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RapidBlog: No groceries downtown GR? Think again.

Marjorie Steele




Downtown dweller and local foodie Marjorie Steele answers the oft-asked question of urban residents: Where do you buy groceries downtown Grand Rapids? Read on for an urban forager's guide to groceries in GR.
Where do you buy groceries when you live in downtown Grand Rapids?
 
The question is simple, but the answer is not. If you’re looking for a single, one-stop-shop, the truth is that right now, we just don’t have one.
 
I work in urban development, so unpacking GR’s “grocery problem” is a hazard I interact with all the time. It’s a chicken-or-the-egg issue: we need grocery options to attract more residents so we can build critical mass, but we need more critical mass to attract large grocery retailers. And Grand Rapids is getting there; we’re just not there yet. Yada yada.
 
On the other hand, I’m also myself a resident of urban Grand Rapids; my family and I have lived in Midtown, just 10 blocks from the city center, since 2009. We’ve explored every store and farmers' market from the Grand River to the Beltline, and we’ve seen a few come and go. But mostly, we’ve watched them come, and we’ve seen them grow. Today, I can honestly say that urban Grand Rapids has amazing grocery options - if you’re willing to shop a little more creatively, that is.
 
Groceries in GR don’t come in a big box store, but they’re there: networked throughout local markets, retailers and boutique convenience stores. They’re in urban butcher shops and even hyperlocal ecommerce grocery stores. They’re everywhere, they’re healthful, and they’re delicious.
 
As these options have grown, my family has worked away at phasing out our grocery trips to the suburbs in place of more local options. We’ve done this partly because I’m a granola-munching foodie, but also because, quite honestly, our local options are tastier, healthier and more convenient. While we do still make the occasional bi-monthly pilgrimage to Meijer to stock up on cleaning products and sundries, the vast majority of our grocery shopping is done within a twelve-block radius of our home.
 
So, for the urbancurious, the new-to-GRapidians and the food skeptics, here is my personal guide to groceries in Grand Rapids.
 
Yes, Virginia, there ARE groceries downtown
 
Starting downtown, Grand Central Market on Monroe Center is a tidy but fairly thorough grocery store / deli / cafe. Here you have milk, eggs, cheese, meat, bread, a small selection of produce, beverages, and basic essentials like flour and toothpaste.
 
Eight blocks south in Heartside, the Downtown Market has a huge selection in its indoor Market Hall. Over 20 local vendors occupy the still-new space, with products ranging from flowers and sweets to local meats, produce and artisan cheese.
 
Perhaps most significant to the grocery scene here are Fish Lads, Grand Rapids’ lone sustainable seafood market spearheaded by veteran fishmonger Jeff Butzow, and Montello Meat Market, a local butcher shop which emphasizes “old world craftsmanship." I’m personally biased towards Fish Lads because I have a weakness for oyster shooters, and I’m in love with Montello because they didn’t charge me for a pork belly strip when I bought my Christmas roast last year. The package’s happy little note, “no charge, Merry Christmas!” gave me a rush of warm fuzzies. Now tell me the last time that happened to you at a grocery chain?
 
Other notable grocery vendors at the Market Hall include City Produce, which has a small but excellent selection of fresh goods, and Field & Fire Bakery, arguably the best bakery in the city.
 
New to Heartside on South Division is the Local Epicurean, a market which specializes in handmade, gourmet pasta and chocolate. I’m not much of an artisan shopper myself (I’ve no idea what I would use truffle oil for, or truffles for that matter), but I’m seriously impressed with their selection, specialty though it is. Aside from the handmade, gourmet pasta and chocolate (made on-site), you can find olive oil, spices, meats, cheese and even a few deli items. As the name implies, this is no bargain grocer by any means, but the products are extremely high quality, and if you’re in a pinch for a dine-in date night or dinner party, you can’t beat the Epicurean.
 
Moving out from the city center, we have the infamous Martha’s Vineyard and its sister Nantucket Bakery at the corner of Lyon and Union. This is a particular favorite of mine because I can buy staples for my toddler on my way home from work here: hyperlocal eggs and non-homogenized milk from Heffron Farms. In a pinch, there isn’t much you can’t find at Martha’s, including household sundries and, yes, European smokes (I do love my Dunhills). Over the years I’ve probably spent a month’s salary on coconut water and milk here alone. Same goes for quinoa and chia seed bread from Nantucket - don’t even get me started on their daily specials.
 
At the eastern edge of Medical Mile is the new Grand Butchers, which emphasizes natural, quality cuts and local sourcing. If Montello’s prices scare you away (freebies notwithstanding), Grand Butchers offers similar quality at a lower cost. A few blocks further down Michigan Street is Walgreen’s, of course, filling the gap for cosmetics, sundries and weirdly premature holiday paraphernalia.
 
