Kitchen Intuition: Chattanooga grocery store smackdown

Authored By aliceodea

Since the very beginning of this column, I’ve maintained that while eating out is enjoyable on occasion, cooking at home is crucial to healthy living. This past week, Jay McKenzie wrote about his plans to spend the entire month of February cooking and eating at home and encouraged his readers to join in the fun, either a lot or a little. So, in the hopes that there are people out there who are just getting started with home cooking, I thought I’d take a look at our city’s grocery store landscape and see how they stack up against each other.

This is the first time I’ve attempted such a thing, and while I had a lot of fun with it, I think it might take a few tries before I get all the bugs out. This was all done by a team of one, and while I did my best to be accurate, I’m quite sure my reporting is not going to be perfect and apologize ahead of time for any errors. It was just me, paper, a pencil and a calculator.

I started out with 10 stores and 20 items (which I picked semi-randomly from my column about a well-stocked kitchen). I visited each of the stores this past week, on Tuesday and Wednesday, and checked the prices for each item. It’s possible I missed something if it wasn’t where I expected it to be (if there was a special on an end cap, I was probably oblivious). If something came in a container, I looked for a normal size-no buying in bulk to get a lower price. And if the item was on sale or discounted because of an affinity card, I used the lower price. I then adjusted the prices as needed (proportionally) to compare equal amounts for each item.

I visited 10 different stores, but only seven made it into the graphic because a few didn’t have enough of the items to paint a complete picture. I’ll try to adjust next time I do this and choose items that even the independent folks might carry.

Each of the markets that didn’t make the cut had compelling reasons to visit. India Bazar on Lee Highway is the place to go for spices. They had, by far, the lowest total price for the three that I checked: ground cumin, ground turmeric and chili powder. Carniceria Loa at Broad and Main streets had the lowest prices for lentils, apples, lemon juice and olive oil. And Buehler’s Market had, by a long shot, the cheapest sweet potatoes and whole canned tomatoes with no added salt.

The items that made the cut ended up being organic apples (1 lb.), sweet potatoes (1 lb.), lentils (1 lb.), shredded parmesan cheese (1 lb.), peanut butter with no added sugar (1 lb.), lemon juice (1 lb.), balsamic vinegar (16.9 oz.), extra virgin olive oil (1 lb.), ground cumin (1 oz.), and chili powder (1 oz).

The stores and their total cost (without tax) were the Brainerd Road Aldi ($21.60), the Walmart Neighborhood Market that just opened on Shallowford ($26.14), the Lee Highway Food City ($30.50), Publix ($31.94), Whole Foods ($40.53), Fresh Market ($46.40), and Earth Fare ($47.81).

Also, keep in mind that price isn’t the only consideration. You might want all organic, may not want to have to make more than one stop, or you might prefer a small shop that you can get in and out of quickly. Even with what I found on this excursion, my personal favorite is one of the stores in the middle of this field.

I recognize that this was in some ways a largely capricious exercise. I’ll look forward to trying this again, not only because I had some fun with it, but also because I realize the results might be quite different next time, depending on what items I choose and where the prices might land on the day when I happen to show up (half of the items I had on my list this time didn’t make the cut because not enough stores had them in stock).

Another product that didn’t make it to the chart is beer. It was one of the items on my list, and I tried to choose something fairly mainstream-so that I’d be likely to find it everywhere-but not too common, because there’s no fun in that. I settled on an oatmeal porter; it’s winter, and I like dark, bitter beer at this time of year. It wasn’t available at every store I checked, but when it was, the price was always exactly the same: $8.99 for a six-pack at five different stores.

The one big surprise of this experience is that there was one item on my original list that I could find at only one of the stores: a healthy loaf of bread. When I came up with my 20 survey items, I set my standards before I started, for consistency’s sake. I was going for nutritious, non-toxic fare, so I looked for organic apples, peanut butter with no sugar added and bread that was made from whole grains with no added sweeteners. I looked at a lot of bread labels and was shocked to discover that none of the bread on the shelves of our grocery stores would qualify. Zero loaves. They all either used refined flour or added sweeteners, and many of them had many ingredients that I’d never be able to pronounce.

The one store that did have a healthy loaf of bread was Whole Foods, but it wasn’t on the shelf. You can buy a loaf of “organic whole wheat rustic bread” from their bakery for $4.50 and it contains just organic whole wheat flour, filtered water, salt, organic wheat gluten and yeast. Another option, of course, is to get your bread at a local bakery. Niedlov’s has a number of options that would qualify by my metric, including a three ingredient loaf (organic whole wheat flour, water, salt) and a light wheat that are $5.99 and $5.49, respectively (but often half price on the next day).

I hope this proves to be a helpful survey. I’ll definitely be doing this again, so post a comment or shoot me a message if you have any suggestions for the next round. In the meantime, go out and buy ingredients and then take them home and cook some food!

Alice O’Dea has lived in Chattanooga for over 20 years, but was raised among the mucks and dairy farms in rural western New York. She didn’t really learn to cook until midlife. When she’s not puttering around in the kitchen, she enjoys running, cycling, traveling, photography and trying to get food to grow in the backyard of her Highland Park home. You can email her with questions, suggestions or comments at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, or its employees.