topps loose produce

Produce displays in the US are designed with theatre 

I must confess to some very healthy cynicism about just what I was letting myself in for food-wise when I discovered before moving here the ‘famous’ local delicacy is called ‘garbage plate’. I kid you not, the Huffington Post has an article on it. Even more amazingly, this is something of which they are really proud.

Initially healthy eating feels expensive here. A huge Taco Bell burrito is $3, we get offers through the door for Burger King deals, double burgers, fries, onion rings, carbonated drink all for $3 and yet you can spend $8 on four loose apples. If eating out, it seems almost every meal is covered in cheese. I have, however, been pleasantly surprised in my first impressions of produce retail.

My closest supermarket is a Wegmans, which has a really theatrical feel and the presentation of the produce is as important as the intrinsic quality. It’s reminiscent of Whole Foods in the UK, and in terms of layout it’s very similar to the ‘marketplace’ aspiration you can see in many Morrisons stores. There is clearly a heavy manpower investment in maintaining that piled high look, but it is worth it for the wow, with misting tables and cabinets keeping bunched radish, bunched herbs and bok choi looking stunning. The manpower is such that if you can’t really be bothered to peel your apples they have people who will hand prepare any produce item the way you like it.

Elsewhere, Walmart, Aldi and Costco offer significantly less theatre to produce and invest less time – but this is reflected positively in the price. Decanting for display is still common, though in the mid-market the slick and cost-efficient straight-to-shelf model of the UK is nowhere to be seen. Loose product is definitely more prominent as a consequence than in the UK market, with examples such as bunched kale, celery roots, artichoke, wholehead lettuces, chillies, snow peas and lots of bunched herbs.

Retail prices can be expensive but first impressions were deceptive. You can most definitely eat healthily without spending that much on loose apples. Just as with the UK from a consumer perspective it’s about understanding tiering of retailers and pack formats, here we need to add in the dynamic of understanding the role of brands (more on that later).

The reality when I began comparing prices (and very little is real like-for-like on unit size and specification) is that actually eating healthily now we are ‘in season’ is often comparable to UK prices. It’s the cheese-covered fast food that is incredibly cheap.