Why Grocery Shopping in the Chicago Area Sucks

Why Grocery Shopping in the Chicago Area Sucks

I am a home chef, serious BBQ man and a foodie and I’m not pleased with the grocery options in the Chicago area. I admit I've yet to try Mariano’s Fresh Market, there’s a new one near me in south suburban Frankfort.
I live in northeastern Will County, where there is no one stop shopping for everything you need food wise, it takes a few trips to a few places to get what you need. But here's my personal rundown on the stores I shop at personally.

Being from the South side, the main place to get food used to be Jewel but their meat sucks, it’s not cheap, the selection is very limited, I admit they do have competitive prices for pop, juice and some frozen items, but it stops there. Their produce is wildly inconsistent in quality (I've seen fruit flies in their "farmstand section" but have also sometimes have exceptional apples too), but their bakery is among the best of the local retailers. They also used to have a great hot food section, the fried chicken is top notch but again depends what day you show up. And you can get in and out of there quickly; the staff recently is more pleasant and good.

Dominick’s used to be my favorite and used to be the closest complete grocery store but that hasn't been in 10 years when they started closing store the first time. They have made a myriad of bad decisions since the Omni experiment in the early 1990’s. In case you missed that, it was their huge (like 100,000 square feet), 24/7 grocery store to compete with then Cub Foods and Super K mart. Once Omni closed in the late 1990’s, some of those closed, others became Dominick’s but were twice as big a necessary, you could have driven a Cadillac down some of the aisles.

As for the food, Dominick’s was initially a produce stand back in the day and that’s still their hallmark, the meat ain’t bad but pricey yet the grocery items are expensive and not a good selection. If you don’t like Safeway items, you’re in trouble and I visited a Safeway location in Scottsdale (outside of Phoenix), Arizona this spring and it was worse, even more expensive. Their hot food is often elderly with a lack of turnover, though the bakery is nice. It’s no surprise they are closing, just not a good shopping experience; the stores are dark and look like they did 15 years ago, yet with premium prices. But they had the best workers, friendly & knowledgeable (union scale), it’s a shame other retailers would rather treat and pay their workers like down south migrant workers. If you've ever been to a Kroger store you know that is what Dominick’s should be, but I guess it’s too late for that.

Target has entered the crowded grocery field and for the few Super Targets in the area, its decent on all levels, nothing overwhelming, prices are competitive but food is just okay. And with a full service Target on the premises with all they have to offer, it’s as close to one stop shopping as there is. Although the regular Target stores are limited with grocery products, prices are good but that’s not for heavy duty shopping more convenience.

And then there’s Wal Mart, they are big but bigger isn't always better, quality is largely nonexistent and for some items watch the expiration dates, they expire quicker than most other retailers and it’s not that much cheaper no matter what their ads say. Some things are a deal, but I know pop is not. They have re done their meat products and its okay but understand where you are, it’s a good step down from other retailers. They are mostly 24/7 stores so there in a convenience factor (especially if you live near one like I do), but it’s never my first choice. The bakery is pretty good considering this not a specialized grocer but the produce is dreadful (I've seen fruit flies more than once), and it’s just not appetizing at all. The hot food counter is up there with the best of them, remember this place is all about convenience; however, checking out of this place can be a long affair and just shopping under their roof is largely chaos, it’s just how it is with them. Funny though the more south and rural you go the better the Wal Marts are, downstate the quality improves (especially in meats), and more complete shopping, yet still chaotic.

Sams Club is one of the two major “Membership Bulk stores” (Costco is the other), and Sams is part of the Wal Mart empire (which I don’t think the sun sets on), it’s just bigger, the quality issues are not the same, Sams is better but still not always a deal, you just get more food. But the quality is a definitely a step up from the regular Wal Mart stores.

Aldi is interesting, long known for bare bones stores with questionable items; they have taken more steps to improve than all of the grocery chains combined. Still you must put a quarter in the cart, buy shopping bags (or bring your own), or grab a box for your things. But I noticed the other day they have Coke products, General Mills cereal (though my wife swears by their Millville brand), and they have Tyson poultry. I've noticed the meats are pretty good for the most part but avoid the steaks, they are tough but the pork and poultry rivals anything from any other grocer, it’s that good at a competitive price. The canned goods are all over the place, mostly okay, nothing great but the prices are half of what you pay elsewhere, so it is what it is. The frozen products are forgettable but the bread is fantastic. Aldi is a major player in the grocery biz but still you need to supplement going there with a Target, the paper products and other grocery items are not complete.

