To my readers in the Albany area, you all know the plight: the grocery store selection, frankly, sucks.

There have been numerous posts in Steve Barnes’ “Table Hopping” blog regarding the lack of good groceries in the area.

1. No Wegmans, due to a non-compete clause signed by both Wegmans and Golub, stating that Wegmans wouldn’t move further east than Syracuse, and Price Chopper wouldn’t move further west into Wegmans “territory.” It was the best deal Golub EVER made. 2. No Trader Joe’s for reasons somewhat inexplicable to the general populous. “According to market research, it’s not sustainable” – I’d like to see the stats to back this up, as I don’t really believe that.
3. No Whole Foods, and they’ve given no reason other than, “We are opening new stores all the time. You never know!” So, of the three, this is the only one worth holding out hope for, and that’s not making me very hopeful.

This leaves the average Albany-ite with Price Chopper or Hannaford, neither of which are stellar (to say the least), and both of which, of late, are quite pricey for below-par choices. Yes, I realize, there is the Honest Weight Food Co-op, and while I maintain there is NO better place to buy cheese or produce in the area, its the staples I have trouble with. Up until recently they were all vegetarian, and even now it’s a pain to even find organic beef or chicken stock there. You can buy meat, I’m told, but only on certain days and it’s VERY expensive. The milk is tasty, too, but also extremely expensive. I’ll give Price Chopper it’s due in that it has a handful of suburban grocery stores that are (relatively) above average – Latham and Slingerlands immediately come to mind – but when I live in Albany, the few that exist are impractical options, and the Price Choppers and Hannafords in the city, quite frankly, suck.

When I first read this article, I was a bit sickened. I really kind of hate Wal*Mart. I hate their business practices. I hate the way they treat their employees. I hate that they constantly pander to the lowest common denominator. And now, my city, will have the largest one in the country. *barf*

However, when my coworker spoke of her experience at the grand opening last weekend, I was intrigued. She told me how the organic section was “huge.” She said the produce was fresh. She said the overall selections of everything was well above the standard Price Chopper or Hannaford fare. And, above all, it was cheap. Like it or not, while it’s difficult to reconcile the many reasons WHY its cheap, these are belt-tightening economic times. And while I am fortunate to not only have a well-paid job, but one where I just got a significant raise, I don’t relish the idea of spending my discretionary income on ballooning food prices.

So, today after work, I decided to go see what all the hype was about. I pulled in on the Panera Bread side, thinking that was the only entrance. I knew that this was going to be in the “old” Sam’s Club, but this entrance is the one I’m comfortable with. I got a cart, and spanned the aisles. Hmmm … doesn’t really look so different from the “old” layout …

Then I saw them. Cart escalators, right next to human escalators, leading people into the grocery store below. The floor had a wide cutout, so I could see a decent span of the store, and it was looking mighty fine. I was shocked and awed. It was like the Suburban dream, folded out in front of me. Now, while most things suburban give me a twitch in my eye, this was one thing that I needed to see more of.

After getting over the initial shock, I inspected the joint. My coworker’s assessment of the organic section was a bit of an overstatement at best – however, while not “huge,” it was well-stocked with good stuff. And, priced within my budget. The produce looked decent. The meats looked fresh. The cheese section left a bit to be desired, but with the cheese mecca at the co-op, this wasn’t overly disappointing.

What made an impression was their abundance of “staples.” I got Haagan Daas for $2.74. I didn’t buy cereal, but my normally $4+ cereal was under $3. Simply Orange was the cheapest I’ve ever seen it, and milk was inexpensive. Also, in the makeup section, they sell L’Oreal Featherlash. They don’t sell Featherlash in any of the stores in the area, and haven’t for some time. I almost did a cartwheel.

So, once one gets over the ridiculous display (because, thinking back on it, it is pretty ridiculous. I mean, cart escalators? Is this The Jetsons?), the store in itself is above average, no more. However, above average still puts it MUCH higher than most of the other grocery options here. And, along with that, overall it’s cheaper than those options. So, am I going to go to the crappy, expensive store, or am I going to drive the extra 2 miles (if that) to a store that’s huge, clean, impressive, and inexpensive? I did, after all, shop there today.

Well, maybe. Can I reconcile this? Why does Wal*Mart have such low prices? Well, among other reasons, to put retailers out of business. Hmmm … considering Golub has made it impossible for Wegmans to come here, perhaps this doesn’t weigh too much on my conscience.