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Earth Fare challenging Whole Foods 

In my ideal world there would be an almost year-round farmers' market, with ample supplies of locally raised meats and produce. Not a fantastic fantasy; there are cities with climates much less congenial to long growing seasons than ours that achieve this fecund feat. In my actual, non-ideal, world, I am often at the grocery store, searching for good food that suits my equally non-ideal wallet.

For many years in the Triangle, one of the only places to live out my food fantasy was Whole Foods, formerly the locally owned Wellspring Grocery. If you wanted fresh, organic produce, free-range chicken, or meat that wasn't packed with antibiotics at a remotely reasonable price, it and Weaver Street Market in Chapel Hill were the only places to turn.

But now there's a choice--welcome to the Triangle, Earth Fare.

My problem is that I live in Durham and my branch of Whole Foods has become an upscale version of a ghetto market. Tired produce half the time, poor selection, collards from California, apples from New Zealand and peppers from Holland. A friend once got cucumbers so bitter they were inedible, and then customer service gave him a hard time when he asked for his money back. The tomatoes, often from Florida or California, are bland and half-ripe. The greens are pre-wilted in the case or have an hours-long half-life in your home, probably having to do with the days it takes to travel from a California field to a California warehouse and through the Whole Foods system.

It isn't like they can't do better. Their fish counter is excellent, often featuring fresh, seasonal specialties like live soft-shell crabs or wild salmon. Its grocery selection is excellent, as are its cheeses. For some reason, the produce at the Raleigh and Chapel Hill Whole Foods stores are better kept than in Durham. Maybe I'm just happening to hit the Raleigh and Chapel Hill stores when the produce is freshly laid out; maybe Durham's storage facilities are deficient; maybe those stores have first dibs from the central warehouse. I'll let them diagnose it and fix it. But the chain knows better--the New York City Whole Foods is another world of premiére dibs; you wouldn't think it was the same chain except for the logos.

So, wanting better, I schlep over to Weaver Street Market in Carrboro. It does much better on produce (actually carrying locally grown vegetables), is less expensive, particularly at the bulk bins, and has really good bread. But it is a schlep and, with the flowering of the Durham Farmers' Market, I no longer have the double-dipping rationale of the Carrboro Farmers' Market + Weaver Street to drag me to Carrboro twice a week.

But, here's the good (well, goodish) news. Earth Fare offers some real competition for Whole Foods. And, we're always being told by deregulators, libertarians and free-marketeers, competition is a good thing. (Why, just look at the airlines.) And, maybe in this case, it is. Two Earth Fare grocery stores have opened, one them about as near to me as a store can be and be in Chapel Hill; it's at the old A Southern Season location in Eastgate shopping center. The other, somewhat larger one is off U.S. 70 in the Brierdale Shopping Center.

Earth Fare is a small chain, based in Asheville, with 12 stores in North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia, that is pretty much aimed at the same demographic as Whole Foods.

Here's what I like about them so far: They make a greater effort to carry local and organic produce and meats, their prices are generally lower, and many of the products are better.

Whole Foods must be feeling the competitive heat, since they've recently ramped up a promotional campaign featuring products more local than New Zealand. Of course, the gold standard for actually buying a significant quantity of fresh local produce is Weaver Street Market, where sometimes the collards are actually from the South rather than from industrio-organic farms in California. That makes them better for eating, better for your health, and better for the planet.

I wanted to see if my first impressions could be borne out by some comparison shopping. So I made up a little shopping list that yielded the chart on the next page, based on a couple of shopping trips during one week. Some of it speaks for itself, but I have some comments about quality.

Chicken and bread dominate the quality differential. The Earth Fare chickens are really, really good. The Earth Fare bread is really, really bad, worse than Whole Foods' bread, which has declined over the last decade.

Earth Fare's chickens are Smart Chickens, a trademark of some outfit in Nebraska. Harris-Teeter has been carrying them for a while, too. They have two lines--an antibiotic-free, hormone-free line and a strictly organic line. But the significant feature that give these chickens better taste and texture than any store-bought chicken I've had in a long while is that they are dry-processed (air chilled instead of washed in a cold-water bath). This not only results in better, firmer texture and taste, but safety and improved cooking qualities. If you're sautéing, you get better browning without as much spatter.

One of my favorite easy dishes is chicken with 40 cloves; the ingredients are chicken, 40 cloves of garlic and a lot of olive oil, baked in a sealed pot. When made with your typical American chicken, you end up with lots more liquid in the pot than you started with; water that you paid $1.89 a pound for. With a dry-processed chicken, you get a tasty bird that's absorbed the garlic and olive oil flavors and left just enough oil and juice for bread-sopping delight.

Which brings me to bread. What's to say? Weaver Street has a serious bakery, producing breads with appropriately open textures, glistening starch in the crumb, good hearty crusts and real wheat flavor from superior flour. At Whole Foods, which, back in the Wellspring Grocery days, pioneered good supermarket bread in the Triangle, I didn't even pick up the baguette they offer. It had a pale soft crust and was the wrong thickness for a baguette. The batard looked better, but like the farm bread that I also bought, it was flavorless, underproofed, badly formed and, I'd guess, underhydrated.

Earth Fare's bread is par-baked. I've written here before about par-baked bread (indyweek.com/durham/2004-08-18/eatbeat.html), which is factory baked until almost done, rapidly frozen, then baked again at the store. It comes out better than regular supermarket bread, but not as good as real bread.

Each of these stores has its strengths and its weaknesses. Weaver Street has, by far, the best bread, the second best chicken and the best produce. Earth Fare has the worst bread, the best chicken (and lamb), really good produce and a better dry goods (that is, packaged grocery-shelf items) selection than Weaver Street. Whole Foods has the best grocery selection and very good fish and cheese counters.

If Whole Foods starts buying more locally then our farmers will benefit; if they also start competing on price, then we, the shopper, will benefit. And, with any luck, the rising price of gasoline will make shipping apples from New Zealand and garlic from China unfeasible. Ideally.

Comparison shopping

Item Weaver St. Earth Fare Whole Foods
Skim milk $2.29 $2.00 (on sale) $2.49
Potatoes $.89 (russet) $1.69 (russet) $1.49 (russet)
Onion $1.39 $1.69 $1.99
Oatmeal $.85 (steel cut) $.79 (steel cut) $1.49
Chicken $1.99 $1.49 $1.89 (leg quarters)
Salmon $11.99 (coho) $7.99 (king) $9.99 (king)
Kale $2.59 (9 oz.) $1.29 (16 oz.) $2.49 (about 10 oz.)
Bananas $0.89 (organic) $0.79 (organic) (didn't have any)
Chips $3.29 (Nana's) $2.69 (Go-Mex) $3.29 (Nana's)
Salsa $3.49 (Muir Glen) $3.69 (Seeds of Change) $3.79 (Seeds of Change)
Fennel $2.29 $2.99 $2.99
Yogurt--32 oz. $3.15 $2.99 $3.39 (Stonyfield Organic)
  • Asheville upstart looks like a contender

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