If you’re irritated at the prospect of running all over the city for the staples, try this on: hyperlocal ecommerce grocery service Doorganics delivers customizable grocery bins directly to customers’ doorsteps. The company sources sustainable produce, meat and other groceries from local farms and greenhouses (with a few out-of-state farms providing off-season produce), then creates a new produce selection each week based on what’s freshest and in season. Natural, local meat, dairy, eggs, bread, coffee, honey and a host of other groceries can be added to your order online. It’s essentially like having a personal shopper go to the farmers' market for you, except it’s a year-round service, and groceries cost close to the same as they would in the grocery store.
 
At the risk of playing favorites, I can’t overemphasize the quality and convenience of Doorganics’ products and service. Their selection has grown exponentially over the last few years, to the point where my family never needs to run to the store for meat or produce. Their weekly (or bi-weekly) recurring orders make it stupid simple for me to track my grocery expenses, and their customer service is excellent. One time I left a message on the main number regarding a billing question, and an hour later Mike Hughes, the owner, returned my call from his cell phone. I mean…service doesn’t get better than that.
 
If you’re a coffee snob like me and you dig ecommerce groceries, you NEED to try Regular Coffee. Yes, the brand is called Regular Coffee, and it’s created by our own Rowster Coffee on Wealthy Street. They have precisely two types of coffee: regular and decaf. The 1.5lb tube (because “good things come in tubes”) of whole beans comes in the mail as often as you want it to, and it is hands down the best cuppa I’ve ever made at home.
 
Last but not least, we in Grand Rapids are, of course, blessed with not one but two flourishing farmers' markets: Fulton Street Farmers' Market and the Downtown Market’s Outdoor Market. I could gush about heirloom produce, the deliciousness of organ meats and the holistic benefits of hyperlocal honey all day, but the best way to understand the value of these markets is to simply go there to see, touch, taste and smell. It’s a rare commodity to be able to talk directly with the farmer who grew the product you’re buying, who can tell you the best way to enjoy its flavors and can describe his or her agricultural processes in minute detail.
 
Farmers' markets are also an amazing resource for eating locally year round, if you’re willing to put in a little elbow grease. Rather than spending $6 per 1/2 pint for California-grown blueberries off-season, you can buy them at peak season by the bulk-rate flat in July and stockpile them in the freezer. They freeze beautifully, and they make perfect smoothies. Same goes for strawberries, peppers, beans, cherries and just about everything else under the sun. In my own pantry, I’ve replaced my purchase of store-bought canned tomatoes, pickles, applesauce and peaches entirely with my own canned heirloom fruits and veggies. And honestly, it’s not that hard to do. If you’re not sure how to preserve or can your own food, farmers are always delighted to share their expertise - who would know how to preserve produce better than the person who’s grown it for decades? I also highly recommend checking out the online canning resources authored by Grand Rapids native Diane Devereaux, aka The Canning Diva. She teaches classes at the Downtown Market in the summer.
 
Thinking outside the big box
 
When we talk about the “urban renaissance” Grand Rapids is experiencing, one of the things we often fail to discuss is how we as a community are relearning what it means to live in a city. Huge grocery stores and monthly Costco trips are part and parcel to rural and suburban life, but in the vast majority of thriving urban centers, frequent trips and smaller purchases at the local corner store or market are the norm. After all, who wants to carry a month’s worth of groceries up the stairs to their apartment? For that matter, what urban apartment has the space to store a month’s worth of groceries?
 
The logistics all work themselves out. When you’re making one-off purchases, you don’t need a vast selection of every possible grocery and household product in one place. You need milk and bread, or an avocado and chips, or a couple of steaks, or toilet paper and toothpaste. But you don’t need to buy them all at the same store, because you’re not buying them all in one trip. Thus, shopping at a variety of specialty markets is natural, not an inconvenience.
 
Perhaps most significantly, you literally can’t do better by your body than eating locally. I could cite this article, or that, or talk about how the chemicals they give animals in large scale agriculture are making us fat and sick, or how food packaging is giving us cancer, but the case for eating locally is really much simpler than all that. Eating seasonal, local and responsibly sourced food provides the best nutrition to your body, it maximizes your investment in the community and it’s better for the environment. It’s the whole triple-bottom-line package, and if you factor in the cost of gas, it costs roughly the same as it does to grocery shop on Alpine or 28th Street.
 
And if you live in urban Grand Rapids, it’s either eat local or start loving that monthly drive out to the suburbs.

Marjorie Steele is an avid localist, natural foodie and lives in an historic home in Midtown with her husband and toddler. She also manages marketing and communications at 616 Lofts & 616 Development. Follow Marjorie at creativeonion.tumblr.com.
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