybe a little hauteur. My attention was caught by this line of potato chips, "REAL SLICED POTATOES." My first thought was, "Aren't all potato chips 'real sliced potatoes?'" Except of course for Pringles, made of some kind of pre-digested potato mash. But Pringles are pretty much intended for toddlers, correct? 
      The Real Sliced Potatoes are sold by the Kettle brand, which also has regularly labeled potato chips, and, not wanting to delay the wife, I didn't have time to stop and try to figure out the difference, if any, but I imagine it's pretty much confined to nomenclature. 
     It does seem to point toward a new path of labeling products to mesh with the self-deceptive delusions of the consumer. Avoiding ice cream? Enjoy some "FROZEN COW NECTAR"? Trying not to eat bread? Try a "FARMLAND WHEAT SLICE."  
    Will people who are reluctant to pork out on potato chips happily dig their hands into bags of "Real Sliced Potatoes." Maybe.
     To me, it's a product without a market, making a distinction lost on the average customer.
     "Real Sliced Potatoes." Who will that fool? Who will be drawn in? These are customers, remember, who are already eating potato chips, their bar for healthfulness is already pretty low. "REAL SLICED POTATOES." The name's too generic. We could think of a better one right now, in a second. Mmmm ... "Genuine Spud Shavings."  "Authentic Tater Crisps."
      Being the guy who dismissed cell phones as a fad, I probably shouldn't mock any new product. And as for the superabundance of supermarkets, until a few go belly up, that's only good for customers. It means they're fighting for your business. I was ordering bologna (soon to be "HIGH PROTEIN ROUNDS") at the Jewel and the guy at the deli counter reached over and offered me a slice. Immediately I was back in Berea, Ohio, four years old, being handed a slice of bologna by the butcher in the Parkway Shops. I almost vowed on the spot to only shop at Jewel, in gratitude for my free bologna, even while musing on the fickle infidelity of customers. But the Sunset is really close to my house and, all things equal, I'm committed to trying to keep them afloat. 


  1. There is yet a new store at the corner of Willow and Sanders that would really get your Russian friend. Mariano's opened the end of June. We went and my husband decided the best prices on produce are at Joe Caputo's. We will see how it goes but I don't think you need to worry about Sunset!
    Margi Baron

  2. Thanks, Neil, for fighting the never-ending battle against marketing inanity.

  3. It looks nice, but probably limited quantity and expensive. I like one stop shopping. Mariano's isn't that high and Jewel has a good deli too. Caputo's is great but not always nearby. Their produce is superb. Fresh figs are a treat and hard to come by. I recall Cub foods. Don't like that warehouse look like that junky Food for Less. Ultra is so so. I miss some Dominick's delicacies.

    Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, no thanks.

    1. Meijer's is pretty good.

      Stay away from bologna, it's bad for you, try some flavored turkey breasts in the deli instead.

    2. Yes, some of those items are just fancy words for a similar product, with a mark up.

    3. I write for a grocery industry trade mag and shopped Mariano's and Jewel in connection with an article. To my surprise, for a basket of 23 items across five categories, Mariano's came in 15 percent cheaper than Jewel. I'd shop there all the time if there were one near my house.

    4. Yes, Jewel can be high, but there are more of them so conveniently located.

  4. That pic reminds me of the Fruitful Yield store but FY has even less in it. And sometimes one wants to by more than groceries alone in those stores.

  5. Good story and so true about what Russian consumers were used to.

  6. A coworker shared a similar story years ago. Her Ukrainian parents lived here since the early '50's. The mom's brother arrived in the early 90's for a visit. Without thinking, she suggested they head to Jewel and go shopping for the week. He broke down sobbing in the produce department.

    1. That was a scene from "Moscow on the Hudson," in which Robin Williams played a Soviet musician who defects to the U.S. He has a panic attack after being confronted with endless choices in the supermarket's coffee aisle and winds up in the emergency room (under the sympathetic care of a West Asian resident who recounts a similar experience).

  7. Evidently, even the company has realized that's a dumb name. They've switched to calling them "BAKED potato chips." But the point they were trying to convey was that many other companies' baked potato chips, a relatively recent fad, aren't actual chips of potatoes, but are made more like Pringles, it would seem. Lay's Baked are called "crisps" for this reason, I suppose. And "baked" are supposed to appeal to those who think "fried", the regular process, are less healthy, I think. As you note, NS, once one is buying chips, it seems safe to assume that health-consciousness is not the top priority!

    From the Kettle website:

    "Kettle Brand Baked potato chips are made from REAL sliced potatoes, unlike many other baked chips you've tried."

    "Don't recognize the packaging? Not to worry! These are the same great tasting chips previously sold under our 'Real Sliced Potatoes' product line."

    The "real" in the first sentence still seems odd to me. It makes it sound like the others are using artificial potatoes.

    There are now 3 Mariano's within a reasonable distance for us. Though I don't think they offer as good a selection of store-brand stuff, they've certainly cut into the amount of money we spend at the Jewel. I gotta say, the expansion to so many stores in the city has made the original one we went to a lot less crowded.

    1. The food industry is now on a major kick about "real," "fresh," "natural," etc. Those are the big buzzwords, applied to just about everything.

      Last week I had a frozen pizza for dinner. Across the carton were emblazoned the words "All Natural." Now, as frozen pizzas go, it was perfectly good--no complaints. But "All Natural"? Come on. What, did Farmer John pick it off the pizza tree?

    2. They probably mean no preservatives added.

  8. It's probably still true that American supermarkets can seem intimidating to some foreigners, but their "superabundance" is in part illusory, a function of American marketing practices. Supermarkets in small Italian towns we visit, most of them part of a chain called COOP, are crammed into the kind of minimal structures that fit into the, mostly ancient, townscapes. But they stock an ample range of goods, just not in overabundant quantities. Also, the packaging tends to be sized to accommodate the more limited shelf space.

    Grocery marketing in America places a large premium on "point of sale" advertising, which translates into big packages filling as much shelf space as possible.

    In our part of the woods, Garden Fresh is probably best for economical shopping, but the Mariano's that opened a year ago has a better deli, a fine selection of cheeses, foreign and domestic, and is a good place for a quick lunch. Trading on their heritage, they also sell gelato, but it is a pale reflection of that available in patria Italia.

    Tom Evans

  9. Here's my Sunset foods story and probably an indication as to why they survive despite sometimes higher prices. I went to the store and asked for a specific kind of salad dressing. The manager told me he thought they were out but would take a look in the back. He came back a few minutes later and said he couldn't find anything but he'd be sure to order more soon. I then proceeded to check out and drive through the pick up line. As I did he came running out with a bottle of the dressing in his hand. I told him that was OK I didn't feel like going back into the store to pay. He said "no sorry I couldn't find it sooner it's on the house!" And that is what the of service the causes Sunset to survive


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