We have a battle for the high end of the supermarket business in my corner of upstate New York—including Trader Joe, Healthy Living, Shoprite, Fresh Market and Whole Foods coming soon. Price Chopper, the dominant chain in the area, has now weighed with Market Bistro, a “living, breathing laboratory” where they’ll test concepts that may roll out in the rest of the chain.
I took a tour of this enormous food court this past week. It is still a work in progress (the “Chef’s Kitchen” restaurant within the store was not yet open and a chef was taking pictures of dishes for training purposes when we visited) but there was plenty to see and sample. It’s divided into individual specialty areas including ice cream, salads, burritos/quesadillas, burgers, smoked items, fish fries as you come in; stations selling sausage, cheese and other meal components in the back, and then several sources of pre-made meals as you navigate the horseshoe to the opposite side of the court. (Bottled drinks and canned/frozen/dried goods and a checkout area are in the middle.)
According to Lew Shaye, Vice President of Culinary Concepts, the goal was to look at each specialty and see what they could do to make it “remarkable” in comparison to expectations. For hamburgers, as an example, Golub (the corporate parent) invented a brioche-style bun that is wide and flat and is “caramelized” with a few seconds in a special toaster to provide a crisp surface for meat and condiments; they wanted good bacon for bacon burgers so they decided to smoke and cure their own in-house. In the pizza area, they use a special dough which is aged 48 hours; in the ice cream station there’s a bittersweet hot fudge sundae topped with Ghirardelli chocolate and whipped-from-scratch cream.
The element that interested me most was, of course, the smoker station. Corporate Chef Dave Hamlin has developed a proprietary rub of 13 spices that go on everything, and the smoked meat is (hallelujah) served without sauce. (You can get sauce on the side, if you like, and it’s excellent.) Items go into a big smoker within the store with less-tender cuts fired first thing in the morning and others added throughout the day. Hamlin’s brisket (they use CAB flats) and ribs were more tender and tasty than any I would ever expect to find in these parts, and certainly in a supermarket. Not surprisingly, the smoked items are selling at 1000% of projection so far.
There are a variety of strategies in place to make Market Bistro a destination for people who want to get excellent ingredients for prepping their own meals, order pre-made meals to go, or just plop down in one of the seating areas after shopping in the store. There is a big Italian deli, cheese and pasta area (Shaye informed us Italian food indexes at 143 in our region, which means in the “Capital District” it’s eaten nearly 50% more often than in the U.S. overall) and an impressive sushi counter where you can get pre-made trays from a long counter with disco lights or have it made to order. For the latter, Shaye says it’s briefly zapped in a TurboOven—presumably to take off the chill that might turn off some people—another unique value added touch.
The prices are designed to be just a little lower than restaurants, and they’re talking restaurants like Chipotle and Panera, not fine dining places. In my value obsession, I did not see anything that I would reject for price other than a hunk of Buttermilk Blue cheese that was $15.99 a pound; I know I can get it for $12.99 at “Wealthy Living”.
My family doesn’t live near enough to the location to make it a regular stop, but we’d definitely eat here when coming to the “city” for movies or shopping. There’s plenty to put smiles on the faces of my two boys. And it’s right on our way to the airport!