Safeway Love

December 1, 2008

It seems an age since they knocked down the cramped old supermarket at the corner of Robson and Denman. Ever since, I’ve been walking past the emerging colossus that will replace it—a hole in the ground, then a wood-and-concrete warren, then a steel skeleton giving no hint of its eventual aspect. This development is destined to become my neighbourhood purveyor of frozen tortillas and fine breakfast cereals. Will it be a breakthrough in Safeway architecture? Will it throw down on the high-end grocery marketers that have flourished in recent years? Or will it play to its base, offering gleaming shelves stocked with Safeway-brand puffed rice and freezers full of Snow Star ice cream?

Maybe they don’t make Snow Star anymore. Mom always bought it, back in Manitoba. And therein lies my secret shame. Because of my Prairie roots or just a pitiful lack of 100-Mile culture, I enjoy big grocery stores. Supermarketing is a functional errand, sure. One must eat, and wipe counters, and have pillowy-soft bathroom tissue. But I visit supermarkets way too often for it to be merely a tedious task. I really like them.

Years ago I worked in Estevan, Saskatchewan. The weekly social highlight? Thursday evening, when the Safeway stayed open late. Not surprising in Estevan, perhaps, where Bard on the Beach would be missing both ingredients promised by the name. But the sad truth is that my horizons haven’t broadened much. In my world, tickets for Shakespeare’s Hamlet still rank below bargains on Schneiders ham.

I ask you who trudge off to farmers’ markets on drizzly Saturday mornings: are they really better than a well-stocked Safeway? Familiarity blinds us to its marvels. Do you honestly need to take three buses across town to score some humanely harvested arugula? I understand that if you’re a follower of the 100-Mile Diet, Safeway is evil. But free-traders, rejoice: the people of Vietnam have filled your Safeway freezer with farmed shrimp. You can shop locally for Mexican quesadillas and French cheese and Portuguese olive oil. Every Safeway is a compact international trade show. Plus they have Froot Loops.

Travel has the paradoxical effect of making you aware of Vancouver’s cultural shortcomings while reminding you of our retail bounty. North American supermarkets are global wonders. Tokyo is a fascinating urban playground, sure, but good luck trying to find shelves stocked eight deep with a hundred different types of tinned soup. Go grocery shopping in Tokyo and you end up grubbing for packaged sushi at 7-Eleven.

Vancouver’s retail-grocery landscape has changed. Capers, Urban Fare, Whole Foods, and Marketplace IGA stores have upped the ante in terms of style—and price. I’m all for premium products worth a few extra shekels. But what are our local high-end grocers actually selling? Take Nature’s Path Optimum Zen cereal. Capers offers an un-giant 320-gram box for $5.69. And what are you getting for that? The back of the box explains: “Bring back the peaceful sigh of being in tune with yourself. That’s a ‘Zen’ moment.” Beside the photo of a blissfully meditating woman, the box goes on to offer “serenity and calm for your busy world.”

While it may seem like a lot for cereal, I guess you have to factor in the money you’ll save on reiki massage and past-life regression therapy. Likewise, Nature’s Path Organic Hemp Plus granola might offer all sorts of multipurpose possibilities, perhaps involving macramé. Meanwhile, the Capers/Whole Foods pharmaceutical aisle is packed with dozens of alternative remedies, most of them certifiably rejected by those bastards in the mainstream medical fraternity.

Such stores, like local markets, also charge big bucks for the big “O.” Organic products allow you to go home with the warm feeling that you’re saving the planet, and devotees insist that they taste better (though I wonder how many would think so after a blind taste test). And granted, the availability of organic bison bones does set a new standard for responsible canine comfort. There are dogs in Saskatchewan still making do with sticks.

I like local markets, too. I enjoy the European approach—produce at the greengrocer, meat from the deli, bread from the baker, fish from the fishmonger (who may nonetheless get pissed if you call him that). It’s a wonderful aspect of West Coast life. But give me a monster food emporium as well. I’ve been hauling heavy bags all the way from the Davie Street Safeway, and I can hardly wait till I have a shorter trek. Already I’m preparing my attack. I go in without a list, without a plan. Daring improv, that’s my game. Roam the stacks, search for sale tags. Don’t pay retail except for staples. Calculate the price by volume. Don’t shop hungry. Admire the brazenly wasteful packaging.

And don’t get into fist­fights with overloaded jerks at the 15-items-or-less check­out. Let karma handle it. Hey, maybe my new Safeway will even have some of that Zen cereal. The inner peace could prove handy.

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