Take one part Nordstrom customer service, one part Trader Joe convenience, add a couple of aisles of Whole Foods specialty items, combine with a generous measure of Old World wooden crates, season with the aromas of fresh flowers and just-brewed coffee, and you've got what the new Fresh Market in Glen Mills hopes is a recipe for success.
The location for the North Carolina chain's first local store (on Route 1 east of 202) did not work out so well for its two previous tenants, Zagara's and Foodsource, both upscale groceries that did not survive.
This time around, the formula is different: The Fresh Market store is only about half the size of its predecessors. And the goal is that its manageable size and European feel will be enhanced by an attentive, knowledgeable staff.
Fresh Market would like to transform the dreaded chore of food shopping into a relaxing and enjoyable activity. They have designed the store from the wood floors below to the imaginative scenes above - a charming country garden, an inviting and cozy library - to reinforce this goal.
The classical music playing, the irresistible smells coming from open barrels and crates, and, best of all, the staff to help the customer (what a novel idea in a supermarket!) all promote subliminal feelings of comfort, stylish living, even inspiration.
In the end, the store gets a mixed review: high marks for atmosphere, its helpful staff and unusual products; demerits for some sky-high prices and limited basic stock, which can quickly derail a happy shopping experience.
Coffee lovers will be invited to sip a small complimentary cup of freshly ground and brewed coffee, and enticed to buy the whole beans in bulk from a long double row of attractive wooden barrels.
As a spice fiend, I was immediately drawn by my nose to the market's wooden cabinet filled with upright cellophane packages of aromatic spices and dried herbs, all very reasonably priced and definitely fresh. (Glass jars are on sale for storage if you don't happen to have a slew of reusable empty spice jars.)
Most consumers judge a supermarket by its produce department - one reason that the produce is always up front; the milk and meat in the rear. At the Fresh Market, the scattered kiosks and wood-crate displays evoke a European street market, a welcome contrast to the usual long wall of prepackaged produce sold in a sterile atmosphere with harsh lighting.
However, the quality of the produce wouldn't be enough to draw me back. It offers the same over-large Driscoll berries found at every supermarket. I was tempted by their golden raspberries ($4.99 per half-pint) and white cherries ($7.99 per pound), but these days, my budget doesn't allow for those luxuries.
Instead, I opted for small, velvety, dark-skinned South Carolina peaches that were ripe enough to perfume my kitchen after only one day on the counter and, at $1.99 per pound, well worth the price. I loaded up on adorable, tender young yellow squash at only 98 cents per pound for slicing and grilling or to make a simple creamy soup with tomatoes, corn and basil. The gigantic, firm, creamy white celery root I snapped up was a real bargain at $3.49, perfect to roast with chicken and apples and red onions.
Though I searched for seasonal springtime farmers' market items like fresh favas, green onions, green garlic, and baby turnips, I was disappointed that they had none for sale - at least that day.
For upscale shoppers looking to put together a quick meal with high-quality, perfectly trimmed meats, sushi, or specialty cheeses with gourmet condiments, a salad of baby greens, and perhaps a chocolate truffle torte for dessert, this store works well.
The Fresh Market's signature big glass jars of colorful candy, open bins of nuts, sesame and corn snacks, and dried fruits will please children (and the kid in all of us), but parents looking to feed those kids will have a challenge. As one manager told me when I was looking for a five-pound bag of unbleached all-purpose flour, "Honestly, we don't have very much mainstream product here."
And it's true, this is definitely not a store for basics; rather, it is a source for sparkling natural scallops (on special at $13.99 per pound) to impress company, or for advice when choosing the best steaks for a birthday dinner.
The knowledgeable young man at the meat counter was able to tell me why The Fresh Market sells only Hereford beef for its three different types of ground beef - it has the best ratio of lean to fat, about 80-20. All the beef is ground daily in the glassed-in butcher shop directly behind the counter. For its well-marbled steaks, he explained that Fresh Market uses Angus beef, long the choice of top steak houses. It's refreshing to shop at a store that treats their meats with the respect they deserve.
I'll be making a special trip to Fresh Market just to buy their outstanding ground beef. I prefer ground chuck, which is the least expensive ($3.49 a pound) and most flavorful - 85-15 lean to fat. (Ground chuck, which has a high enough fat content along with fresh ground pork sausage meat, makes a moist and flavorful oatmeal meatloaf; see recipe.)
I like their strong focus on serviced meat, poultry and seafood counters, an area where customers often have questions and special requests. On the other hand, the market seems to be behind the times in lack of attention to sustainable, organic, and local. The seafood department carried no whole fish and stocked several fish (including swordfish, Chilean sea bass, and orange roughy) that are on the Monterey Bay Aquarium red list because their fisheries are non-sustainable.
When I asked at the counter whether the store had any sustainability guidelines, the answer was no. The fact that their closest high-quality competitor is Whole Foods, which has a clear policy of not selling these products, may turn off younger, environmentally conscious customers.
