I am going to separate my Market District (located in Kingsdale Shopping Center, Upper Arlington) into two parts - the grocery part and the prepared foods & restaurant part. This is part one of at least two, maybe three. Part two probably won't be up until Monday because I have a busy weekend of working and eating.
Other businesses could learn a thing or two from Giant Eagle's embrace of the so-called "Social Media" phenomenon. I hate to use that term, because it brings to mind loads of "experts" on Twitter, and I hate to be lumped into such a group; nonetheless, I suppose I am anyway.
I was invited, along with a group of other local bloggers, to spend opening day with the Social Media/Interactive Marketing team from Giant Eagle headquarters. The fed us, took us on tours, and let us hang out with Adam Richman from Man vs. Food (he loves Columbus, by the way).
Why was this so smart? Well, it cost them very little, but with our combined audiences, they are probably going to reach at least 100,000 people, just this month. With a real journalist, the writer is restricted to 1500 words if they're lucky, and 2 pictures at the most. But with bloggers, well, we can write as much as we want and post a million pictures (I took 500 pictures while there!); furthermore, I have an audience who has vetted my advice (along with the haters, of course). When Whole Foods arrived, I didn't receive so much as a press release and no one reached out to me. And I had to be very sneaky while taking pictures, because they are enormously protective of their displays and prices and whatnot.
So, food companies, take note.
Most of this review is based upon the guided tour we took, however I have been to the store twice since then, checking things out for myself. You will see a lot of Whole Foods comparisons, which seems to be the major competition for Market District. We'll discuss the evils and goods of giant corporations later, if we must.
I was please with the amount of disclosure on the tour; our guide freely discussed many sources of products, letting us know when certain items were outsourced.
One of the biggest focuses of the store is to bring amazing products to the masses, while still having a very accessible and practical grocery store, and I think they succeed in this area; I hope the residents of Columbus provide enough demand for some of the more recherché items in the store.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's talk a little bit about the store. First of all, it's huge. Our Whole Foods Dublin store is one of the largest in that company's chain (it was when it opened, anyway) and clocks in at around 50,000 square feet. Market District is nearly 130,000 square feet. For comparison, most Meijer stores are in the 190,000 square feet range. It's kind of like if a Whole Foods store swallowed a Giant Eagle and threw in way more seating and a large wine store.
Walking into the store is a little overwhelming, to say the least, but it has been wisely designed with numerous entrances; this way, you can choose the entrance closest to your desired destination (pharmacy, beer & wine, restaurant, grocery). Parking at Kingsdale might prove to be something of a challenge as the renovation continues, but there are parking lot shuttles - yes, you read that correctly. You can stand in various spots around the parking lot and someone will come fetch you in a gold cart.
There is a registered dietitian on staff, as well as an esthetician half of the week. There is an OSU medical clinic and a full pharmacy, of course.
One huge difference between Whole Foods and Market District is the (perceived) philosophy behind the products chosen. Whole Foods, for better or worse, has the reputation for being extremely expensive and out of reach for many people. Their commitment to everything in the store being (or seeming) earth-friendly limits the selection. I'm not necessarily saying that is a bad thing, but Market District has all of those things and an entire range of basics, so it's a little more "one-stop-shopping." I like this philosophy because in my mind, it will encourage more people to branch out from their comfort zones and try new things.
Market District puts a huge emphasis on training their staff; everywhere you turn is someone to help you out. In the center back of the store is a demonstration kitchen where cooks will be making something different every day. Our tour guide, Market District's lead development Chef John, told us that the chefs in the demo kitchen will be able to answer any cooking-related questions you might have, even if it doesn't relate to what they are cooking at the moment! What a great service (and a good job for me in the future, right? ahem). The demo kitchen will be operational most of the day and will be handing out samples.
Speaking of samples, there are loads of them, and Chef John assured us it would continue even after the opening hoopla had come to an end.
When I visited the store at 8am this morning, I was wondering around the cheese section, checking it out for my friend Jen, who worked for Cowgirl Creamery in the Ferry Market building in San Francisco, and laments being in the land of sub standard cheesemongers. I was looking around and was immediately told I could request a sample of any cheese I wanted! (Jen says never buy cheese somewhere if you aren't allowed to taste it first.) And I was alone, shopping by myself as a "normal" person, so I hope that means anyone would be able to do the same. I declined, because I went into the store with only $20 and knew if I tasted something I would end up buying some cheese...
The meat section has loads of options; I was surprised to see the number of game options available - squab, venison, elk, rabbit, and even rattlesnake, cleaned frogs' legs and conch meat! Everything looked very nice. The elk was astonishingly lovely, as you can see when you watch the slide show. As with the items listed in the next paragraph, I truly hope demand is high enough that these items will stay.
There is a huge selection of prime beef (which is very hard to come by in Columbus), including a large selection of dry-aged beef (yummy). I was also very pleased and surprised to see Elysian Fields lamb in the cases! Elysian Fields lamb comes from Western PA (so Western that some of the lambs actually come from Eastern Ohio), and until recently was only available to diners in restaurants such as the French Laundry and Charlie Trotters. I have had it, and I can tell you: it is worth the price. It really is amazing lamb. Blissfully happy lambs make all the difference. The prices on the lamb seemed very low, and I hope to snatch some up this coming week and try my hand at braising some leg or something (those of you who attended my dinner at the Hill's Market last year with my horribly overcooked lamb know it's a challenge for me!)
There is a very large housewares section in the store, and the items seem well-selected for the market. Items are nice and basic (there is a great selection of white serving ware) and well priced. It would be a great place to put together a gift basket. They stock many things comparable to Williams Sonoma, but at a fraction of the price (their hand soaps, for example, are sourced from WS's supplier). I love the housewares area, because it's like a little oasis in the madness of the rest of the store.
The olive, antipasti, and salsa bar is about a mile long (only about a third of it is pictured in the slideshow) and contains the only red Cerignola olives I've seen for sale in our fair city (they are delicious. Go buy some and see for yourself).
There are two delis - one traditional grocery store deli, and one charcuterie counter. And I mean a real charcuterie counter. With bresaola! They let me taste it and lo, it was delicious. They also have a selection of Milanori salamis (from San Francisco), which are also very difficult to find in Columbus. If you have ever been to Italy and had "real" sausages, you will love Milanori's extremely true-to-tradition sausages (Husband said they were very close. Having never been to Italy, I can only take his and others' words for it). They also have La Quercia prosciutto, widely considered to be the best American prosciutto, and again, very difficult to find. In the charcuterie case are also many types of caviar.
Okay, time is running short and I have to get ready for work, plus this post is now over 1500 words and if I go any further, I'll probably lose some of you. Expect more later!