Ultra Foods is one of the large discount 24/7 chains (Food 4 Less is the other), with so called discount pricing, their meat is good but you need to look through it well (lots of specials though), the selection is wide but not a lot of better cuts of meat, this is a discount store but the prices not always reflect what you buy. I rarely come out of their under $ 60.00. For grilling meats though it great and the frozen selection is unrivaled with good deals, the seafood selection is surprisingly good but beware, some of it is overseas seafood and not on the quality level of domestic seafood. The grocery items are competitive and well stocked but checking out of there is a chore, you bag yourself and lines are often long, so you have to give yourself time it can be frustrating.

Out south by me is a 12 store chain called Berkots and they are number one in meats, competitive price, large selection of both high end and regular cuts, excellent butchers who know their meat. The deli and hot food counter is awesome (fried chicken is killer), and produce is always on point. But the grocery section is as expensive as there is (they carry Centrella products), and very limited. The bakery is often supplemented by either Orland Park Bakery and other products and it’s decent, though the cupcakes are outstanding. They have some of the best ads and sales, especially for liquor (though they card everyone), and the staff is pretty good. It’s a solid local store, especially for those who live further out and don’t have a ton of grocery options except a Wal Mart.

Trader Joes used to be a favorite of mine but their quality is suspect, the frozen pizzas & salad bags have made me ill in the last few years. Their meat is good but pricey, the baked goods are really good and their condiments are top notch. The people working there are exceptional in knowledge and helping you with checking out. The frozen items are usually good, but seafood is inconsistent, though their orange chicken should be a food group it’s so good. Produce there is as good as there is but prices can be high. The wine section rivals any liquor store and snacks are exceptional, along with cheeses, dips and lunch meat. Their downfall is the older stores need to be situated better; it’s hard to navigate the aisles, especially nights & weekends. And also remember is too is a specialty grocer that you have to visit another store to complete your shopping.
Whole Foods aka “Whole Paycheck”, is about eating right, which isn't cheap, the seafood is out of this world (both in selection and price), the canned items are good and reasonable for the most part, and the hot food counter and salad bar is unrivaled just remember this is not a corner grocery store, this is specialized food for those willing to pay for it, still when you need or want something special, this is the place.

Meijer is the next big thing, literally with Wal Mart like 120,000 square foot stores that never close; they are coming into the area with full steam. And it’s a decent place to shop. The meat is pretty good, which some good specials from time to time. The grocery items have the selection and prices that should competitors up at night. Produce is average, though being Michigan based, the apples are really good. Hot food counter leave something to be desired. Seafood is not worth talking about, bakery is run of the mill but again, they preach convenience, they claim its everything under one roof and damn near is, just none of it is real great. But I must admit their grilling section is really nice, full of accessories and real full size grills (both charcoal & gas), they rival any large hardware chain. The toy section is above average too. But this is a blog about food and for that it’s better than Wal Mart and right below or at a full scale grocer.
There are other places that carry food that might surprise you, Menards (yes the large Wisconsin based hardware chain), has a nice canned and package grocery section with chips, seasonings, juice, cookies and soups. Some real deals too but yes, you’re buying food at a hardware store, don’t forget that.

Walgreens has always had some frozen and food items and some stores have expanded to fresh foods. It’s convenient like no other store, some of the sales are really good, and especially soup sometimes, but it’s still a drug store.

So my frustration is although we do have more options than before, still many stores have shortfalls, hopefully as new stores enter the market and existing stores evolve competition will make grocery shopping a better experience.

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    Charles W. Johnson

    I'm a lifelong writer (since I was 8 years old), and have been doing this blog in some form or fashion since 2004. I'm a DePaul University alum, class of 1999 and prior to that Brother Rice class of 1994. . And I appreciate you taking to the time to read what I have to say, feel free to email charles.w.johnson@hotmail.com

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