This isn’t a story about how one of our most illustrious food marketers is pushing their way into the Asian market. According to my research WF has no current plans for that type of growth in the Pacific Rim and with the enactment of the current Trans Pacific Partnership agreement hanging by a thread, this strategic play is probably not in the cards anytime soon.
No, my tale of Whole Foods and the Asian market stems from a couple of recent shopping experiences, both in the same day, to two separate food stores and the vast, and I mean abyss-like chasm between them, in both experience and expense, rewards and repasts.
Living about 75 miles south of a major metropolitan area, while embracing the removed and relaxed quality of life in our seaside town, we endure a dearth of food choices beyond typical supermarket chains. There are few opportunities, particularly between the end of summer growing season and the slow start to the beginning of the next, to purchase fresh vegetables that haven’t been trucked from California or flown from Argentina.
Specialty grains, imported chocolate, selections of fine meats and breads, can be found in bits and pieces, but must be tracked down, individually. Still variety is limited. So that when I am driving right past a large suburban WF location, I take the occasion to pop in.
Full disclosure…there is a WF about 20 miles from my home, however, that location is a 45-minute drive in the opposite direction I ever find myself going. I’ve been to that location once since it opened over three years ago. It’s just not on my radar, and truth be told, that must mean it’s not that high on my priority list to shop there. Same holds true for Trader Joe’s, location-wise, though a TJ run makes more sense given its great deals on everything from nuts, to pasta, to cheeses, to meats. Going to TJ’s makes economic sense. Going to WF’s is simple indulgent. More on that.
Ethnic foods (are we still allowed to use that term?) are another challenge. We have no Indian market, no Asian market, no Middle Eastern market. While that might not be an issue for your average weekday menu, it is for mine. Dinners (with leftovers for lunch) at our house bounce amongst the continents when it comes to origin. One night Japanese, the next Italian. Then Moroccan, Greek, Mexican, Indian. We like variety, rich flavors, exotic spices and vegetables. We like a full compliment of legumes, noodles, rices and sauces.
So another go-to market when I near the urban oasis of food choices is a massive Asian market called Kam Man, that is a quick spin off the highway. This illustrious food palace is dominated by Chinese food, but also offers immense variety of Thai, Malaysian, Cambodian, Korean, Vietnamese including a lunch counter with $4 Banh Mi. Amazing. You can even pick up some Indian foods – they have one sparse aisle – but at least they are trying.
It was on a weekday trip off-island, as we call it, to attend a meeting, that I could stop in to Whole Foods, as well as swing by the Kam Man superstore on the way home.
My Shopping Lists:
- 1 lb Bulk Quinoa
- Ginger Peach Tea – a particular brand my husband prefers
- Dried Mango Slices
- Dried Turkish Apricots – no Sulphur
- French Vanilla Extract – no alcohol
- Imported Chocolate – 85% cocoa
- One small sugar pumpkin
- Sesame Bagels – another constant challenge this distance from NYC where I grew up
- A large loaf of Francese bread
- ¼ pound prosciutto
- A bagette
- A bag of rosemary crostini crackers
- 1/3 lb goat’s milk cheese
- Tube of Arnica Gel – the most pressing reason I ‘needed’ to go – though I know its available elsewhere – but their house brand is reasonably priced and more importantly it works on my neck and hand, often eliminating any pain from arthritis in both locales for hours of relief. If you haven’t tried this remedy for your own pain, give it a whirl.
Kam Man Asian Market
- Large bag Ya Choy greens – approx. 2 lbs
- 2 bundles green onions
- Large bag Baby Bok Choy – approx. 2 lbs
- 1 lb fresh flat noodles
- 1 lb Dried Vermicelli Rice Noodles
- 1 lb Rice Stick Noodles
- Large jar Kim Chi
- 16 oz. jar Peanut Oil
- 2 lbs frozen Fish Balls – wide variety
- 5 lb fresh Surf Clam
- ¾ lb fresh Oyster Mushroom
- ¾ lb fresh King Oyster Mushroom
- 5 lb fresh Tofu
- 1 rack Pork Ribs – about 4 servings
- Package of Wonton wrappers
- 2 Limes
- 1 Bunch fresh Cilantro
- 2 lbs Brown Jasmine Rice
The total bill for Whole Foods was $82.87. The total at Kam Man, $62 and change.
Not only were there several more individual items, pounds more food and a significantly lower cost at the Asian market, but the haul there would reap many separate and complete dinners as well as keep our pantry well stocked for months.
As I walked out of the Asian market, lugging my three overflowing bags full of goodies, I stared at my receipt in amazement. What had just happened? How could these two stores, less than 8 miles apart, a mere 10-minute drive, be so radically different, have such colossally contrasting pricing, let alone the economic divide between the two neighborhoods?
Don’t get me wrong. I wanted the particular items I had carefully selected at WF’s. I needed replenishment of the arnica gel. It’s hard to find fresh enough dried mango – believe me there is a difference. The chocolate? Ok, pure indulgence. Same for the cheese selection, bread choices and prosciutto, although their meats are far superior in quality than my local options. Did I need to get the pumpkin there? No, but it was gleaming on a gorgeous pile in that artful way that WF has of making vegetables seem like gods, and I’ve had the darndest time trying to find pureed pumpkin in a can that hasn’t been gummed up with chemicals or sweetened up with sugars, something I need to avoid for my diabetic husband’s continuing health concerns.
I’m careful whenever I do go to WF. I only bring one bag inside, and only use a basket – never a cart! I know the final tally will be surprising regardless of how thoughtfully I cull from the abundance and beauty in every aisle and display. I just don’t like emptying my savings account for a few precious morsels. It befuddles me how casually the other shoppers are heaping their carts full of ‘regular’ groceries.
Ah, to be so cavalier and profligate. Rather than being envious of such behavior, I’m kind of horrified. But that’s just me. Clearly there are hordes of customers who can’t get enough. Go for it, I say.
And go for it I do. Just not there.
After the discriminating exercise, exerting constraint and consideration with each item at WF’s, the trip to Kam Man was like being awarded a shopping spree by The Price Is Right. Freewheeling a cart around that store, I gathered for a long winter’s night and then some. The primary question at Kam Man isn’t “should I get this?” its “what is this?” You can find eye of newt and toe of frog. Really.
There is a ‘fresh’ fish counter with species I never knew existed and some I wish didn’t either. There is a meat counter where they’ll trim the choicest cuts and you are paying pennies compared to supermarket chains. There are several hundred choices of noodles, teas, spices, sauces, entire aisles devoted to soy, cooking oil and at least three devoted solely to rice, from China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and India. And don’t forget the coconut crème.
The sheer number of selections, combined with the more than reasonable prices, creates a supermarket wonderland. It’s my nirvana. Restraint is only exercised here because our freezer and fridge have only so much capacity, and I have to remind myself that I can return. Soon.
When I got home that evening, I dumped out the contents of my shopping bags to review the riches of my expeditions, calculating how many meals I could put together and which greens just had to be eaten first. The only thing missing were market staples like milk, bananas and yoghurt. When I ventured out to the grocery store a couple of days later, I still came home with over $90 of edibles and household necessities. There’s a reason the local market exists of course. You need your basics. But thank goodness for variety, the spice of life.