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The Dish: The Fresh Market

Posted by L. Kim Tan  April 21, 2010 02:52 PM

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I’ve been trying to write about Hingham’s new grocery store, The Fresh Market, for a week and I keep circling a single point I can’t seem to get around.

TFM is a chain out of North Carolina that opened its 94th store in its 18th state -- Massachusetts -- at the Hingham Shipyard complex on April 6.

There’s much to like about this first Fresh Market in the Commonwealth.

Top of my list is that it’s smaller than the town’s three bigs: Stop and Shop, Hannaford, and Whole Foods, so you don’t have to walk a mile to find what you need. The space is light and airy, and I love that it has some small shopping carts -- half the length of regular ones -- that are easy to maneuver. On the down side of the convenience scale is that it isn’t a straight shot into the parking lot, which makes it harder to pop in and out. (Entering the complex through an unmarked shipyard entrance 100 yards from the main, lighted entrance is easier.)

TFM manages to stake out some unique ground in the local market scene by stocking its inventory of organic, TFM, and conventional brands of like items together. Annie’s organic catsup, for instance, is next to Heinz on the shelf -- which makes it easy to compare products. Three of the town’s four other markets don’t mix it up like this, but segregate all health food items in one section.

Unlike Whole Foods, and then Stop and Shop and Hannaford, which stock exhaustive inventories of organic brands and conventional brands, respectively, Fresh Market has some of everything: a mix of products.

It has a bakery (with a healthy ingredient profile halfway between Stop and Shop’s and Whole Foods’) and a prepared foods section (about half the items are made in store). There’s a carefully tended produce department, with conventional, organic, and soon-to-arrive local fruits and vegetables and a large offering of bulk nuts, dried fruits, snacks, coffee beans, and lots of candies. It has a good selection of wines and beers and a large flower department. It has a nice frozen foods department, full of the market’s characteristic assortment of natural, TFM, and conventional, branded items. There’s a large cheese department; a dairy case with rBGH-free, regular milk products as well as the Horizon line of organic milks; factory-farmed and free-range eggs; and even Orbit chewing gum (handy) at the checkout counter (but no standard lineup of Snickers and Milky Ways).

The store encourages its employees to interact with customers and to offer samples, which is great. On one visit, David Hughes, produce manager, pulled out a fruit knife and cut me some pear and mango slices, and deli manager Andrea Bain served me a taste of some delicious, house-made rotisserie salmon in foil.

“The great thing about working here is the customer interaction,” said Bain, who used to work “across the street” at Shop and Shop. “We’re allowed to let people sample anything.”

Which is very nice.

But what I can’t understand -- the issue I keep circling back to -- is that Fresh Market doesn’t sell any meat that’s naturally raised. This is especially surprising since it sells so many organic products.

When I asked the corporate office about this, via e-mail, TFM meat and seafood merchandising vice president Ross Reynolds wrote that the store bases its meat and poultry selections on taste and customer preferences. He said that the Hingham store could sell a “no hormone, no antibiotic beef product” if he finds that customers will want it.

When I talked to Ben Adamo, the Hingham store’s meat manager, he said that there was a natural beef product that he could order but that it was cryovaced.

Oddly, although the store’s chicken is free-range and semi-naturally-raised (the birds are given antibiotics only when they’re chicks), this fact is not apparent through any signs or labels. I have to conclude that TFM is indifferent to the health issues associated with factory farms -- enormous health issues that affect people, the environment, and animals.

To be fair, this is a complex and difficult issue for anybody to maneuver. My approach is to do the best I can to use my spending power to promote the humane treatment of animals, so I buy only naturally raised meats. I will, however, eat, with appreciation, anything I might be served by friends or in restaurants. (If this seems hypocritical, all I can say is that I believe every effort adds up and makes a difference and that I can’t totally deny myself what the world offers me.)

I offset the problem, and the higher cost of naturally raised meats, by eating less of them. I eat a majority of non-flesh meals and get protein from other sources, including beans, eggs, nuts, nut butters, and soy products -- items TFM carries.

Bottom-line: Fresh Market is a pleasant store to shop with much of what I regularly buy, but I’ll have to go elsewhere for meats. Still, there’s hope: TFM is a small enough chain to be relatively responsive, so shoppers can use their dollars, voices, and the town’s competitive market scene to influence its buyers to stock what they want.

Joan Wilder can be reached at joan.wilder@gmail.com.

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