Four days. Four grocery stores. I sure know how to have fun on vacation.
Last week, I was visiting my sister, Chelsea, and her kids in Boise, Idaho. We ate out twice — Chick-fil-A and a local Mediterranean spot called Mazzah — and cooked the rest of our meals in her tiny kitchen that is only slightly larger than my cubicle at work. Instead of the cookbooks and calendars that have swallowed up my desk, her countertops are covered in drying dishes, boxes of tea, a blender for smoothies and a rainbow of plastic bowls and cups for her two kids, ages 4 and almost 2.
I love cooking with my sister, even in her tiny kitchen. I wanted to make her that chicken soup recipe from last week’s column, and she wanted to show me how to make kombucha, a kitchen project that will make its way into the paper soon. But in order to do that cooking, we needed groceries, right?
My 4-year-old niece, June, who didn’t know what a newspaper was, much less what her aunt does at one, was happy to accompany me to two stores on the very first day of my visit. Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods — located just a block from one another — are the newest supermarkets to open in downtown Boise, and I hadn’t been to either location. They are just blocks from WinCo, a regional favorite that I’ll explain in detail below.
Like in Austin, the Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods in Boise try desperately to appeal to the Keep Boise Weird crowd — nearly as fervent as the Keep Austin Weird demographic here — with murals of the nearby Capitol and signage touting local products. At Trader Joe’s, we picked up a sparkling limeade and a local IPA (my treats) and knock-off Fruit Loops and orange juice (June’s treats), plus some roses, a token of adoration for the woman who was — at the moment — pulling single-mom duty while her husband was on a two-week mission trip to Africa.
Chelsea had requested a kind of beer that Trader Joe’s didn’t carry, which was a pretty good excuse to pop into the Whole Foods. They didn’t have it, either, but it was fun to walk through an Austin institution as a tourist trying to spot products from our booming consumer packaged-good industry. On an endcap, I found Austin’s Boomerang Pie’s on sale; elsewhere, I saw Austin-based Skinny Pop popcorn, Rhythm Superfoods’ kale chips and Beanitos, the bean-based tortilla chips also based here.
Austin has the flagship Whole Foods, and Boise has the original Albertsons, an unremarkable store just two blocks from my sister’s house that is good for last-minute purchases, like the toppings to go on the Trader Joe’s pizza dough I’d purchased the day before. With overpriced produce and a mathematically complicated loyalty program pricing, Albertson’s is like Randalls: mostly forgettable and worth avoiding unless you really need pepperoni and mozzarella cheese at the last minute.
I saved the best for last. Chelsea had been under the weather all weekend, which — oh darn — meant that someone needed to go to WinCo, her go-to supermarket, to buy groceries for the week.
WinCo is to Boise as H-E-B is to Austin, but with a walk-in beer cooler, kombucha on tap and a bulk selection so large and so diverse that it’s enough to make a grocery lover weep. Am I drunk on the employee-owned WinCo because we don’t have it? Probably. (There are locations in the Dallas area, I should note.) Is it my sister’s and all her friends’ favorite place to shop, even though they have to sack their own groceries at the end? You bet.
The loss leaders — those items that stores intentionally underprice just to get you in the door — will make your eyeballs pop: $1.98 for a gallon of milk and 99 cents for eggs, specifically. The store-branded products can’t hold a candle to what H-E-B offers, but they are well-priced and good quality, my sister reports. The flashing neon sign out front advertises kombucha on tap, but they don’t mention that Humm, the brand on draft, is the only kombucha sold by the bottle, too. The organic section is about as large as the one at Sprout’s, which is to say, not very large, but the prices were good.
But it’s the bulk and deli sections that are so interesting to me. Although there are organic options in the bulk bins, you can also buy powdered drinks (a la Kool-Aid) or three kinds of gravy mixes or even bright orange cheese powder. These aren’t the foodie shoppers who stock up on quinoa at Whole Foods, but you can get quinoa and barley and farro at WinCo, too. They also sell pet food and nuts and cereals and gluten-free flours and snack mix in bulk, as well as candies and gummies and chocolate-covered banana chips.
You could get lost in that bulk section alone, but over in the deli, you’ll find about twice as many prepared foods and meats as most stores in Austin, including $4.98 rotisserie chickens and pre-seasoned taco meat and grilled chicken breasts that are a staple of my brother-in-law’s diet.
I bought a fried chicken salad for the plane ride home the next day, along with about half a dozen treats from the bulk section to surprise my kids with. (Chocolate-covered gummy bears, anyone?) I gawked at the new-to-me ice cream brands, including one from Tillamook, on the way to the check-out stand, where my cashier rung up my groceries and then sent them down a conveyor belt so I could pack them into reusable bags I’d borrowed from my sister.
Our friends in our hippie sister city to the north do not yet know the joys of a citywide plastic bag ban, and after talking with my sister, it doesn’t sound like it’s even been a matter of public discussion. They don’t get the newspaper or watch the local news on TV, though, so I could be wrong.
Does anyone else like to grocery shop when they are traveling? What are some of the favorite stores you’ve found? Let me know on Twitter — I’m @broylesa — or by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Correction: This story incorrectly stated that Albertsons had a card loyalty program. The grocery did away with its shopper card in 2013.)