Lessons From the Grocery Store Aisle

A journey into the heart of supermarkets in and around New York

Vertical collage illustration of human arm black white colors catch hold drawing shopping net isolat...
Dan Vigliano
Better Shop Around

Before a winter storm in late January, I ran to my local Key Foods with my girlfriend to grab a few items: eggs, peanut butter, maybe some lettuce. I remembered I was almost out of seltzer, so I added some LaCroix to my basket. Then, I figured some roasted asparagus would be a nice treat. And if we were going to be stuck inside, it would be good to have some frozen chicken nuggets and tenders on hand, too. Pretty soon, I no longer qualified for the express lane.

It was the first time my girlfriend and I shopped for groceries together; in a way, it was a test of how well I can provide for myself. I couldn’t be too cheap nor excessively prodigal. I needed to be conscious of — but not overly concerned about — nutrition. I had to be adventurous, while also exuding confidence in my own tastes. The real showdown was in the lettuce aisle, where I had to weigh price against variety, freshness, organic versus non-, packaged or loose. It took three minutes to make my selection, and then it was on to the cereal aisle to repeat the process all over again. Nearly half an hour later, I was in the parking lot, lamenting, “Why does it always end up being $70?”

My girlfriend casually mentioned that Whole Foods “might be cheaper,” an utterance that shocked me to my core. The place with $4 organic avocados year-round? The retail harbinger of gentrification? On the drive home, I demanded answers: What would have been cheaper at Whole Foods? Out of everything I just bought, can you name one thing?

“A dollar here, a dollar there. I don’t know. It adds up,” were her final words on the subject.

At Yankees games, saps wait in line and pay full price for a hotdog. My savvy father brings in hot dogs from the cart across the street.

Adds up to what? Was I getting ripped off? Was I savvy or a common sap? These were the two categories of people in the world, according to my family. At Yankees games, saps wait in line and pay full price for a hotdog. My savvy father brings in hot dogs from the cart across the street. Other rules of conduct: Drive the long way around to avoid a toll. If someone is giving away free samples, ask for two more. Always look for the angles to try to save a buck.

So when my girlfriend said, “Whole Foods might be cheaper,” what I heard was: “You’re a sap for shopping here.” I had to prove her wrong. I just needed some facts and logic.

Supermarket shopping is a newer part of my burgeoning adulthood. I made it all the way to 29 thanks to my local bodega and fast food. I traveled all day for work, so I ended up eating the cheapest, quickest food available between appointments (shout-out to pizzeria chicken rolls). One day, my friend recommended a meal-prep delivery service. It cost nearly the same and took much more time than my regular eating habits, but I started learning about real food, a.k.a. everything in the middle of the food pyramid. My YouTube history became filled with “how to dice/mince/chop [vegetable]” and the meals steadily got better. Then, in late 2019, the farm-to-start-up-to-shipping facility-to table model was no longer profitable, and the service shuttered. It was time to say goodbye to individually wrapped garlic cloves and spread my wings.

Since then, I have tried every iteration for getting groceries that do not involve touching dirt or stealing. In December 2019, I shopped at my local Met Foods and a 24-hour bodega-cum-European-speciality-store. When Covid-19 arrived in New York, I avoided physical trips to the store thanks to a restaurant purveyor and CSA farm box from California. Ordering enormous quantities of provisions was economical and, in the spirit of the time, hygienic. The farm box was a new paradigm: Each week, a box of fresh, seasonal produce would arrive for a set price of $48. I didn't even recognize some of the names of the fruits and veggies. Spigariello? Romanesco? Marina di Chioggia? The first couple of weeks, I would research recipes, and as soon as I had steeled myself to use the unfamiliar produce, they were already spoiled. In the third week, I started actually cooking with them. The box would empty out, and then new produce would arrive to replace what I had used up. Rinse, repeat.

By September 2020, I had switched to Chef Collective, another restaurant purveyor-type company that charged $125 every two to three weeks. I continued using it even after I had moved from Greenpoint, Brooklyn to Riverdale in the Bronx (where the minimum delivery was much higher) because I liked its “Monger’s Choice - Mystery Cheese” and “Baker’s Choice - Sullivan St. Bakery” options, where they would send cheese and bread that I had never tried before.

Then, for whatever reason, the service stopped home delivery, so I tried FreshDirect — the skim version of Chef Collective — exactly once. The prices ($130 for a lot more food) were much more reasonable, but the experience matched the thrill of online bill-paying.

I started venturing to my new neighborhood’s grocery stores. Once a week, I take stock of what’s in my fridge and pantry and come up with a couple meal ideas. I do a Marie Kondo walk around the aisles, picking up whatever inspires joy (“Oh, maybe an ancient grain!”). Buying eggs has become a utilitarian experiment in empathy: As I read the labels, I weigh the welfare of chickens against how much I’m willing to spend on the most important meal of the day. I sleep well knowing that, somewhere, chickens are free of cages.

But the million ($70) dollar question has continued to nag at me. To get to the bottom of it, I turned to science. I created a spreadsheet tracking the prices of everything on my typical shopping list at a variety of grocery stores, including my neighborhood spots and some national chains that I can subway/bus/drive to. There are a total of nine grocery stores (Key Food, Whole Foods, Garden Gourmet, Trader Joe’s, Aldi.com, Stew Leonard’s, Fairway, Wegmans, and FreshDirect) and 11 items (Fage plain yogurt, canned coconut milk, almond milk, two pounds of onions, Brad’s peanut butter, cage-free eggs, organic eggs, Post Great Grains Banana Nut Crunch cereal, a 12-pack of LaCroix, Earthbound Farm arugula, Earthbound Farm power greens) on the spreadsheet. While by no means exhaustive, this mix of stores and products does provide an overall impression of which supermarkets are actually cheaper, for my needs.

