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Best In Depth: The Big Chain Grocers

Best In-Store Bakery: Harris Teeter (Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Harris Teeter, Whole Foods, Trader Joe's

Let’s face it: The best chain grocery store is the one closest to your home or work. No one is going to trek across town to shop at the Soviet Safeway in Dupont Circle (where there’s a line and nothing on the shelves) or to the basement getaway that is the Giant in Van Ness. But the big guys do offer amenities that your corner bodega can’t.

Best In-Store Bakery
Harris Teeter, Shirlington, 4250 Campbell Ave., Arlington, (703) 379-2003

This two-story Harris Teeter opened last year in the Clarendon clone known as the Village at Shirlington. The first-floor bakery has plenty of good, crusty competition nearby, including the Best Buns Bread Company and the Great Harvest Bread Co. of Alexandria. But even among these pros, the Teeter bakery holds its own. The reason: La Brea Bakery, a Los Angeles-based operation that ships handmade, partially baked loaves formed with three ingredients—flour, water, and yeast “from the skin of organic grapes.” The loaves are then finished in the Shirlington store (and others that carry the brand), where the aromas alone suggest you’re dealing with a product that far surpasses most supermarket breads. The crust is crusty but won’t break your teeth; the inside is more dense than porous, and the loaves will, if treated with love, last more than a day without going completely stale. Best of all, they don’t sit there for hours like so many English muffins. The stores will bake loaves on request.

Best Example of Slow Food Movement in Supermarket Form
Harris Teeter, 17th Street and Kalorama Road NW

And speaking of the Teet’, how about that first outlet in the District, a 39,000-square-foot addition to Adams Morgan with an in-store sushi bar and on-staff wine expert? What? You haven’t been there? That’s because it’s still not open. The company made a breathy announcement in 2005 about setting up shop in the Citadel building, a long-abandoned roller rink built in ’47. Opening day was planned for “fall 2006.” Those who were holding their breath have already died. Those who weren’t may have been hired at the job fair in January. The tentative new opening date is April 23, according to a spokeswoman, who says a second D.C. store is “set” to open on Jenkins Row, Capitol Hill, on May 13. Commence breath-holding.

Best Place to Buy Groceries If You’re Rich
Whole Foods Market

When it comes to grocery store staples—slabs of raw meat, dead fish, produce, cheese—Whole Foods is pretty much unrivaled by any other chain. Few can beat its quality; almost everyone can beat its prices. But unless you’re pulling down some sweet salary, it’s best to treat Whole Paycheck as a specialty store—it’s perfect for a nice flank steak for that braciola recipe you saw on Food Network or for a few de-veined specimens for your ginger oil shrimp. Otherwise, skip the 365® peanut butter and get your staples at the local Safeway. These days, many Safeways and Giants carry more organic fruits and vegetables; many also have decent bakeries and delis. But none of the big guys—including Shopper’s, Harris Teeter, and Trader Joe’s—can compete with Whole Foods’ cheese counters. For a glistening hunk of triple-cream Bella Monte, or anything else irresistibly pungent, get in line and get out your wallet.

Best Service
Trader Joe’s (various locations)

Is it the Hawaiian-motif T-shirts that make them so happy? Or are they swilling some Three Buck Chuck in the break room? Actually, it’s more likely that Trader Joe’s employees are sucking down the TJ Kool-Aid, which may explain why they’re more cheerful and helpful than your average grocery clerk. These people are true believers—and Trader Joe’s consumers. Employees test new products while on the clock, including beer (well, not in Maryland), ham-and-artichoke pizzas, gluten-free brownies, red-pepper bisque, sesame-crusted honey almonds, chickenless chicken…you get the idea. Also: part-timers, if they stick it out for more than three months, get benefits and have a decent chance for promotion. That means a crewmember who shows some gumption can one day make first mate or even captain. Aye!

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