Of Groceries and Geography

I’ve always taken groceries for granted. You go to a grocery, you buy what you need, you forget about it until the next time; that’s how it is for most people, I’ll bet. That’s how it was for me in New Jersey, when we lived there, and also in upstate New York, where we lived most recently before now. It’s one of those things that you take for granted.

Well, I’m here to say that a) you don’t value what you have until it’s gone, and b) the quality of the grocery really does depend on where you are.

In New Jersey, we had Shop-Rite, which handled our basic needs adequately. In fact, I would say that we were very happy with Shop-Rite. It had what we needed when we needed it; rarely were essential items out of stock. Every so often, Shop-Rite would have promotions like their “Can-Can” sale, in which all canned goods were heavily discounted. Aside from the fact that our local Shop-Rite could get a little crowded during the holiday rush, it was a satisfying grocery. We took it for granted, because it did what it was supposed to do for us, without fuss.

When we moved to upstate New York, we didn’t miss Shop-Rite, because that’s where we discovered Wegman’s. Wegman’s is, in a word, awesome. In a few more words: Wegman’s is, in our experience, the gold standard by which all other groceries must be judged. Why is Wegman’s so awesome? Think about a grocery that excels at pretty much every category by which a grocery can be judged. Clean and appealing interior and decor: check. Friendly, helpful, cheerful, motivated staff: check (for over a decade, Wegman’s has been a perennial member of Fortune magazine’s list of Top 100 companies to work for, usually occupying one of the top three spots). Comprehensive, thoughtful, well-stocked selection of grocery items: check. Excellent deli section with lip-smacking sub sandwiches: check. Complete, top-quality produce section: check. I could go on, but you get the idea: Wegman’s simply outperforms any other grocery chain I have ever tried, and I’ve tried a lot. If you live near a Wegman’s, consider yourself lucky, and cherish what you have. If Shop-Rite is a Toyota Corolla, then Wegman’s is a Lexus.

Now that we’ve moved to Northern California, we miss Wegman’s. I don’t mean that usual kind of missing something where you start out missing it a lot, then less as time goes on, until eventually it becomes a dull ache, dimly remembered. I mean that I’ve been here for five months, and I miss Wegman’s profoundly each and every time we go to the grocery over here. Exhibit A: in New Jersey, we only found it necessary to go to one Shop-Rite, the Nutley Shop-Rite, got everything we needed every single time, and didn’t feel the need to shop anywhere else. Exhibit B: in New York, we only ever found it necessary to patronize one Wegman’s, the large and newly-built Liverpool Wegman’s, less than 5 minutes from our house. Here in Silicon Valley, practically each time we go grocery shopping, we find ourselves having to flit from one grocery store to another, like pollinating bees, just to be able to find everything we are looking for. We go to Safeway, they have some things but not others, or their produce section flat-out sucks compared to Wegman’s or even Shop-Rite. So we are forced to go to another Safeway, or a Lucky, just to find everything we need, except those other place don’t have everything we need, either. We even tried a Save Mart, but it featured the sorriest-looking meat section I have ever seen in a major chain grocery, so we quickly got out of there. There was one day where we hit no fewer than five different grocery stores, including the much-hyped Whole Foods Market, in search of The One Grocery Store to satisfy all our needs, like we had in New Jersey and New York; is that too much to ask? Is it too much to ask that we find one, just one signle grocery store here in San Jose that can measure up to Wegman’s, or even just Shop-Rite?

The answer, unfortunately, is yes, that’s apparently too much to ask, and no, we still haven’t found that one grocery store. Even the two Costco branches near our house over here are strangely lacking in some basic items that we easily found in our New Jersey Costco, or our New York BJ’s. Sad to say, we are coming to the inescapable conclusion that when it comes to a satisfying grocery shopping experience, San Jose will never measure up to the other places where we’ve lived.

If you have a favorite grocery in the San Jose area that could change our minds, please let us know in the comments section. I’d love to be proven wrong!