There’s a commercial that makes a supermarket seem as enticing as a day at the beach. The produce is glamorously lit and the shopper is invited to dream of dinner as if each meal is a vacation, not a chore.
I thought of this ad when I walked into the Healthy Living Market. The mangoes and apples did not wear makeup, but there was something about the displays that suckered me into the idea that food is an adventure. Of course, I already think that ingredients are the ticket to paradise—give me a pound of novelty flour and I go to my personal Bahamas—but even given my proclivities, I think this 35,000-square-foot natural-foods grocery store is a food country all its own.
I didn’t measure, but I think there are miles of food here. Pace the perimeter and you’ll meet produce from far and very near, fish approved by the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch Program, a butcher case, and enough milks and yogurts to start a can-can line. Picture classic black-and-white Holsteins locking hooves with light brown Jerseys and a herd of rebel goats. A survey of these yogurts’ passports includes international and national brands, plus card-carrying members of our own New York State Greek frenzy. The prettiest are Washington County’s Argyle Cheese Farmer’s glass bulbs of Greek yogurt and fruit.
And that just gets you halfway around the store, to the bakery, a cornucopia of artisan breads and classic sweets. There’s a deli case, hot and cold buffets, and a refrigerator case full of prepped ingredients like quarts of stock, cooked beans, chopped vegetables, as well as prepped meals—individual chicken parms and the like.
While all these choices might seem overwhelming, the selection feels right to a lot of shoppers.
“It’s not quite a mom-and-pop place, but it’s got the feeling that they probably have the stuff I’m looking for,” says Darren Prodger, a potter who shops at the market.
What he’s looking for in many cases is food that fits his son’s limited diet. With seven food allergies, and some of those severe, label reading is a must for his family.
“One of the things we like they deal with vendors who understand the importance of those things,” says Prodger.
While a box of cereal from a standard supermarket might have a long list of ingredients to filter through for potential allergens, at this store they find products whose manufacturers seem to use ingredients that are not just fillers. The store stocks large sizes of substitutes they rely upon—like vegan mayonnaise and butter products that can be very expensive.
People who live with food allergies often join food-buying clubs, or order foods that fit their dietary restrictions by the case. Having a place where you can try out new products, say, a new line of tortillas, one package at a time, is a real plus.
The store also has a Learning Center with a big teaching kitchen and an island for samples and demos. Classes in everything from food basics to knife skills are geared to people of all ages and interests, from preschoolers to adults.
The demonstration area is a place to sample products and recipes showcasing ingredients, like a soft wheat berry salad with fennel the day I was there. Often, local farmers and regional food producers, as well as national manufacturers, are at this station, introducing the food themselves.
This model of putting a face on food is very trendy, but this market has been operating on the model since its parent store opened in Burlington, Vt., in 1986. Katy Lesser shopped at the farmers market for her store and built relationships with growers as she went from a 1,200-square-foot shop to 35,000 square feet, like this Saratoga store, in 2007.
Local isn’t just a buzzword to Lesser; it’s a way to be in business.
“I can’t imagine not doing it,” she says of supporting local farmers. “It’s part of my responsibility. I’m thrilled that local farmers are the new rock stars, finally.”
While other supermarkets might have a Connecticut farmer’s face on the corn when it rolls into Albany, Lesser and her staff build relationships with farmers, teaching them to grow for the markets. When the Burlington shop needed a consistent supply of kale to meet demand, the store helped farmers build a high tunnel to grow the greens for them year round.
The logistics of buying locally grown fruits and vegetables can be tricky for supermarkets to manage. When customers started to ask stores where the food was coming from, some area markets wouldn’t put location tags on the food. While local is such a catchphrase, not many stores have the staff, or the will, to work so closely with producers. Whole Foods, for instance, has a minimum purchase line for farmers to meet. Healthy Living has no minimum.
The market also doesn’t require GAPS certification, something that some stores ask for from produce vendors. This is a system where farms lay out their handling plans to prove awareness of food safety issues. While a good principle for farmers to follow, setting it up and meeting the requirements is tricky, and expensive, something only farms of a certain scale pursue right now.
“We’ll work with farmers who want to grow and ones who want to stay small,” says Lesser. “There is no formula for bringing local to your store. You help your buyers figure it out. You help your farmers figure it out.”
In Saratoga, the store and staff are already working with area farmers and producers, and developing more relationships with farmers as their crops come in. Lesser says that managers and buyers are very educated, and empowered to decide who to bring into the store.
This concern for relationships is part of a strong employee community at each store, too. There are 150 people working in the Burlington market, and 100 in Saratoga.
“When we’re in the store it feels a little more friendly than your average grocery store,” says Kyla Scherer, a Malta resident who shops at Healthy Living. She has two small children, and she likes how the location in the Wilton Mall fits into her family’s path.
Her favorite part is the bulk bins, because of the variety offered and the fact that she can take as little or as much as she wants, of everything from dry goods to honey and oils. She likes the staff who work the bulk bins, she says. Oat flour and farro are two ingredients she sampled this time, and will go back for more.