The recent totally-unscientific-but-fun poll told me a few things: nobody buys all groceries from one vendor, Whole Foods is very popular, and people want food to be local and fresh. While digesting this data, I visited four stores in Hartford to see which ones most closely met your criteria of the ideal store; I looked at other aspects, including whether or not I could reasonably shop for basic food and household items. I looked at the two most popular grocery stores in the city, along with two that fewer people shopped at.
El Mercado (Park and Babcock)
President Clinton stopped here twice.
This literally translates as “the market,” which makes a poorly researched and written newspaper article from a few months ago even funnier (they described this as a restaurant).
Most of the customers arrive on foot; for cyclists, there are sturdy metal loops on the Babcock Street-side which can be used as bike racks. This is in front of the small parking lot. If you arrive early on Saturday you can buy birds from a man who sells them from his rusted out pickup truck, right next to El Mercado.
This is not an enormous store; some of the space is used for the food court/small restaurants inside. But, they basically had all but one item on my list.
All of the produce appeared to be fresh. None of it was labeled as local or organic; they have some vegetables (fruits?) that I could not identify. Those were definitely not from around these here parts.
The rice and beans selection was exactly what it should be. Beans came either canned or dried. The rice is available in basically any imaginable quantity: small boxes, 10-pound bags, and even 50-pound bags. There is pasta sauce available, along with bread, bags of flour, and cornmeal. I did not find any olive oil, but they did have fairly large quantities of vegetable oil, which can be used as a fine replacement if I want to get over my inner-food-snob. Tofu was the only item on my list that was entirely absent from the store.
They have a decent-sized aisle filled with cleaning supplies, paper goods, pet food, and litter. Toilet paper and paper towels are available in quantities suitable for those who have families. There’s quite a lot of pet food.
El Mercado, every time I have visited, has lines. They are not long or slow-moving, but they indicate demand. Though not a top choice in the fun-poll, El Mercado seems to be thriving. The prices are reasonable, shelves are well-stocked, they carry foods that reflect the ethnicities living in walking distance, and they are in the heart of Hartford’s other Main Street Park Street. The location allows for some multitasking, as it’s near several bakeries and across from a library branch.
I have never heard English spoken inside El Mercado, but at the same time, I never bothered to try using it to see what would happen.
The store is open Monday-Saturday from 8-7 and Sundays from 8-6. They have no web presence.
The Market at Hartford 21 (Asylum, between Ann and Trumbull)
They opened in March, closed temporarily this summer, and then re-opened. When I visited, I waited awhile after they re-opened so that my review would not be unfair. And then I attempted to return because I thought I was perhaps being too negative. But, when I tried to return, they were closed for Labor Day weekend. Not just on Monday, but the entire weekend. What grocery store does that?
The Market seems sparse now, and several changes have taken place, many of which will not be mentioned in this review because take-out is not integral to a functioning grocery store.
They are located on Asylum Street, which is a one-way. There is no visible bike parking, though a rack is in an adjacent parking garage, which happens to be closed on Sundays and certain holidays. There are poles to lock to in front of the building, but they also have sidewalk furniture, which when filled, can make locking up awkward if someone is sitting an inch from the post.
One of the unfortunate changes to the store is that the produce section has shrunk. The prices in this one area have been competitive. On past trips, before their temporary closure, I found the availability of certain items to be inconsistent; this does not seem to have changed. Most recently, they have lacked garlic altogether, though their onion supply has thankfully been replenished. In the past, I have been able to squeeze their onions, and as you know, onions should be firm. They have a few tomatoes and avocados. Their peppers are from Canada. A product that can (and is) grown well in Connecticut is being transported from Canada. How is this local or sustainable? Although nothing seems labeled as local or organic, there is finally a sign that posts all the prices for fruits and vegetables.
Thinking I was being a grump about a store that seems elitist in many ways, I did some searching around to learn what others were saying about it. On the popular Dwelling in Downtown Hartford Facebook group, residents have been conversing about the ways in which this store seems to be struggling as of late. Someone noted that the blueberries were moldy recently; another mentioned finding rotten asparagus and spoiled pea pods. Another person said the store lacked produce, meat, and cold cuts, and was told that this shortage was because of the hurricane — the hurricane that happened over a week ago, and while devastating to some regions, barely impacted Hartford itself.
