I was fortunate enough this week to be invited to a local vendor sampling for bloggers at Whole Foods as part of their Colonie store’s two year anniversary. The opening of Whole Foods (and Trader Joe’s and multiple ShopRites before that) has been part of a gradual evolution of the grocery store scene in the Capital Region that initially generated a lot of enthusiasm among shoppers. Whereas before Albany was really only a one-store region (primarily Price Chopper), the floodgates opened up for new competition in the last few years, bringing us a new diversity of grocery options and price points.
When I lived in the City of Albany and had a few grocery choices, I was pretty much a single issue voter when it came to picking a store: the availability of Boar’s Head meats. It sounds trivial, but lunch supplies made up a large portion of my shopping needs, and this to me was the make or break issue. Now that I live out in a more rural corner of the region, my single deciding factor has become convenience. There aren’t a lot of grocery stores in a quick driving radius, so I just set my sights on the closest one and go there consistently. Are there times that I head into Albany for a specific item at Honest Weight or a specialty ethnic market? Sure, but they are limited.
So I admittedly don’t shop at Whole Foods much. A lot of criticism after the store opened focused on the high prices relative to other stores, but I don’t really buy that as a deterrent for everyone. I’m usually willing to pay more for higher quality or local items, and I think a lot of my acquaintances are as well. The local vendor event was a good reminder of how great Whole Foods is at supporting this type of vendor – just by talking with some of the businesses, I got a great sense of how getting a foot in the door with Whole Foods has really opened up a lot of other opportunities for them. Maybe I need to push myself a little more to not always go to the easiest grocery option, but also to support the places that support the great local producers in our area.
My favorite vendors of the day included Hudson Valley Harvest out of Kingston, which was offering samples of two great salsas (as well as some other honey products). I love almost any salsa that I meet, but these were particularly fresh and vibrant tasting. They weren’t high on the spiciness scale, but the green salsa in particular had that classic tangy flavor that I’m always looking for and a good thick consistency that wasn’t too chunky. I also enjoyed the samplings from Ithaca Hummus, which had a lighter and creamier consistency than most traditional store bought hummus varieties.
The vendor for the Saratoga Juice Bar, which also has a physical location in the City of Saratoga Springs, spent a lot of time explaining his products, and even let us sample some upcoming flavors and variations that aren’t in stores yet, which was interesting. Also on the beverage side, I was curious to try a few syrups from Drink More Good out of Beacon, which were sampled with seltzer. The standouts to me were the Cassia Kream, which has cola flavors along with vanilla and cinnamon, and the Roasted Cacao, with a subtle chocolate flavor. I think these syrups would be especially wonderful in mixed cocktails – there is so much potential for interesting combinations, and they have a very mild sweetness that wouldn’t overpower other drink elements.
It was great to meet these vendors and talk about what makes their products unique and how they’re able to grow and expand with the support of grocery stores that are willing to invest in local suppliers. And it was good to reflect on my personal grocery decisions, and perhaps the need to branch out a bit more.
If you’re interested in your own sampling experience, Whole Foods has a full slate of anniversary events planned for this Saturday, June 18th, including a slightly larger local vendor event from 11:00 am to 7:00 pm, a local beer sampling from 2:00 pm to 4:00 pm, and a lunchtime grill event outside that will benefit the Fuller Road Fire House.