My Key Food is a little fancy-schmancy. I almost forget about walking past an 18-wheeler truck in the parking lot to get to the main entrance once I see the mood lighting, vibrant color scheme, and salad bar. The store’s layout reads like a multi-course American dinner. From left to right: appetizers/snacks, water/drinks, fruits/vegetables, meat and fish along the wall, cereals/grains, cleaning supplies, and frozen food, including dessert. The rightmost aisle is candy and cheese, a.k.a. midnight snacks. For a neighborhood grocery store, the prices are pretentious. Name-brand items are more expensive than all but one grocer.

Enter Garden Gourmet. Garden Gourmet is the nicest grocery store you can expect located next to a dollar store, underneath an elevated subway line. Immediately upon entering, there are heaps of produce and a security guard, a scarecrow-like figure with a “securitas” badge. The store has a horseshoe layout, so there’s no path to the registers without passing through pre-made meals and snacks. It’s hard for me to save time and money in the face of pints of hummus and cheese. The dairy prices are significantly higher than Key Food, pushing Garden Gourmet to the priciest spot on the list, which ties into the niche the store has carved out for itself, with the biggest selection of organic food, meat, and vegetarian/vegan products. Bargain shoppers go across the street to ShopRite or down the block to Aldi.

Aldi, the corporate Daniel Baldwin to Trader Joe’s Alec, is the cheapest of all the stores I sampled. Finding parking near their store is a nightmare, so my numbers are based on the website. Now, I am picky about peanut butter — I will not buy peanut butter with salt or palm oil, and Aldi doesn’t stock that, so I wouldn’t regularly order delivery from them. However, I do respect its mission of selling the cheapest packaged food to a local community.

Trader Joe’s is the second cheapest, but, like Aldi, it doesn’t carry everything on my list. What it does carry are snacks and frozen food. This is where Trader Joe’s excels. Its frozen section doesn’t even have doors because the food doesn’t stay on the shelves long enough. The snacks are better versions of Nestle and Mars products. The store attracts notoriously long lines, but I do most of my shopping done within the last hour of closing time, so it’s not an issue for me.

A step up in price and quality is Wegmans. It’s basically Trader Joe’s with better produce, or a less discerning Whole Foods. The prices are extremely reasonable, they have a wide selection, and they carry store brands in addition to name-brand stuff. When I went, it was jammed with Instacart shoppers. I was one of the few people not being paid to be there. For me, Wegmans is just too far to visit or have delivered.

For a farm-themed shopping experience, skip Trader Joe’s and go to Stew Leonard’s in Long Island or Westchester. The entire store is one winding aisle, like IKEA, with animatronic animals at every turn. Robotic cows urge people to eat beef and drink milk. The last-minute impulse buys section includes a tower of Beanie Babies. At Stew Leonard’s, we are all saps walking the same predetermined route. It is delightfully Lynchian. Price-wise, its upcharge for name-brand food is steep, but this is countered by lower prices for dairy and produce. This is the only store I would prefer to go to than get delivery. I wholeheartedly recommend it.

As for Fairway, what is there to say? It splits the difference between Trader Joe’s and Garden Gourmet in every way: price, convenience, fun.

Does buying fresh, ground peanut butter make me a sap? No. For just another dollar, I watch the nuts become a paste that most animals would love.

Last but not least, Whole Foods. Whole Foods doesn’t sell food with certain ingredients, like high-fructose corn syrup. Combined with the high ceilings, bright lighting, and readable signs, it feels like a cleaner, filtered version of Wegmans or Key Food. While there are only a couple alternative labels to the store brand, there is a wide selection. The ur-example is peanut butter. Whole Foods’ brand has varieties that are crunchy, smooth, and with and without honey. For sodium-free peanut butter, there is a machine that crushes peanuts on command. It costs at least a dollar more than peanut butters at the other stores. Does buying fresh, ground peanut butter make me a sap? No. For just another dollar, I watch the nuts become a paste that most animals would love.

Whole Foods is cheaper than Key Food before any transportation costs, but after adding delivery (and tip), Key Food beats Whole Foods by a nose. In spite of this, I regularly have my groceries delivered by Whole Foods now. Was my girlfriend wrong? No. Am I a sap? Also no. These margins are so tight that a minor influx in one or two items could throw off the results. With the wild card of inflation, every week would be a jumble.

I thought this spreadsheet would show me where I should get groceries, prove my girlfriend wrong, and justify myself as a savvy shopper. Instead, for me, it has redefined the meaning of savvy shopping. Food can, and probably should be, a source of joy. The numbers don’t tell the full story of watching peanuts turn into butter or the spicy taste of fresh arugula. I am a savvy shopper because I discovered how to improve my quality of life by spending a little more. I hope everyone can have the opportunity to make this choice for themselves. A real sap, all else being equal, sticks to the lakes and rivers they are used to.

Dan Vigliano (33/M/NYC) writes and performs autobiographical comedy and theatre.