Many residents, myself included, have wanted so much for this store to succeed, but it is increasingly difficult to lend support when they have limited hours and are selling such poor quality fruits and vegetables.
Something else that changed during their closure-and-convenient-remodeling is the removal of some products. Maybe they were just hidden well, but I circled the store when few other customers were there, limiting the chances for something to be blocked from sight. I know they must have bread, but it was not in its usual spot. They do not appear to carry tofu anymore. I also could not find any pet food or litter. Although this was not on my list, I noticed that the display of chocolates and candies has been replaced by yet more to-go foods, like parfait. I like parfait, but it’s really not a suitable replacement for truffles.
They did introduce pasta sauce that is more affordable, but the least expensive is still four dollars for a jar. That $4 sauce is one dollar cheaper at Stop & Shop: same brand, size, and flavor.
Paper towels are sold as loosies, which means the consumer ends up spending far more than she would if the item was available in bulk. Toilet paper quantities (four-packs) were more reasonable than last time I checked, but still unrealistic for a family.
They have rice and beans; both only come in smaller sizes. I saw no dried beans.
In the six months since they have opened, I have rarely purchased groceries here, even though I have sought them out on many occasions. Many times, I end up having to stop someplace else because they lack produce or what they have has gone bad.
Their hours have changed. The website does not indicate this, but The Market at Hartford 21 has a sign on its doors and the Courant wrote about this change. The paper says they had “summer hours” on weekends in August, closing at 2pm. Sadly, this only reinforces the notion that this store is designed for those who do not live in Hartford.
Save-A-Lot (Park and Laurel)
This store used to be one to avoid. Since moving into another space within the same plaza, it seems to have modified its personality for the better. The store is still a no-frills venue, but it’s brighter and cleaner than in the past.
They are known for being inexpensive and carrying mostly generic brands, which leads to certain assumptions about quality.
Besides having all the produce I sought, it looked fresh. I can pretty much guarantee it is neither local nor organic, but they have garlic, onions, tomatoes, peppers, and avocados. They have olive oil and pasta sauce; the sauce was $1.19 per jar. Gourmet? No. Affordable for most people in the neighborhood? Definitely. They have beans in various quantities. Rice is available in several quantities up to 20-pounds. All of this is to say: I can make dinner. The only item on my list that they did not have was tofu.
They have lots of pet food and cat litter; the litter even comes in large sizes. Toilet paper and paper towel quantities acknowledged that shoppers might have families who need more than a single roll per week.
In spite of all the generic food, I did spot some M&Ms.
Save-A-Lot is located in the sunken plaza that is surrounded by a moat of parking. Its posted hours: 8am until 11pm, every day. I saw a family walk down my street with Save-A-Lot bags on Sunday afternoon during the hurricane. Now, I do not expect my grocery stores to be open during inclement weather, but it is reassuring to know that food would have been accessible.
Stop & Shop (New Park and Francis)
There is a reason this is at the top of everyone’s list: actual grocery shopping is possible, the store is organized, and it’s affordable, for the most part.
Every last item on my list is in stock, including multiple varieties of tofu, some of which have not been genetically modified.
The produce has some local and organic items, and they have a “natural” section of the store, which I can appreciate.
As for location, it is on the outskirts of town, but multitasking is very possible, as they have a bank and other conveniences right in store. They have a huge parking lot and bicycles are frequently locked outside of the store.
This store is open from 6am until midnight on Monday through Saturday, and from 7am until midnight on Sundays. Rumor has it that Stop & Shop was also open during Hurricane Irene.
Stop & Shop, Save-A-Lot, and El Mercado have reasonable prices, decent produce, and free parking. El Mercado has the most charming environment and excellent bicycle parking. Stop & Shop is where to go if you want to be able to stock your pantry with nearly everything. The Market at Hartford 21 is good for people-watching, but only during their increasingly limited hours.
People want to support the smaller, locally-owned stores, rather than head straight to the big boxes, but it is hard to do this when consumers’ needs are not met.
UPDATE: (14 September 2011) On 9/12 the Market at Hartford 21 closed early at 2pm and on 9/13 it closed at 1:30pm. The reason they gave for the early closure on Monday: “we’re having a rough day.” On Twitter, Hartford residents called for the store to be more consistent in hours. They also closed early on 9/14. What grocery store closes in the early afternoon several days in a row?