A new supermarket opened a month or so ago in a building that once housed the one and only original Filene’s Basement. In the place of racks of designer clothing reduced to the cost of a cup of Starbuck’s coffee, there were gleaming cases of prepared foods from spareribs to salads, freshly baked breads, rolls and muffins, assorted cookies and pastries, plus an enormous area devoted to cheese. Samples of freshly made mozzarella were being given out by a woman pounding the cheese into submission and having taken one, I wandered around to see if someone was also handing out samples of crackers.
There were, of course, long aisles of packaged goods from dry pasta to an exorbitant display of mustards. And like any conventional supermarket, the produce, dairy, meat and fish sections offered up food items that had to be processed, i.e. cooked, in order to be edible. But what was so entrancing about this supermarket, right in the center of a busy shopping area and near the Financial District, was the accessibility of foods ready to eat. The choices ranged from the banal (fried chicken and mashed potatoes) to the gourmet (freshly cooked seafood, salads with fashionable ingredients such as farro and arugula, and freshly squeezed juices and smoothies). It is hard to think of a restaurant that could offer such a wide variety of foods with prices that would match those in the supermarket.
Markets are already feeding zones for those who prefer getting their meals from a cardboard container rather than going to their refrigerator and preparing their meals themselves. This one happens to be a newer generation of markets, located in an area where a food court and food pushcarts had been the most accessible options. Unlike older, more conventional supermarkets, the most prominent feature is the prepared food area. When the shopper walks in, he or she is assaulted and beguiled by counter after counter of ready-to-eat foods. It takes some walking and a bit of scouting around to find the produce section, way in the back of the store, the fresh fish case scrunched up against a back corner and dairy products somewhere behind a maze of aisles. The message sent to the shopper is, “Don’t even think of buying something that needs preparation. We have already made it for you.”
Given that many Americans eat at least one or more meals away from home every day (this includes school children as well as adults), buying meals at a supermarket may be a more practical and less expensive option than going to a restaurant, fast-food chain or coffee shop. And the prepared foods at a supermarket may offer a healthier option than those at a chain hamburger or burrito shop. This is because supermarkets offer a variety of cooked vegetables, a variety rarely duplicated in upscale restaurants, and missing entirely in less expensive restaurants. How many fast-food chains offer curried carrots, roasted Brussels sprouts or cherry tomato, red pepper and spinach salad? .
And consider this: The shopper who may be vegetable adverse can buy a tiny portion of a vegetable dish for a taste. Unfortunately, the supermarkets don’t allow the shopper to try a vegetable dish for free the way ice cream stores allow the shopper to taste an unknown flavor. But spending 75 cents on two tablespoons of curried carrot salad or broiled cauliflower might convince the reluctant and vegetable phobic eater that vegetables can taste good.
Supermarkets offering a large selection of take-out foods are next best thing to having your mother cook your dinner (if she is a good cook), but they could go a little further in helping shoppers put together their meals, for instance suggesting that they choose foods that are moderate in calories and high in nutrients. Suggestions for side dishes to go with a main course of grilled chicken or sliced brisket or salmon stuffed with crabmeat would be useful so the shopper would be eating a nutritionally balanced meal. For example, a display could suggest adding a high-calcium dairy product to the meal by featuring a dessert of fresh raspberries topped with low-fat yogurt. The shopper would be encouraged to buy the yogurt and the berries and combine them at home. Nutrient information near vegetables that may be unfamiliar, like beets or lentils, might induce the shopper to consider trying them.
The down side of this is that the foods are much more expensive than if prepared at home. There is a substantial cost differential between buying roasted Brussels sprouts in the take-out section or buying them fresh, sprinkling them with a little olive oil and salt and roasting them at home. The same is true for throwing a potato in the microwave or buying it already cooked. And the shopper should be aware of the high oil content in many prepared foods; this ingredient keeps the foods moist and looking attractive. However, lack of time, lack of even rudimentary knowledge of how to prepare foods, and lack of motivation to come home and prepare foods from scratch makes the enormous array of the supermarket prepared foods so enticing.
This trend to using the supermarket as a restaurant is growing, and in the near future it is possible that the prepared food section will overtake most of the space formerly occupied by the traditional food displays. Should this begin to happen, let’s hope the decision of what prepared foods to sell is based on health considerations, as much as profits.