When the second Fresh Market opens in Horsham, it will be a lot closer to my home and I'll be able to pick up some of my favorite foods like that ultra-fresh ground beef, fabulous Nueske's applewood smoked bacon, and Carolina Plantation rice actually grown in South Carolina, along with their fragrant bulk-pack spices, Greek yogurt, and good chocolate.
However, the lack of product on the shelves (no store brand unsalted butter or unbleached all-purpose flour except in higher-priced two-pound bags), and the fact that customers were sparse on a Friday afternoon with only three cashier stations open makes me wonder whether the store is going to succeed in its present form. Its relatively small size means that I'll be able to stop in for a few items, but since I saw no loaded-up carts, it appears that many customers are using the store as I would. Perhaps a little tweaking of the Fresh Market recipe will bring in those demanding Philadelphia-area customers.
Summer Squash and Corn Soup With Garden Tomatoes
Makes 12 servings
3 pounds small summer squash, grated
2 large white onions, grated
Salt to taste
1 quart water
3 pounds ripe tomatoes, diced, juices strained and reserved
10 cups corn kernels (including scrapings), from about 10 ears, preferably white corn
2 cups heavy cream
2 cups whole milk
1 cup thinly sliced fresh basil leaves
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Combine the squash, onions, salt, and water in a large pot. Bring to the boil and simmer for 30 minutes. Add the tomatoes, corn, and any scrapings, and bring to the boil. Simmer 10 minutes longer.
2. At the last minute, stir in the cream and basil, add pepper to taste, and heat just long enough to bring back to the boil. Serve immediately or chill and store refrigerated up to 4 days, heating gently as needed.
Per serving: 349 calories, 9 grams protein, 46 grams carbohydrates, 16 grams sugar, 18 grams fat, 61 milligrams cholesterol, 54 milligrams sodium, 7 grams dietary fiber.
Roast Chicken with Celery Root, Rosemary, and Apples
Makes 8 servings
1/2 cup finely minced shallots
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 tablespoons finely chopped rosemary
Salt and pepper
4 pounds cut-up chicken (bone-in)
1 large celery root, pared and cut into wedges
2 large Fuji apples (or other firm, red-skinned apples), cored and cut into thick wedges
Juice of 1 lemon
2 small red onions, cut into wedges
1. Combine shallots, rosemary, oil, and salt and pepper and rub all over chicken. Marinate at least 2 hours and up to 2 days, covered and refrigerated.
2. Cook celery root for 2 minutes in boiling salted water. Drain and reserve.
3. Toss apple wedges with lemon juice. Combine apples, red onions, and celery root and reserve.
4. Preheat the oven to 450°F. Drain the chicken, and arrange skin-side down in a large baking pan. Scatter apple mixture over top.
5. Roast until the chicken is three-quarters cooked, about 30 minutes. Turn chicken over and roast until the chicken skin is browned, and the chicken has reached 165°F on a meat thermometer measured at the thickest portion of the thigh, about 20 minutes longer. Serve with polenta or rice.
Note: The trimmings from the celery root are excellent in vegetable or chicken stock. Freeze until needed.
Per serving: 327 calories, 24 grams protein, 10 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams sugar, 21 grams fat, 88 milligrams cholesterol, 92 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Oatmeal Meat Loaf
Makes 8 to 10 servings
2 ribs celery, roughly chopped
2 carrots, roughly chopped
1 onion, roughly chopped
1/2 pound white mushrooms
2 teaspoons chopped garlic
2 tablespoons bacon fat, or oil
2 pounds ground beef
1/2 pound ground fresh sausage meat (substitute ground dark-meat turkey)
1 cup oatmeal
1 cup barbecue sauce
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons each: chopped Italian parsley, marjoram, sage, and thyme
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. Chop the celery, carrots, onion, mushrooms and garlic in a food processor or by hand. Sauté the vegetables in the bacon fat (or oil) until softened, about 5 minutes. Remove from the pan and cool to room temperature.
2. Beat together by hand, or in a mixer using the paddle attachment, the ground beef and pork, the vegetables, oatmeal, 1/2 cup of barbecue sauce, eggs, Worcestershire, soy sauce, herbs, and salt and pepper. Sauté a small spoonful of the mixture and taste for seasoning (it's not a good idea to eat raw pork).
3. Preheat the oven to 375° F. Using your (clean) hands, form the mixture into a large oblong meatloaf, shaping as evenly as possible, on a nonstick-sprayed baking pan.
4. Bake 45 minutes, then brush with the remaining 1/2 cup of barbecue sauce and bake about 15 minutes, or until well-browned and cooked through, 160° F on a meat thermometer. Remove from the oven and cool about 10 minutes so the loaf will set. Slice and serve.
Per serving (based on 10): 409 calories, 24 grams protein, 19 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 27 grams fat, 121 milligrams cholesterol, 736 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.