By Maggie Menderski
Herald Tribune | December 1, 2016

(Full article available here.)

Earth Fare‘s only mistake might have been the sign inviting me to “Stay awhile.”

That welcome message was the first thing I noticed about the health-centric grocer, and I took full advantage of it.

I had just driven more than an hour to Seminole to check out the 24,000-square-foot, three-month-old boutique grocery store. Commercial building permits filed in Manatee County on Monday tell us that we’re likely getting an Earth Fare of our own at a new retail shopping center to the northeast of State Road 70 and Lakewood Ranch Boulevard, on the north end of county-straddling development.

I heard from Earth Fare’s public relations department on Wednesday, and they said they weren’t able to confirm that the grocer was moving to Southwest Florida.

But with that kind of evidence in the county records, I made a trip to Pinellas County and, at the grocer’s encouragement, I stayed awhile.

I hit the deli first. That’s where I learned firsthand that the chain’s commitment to quality, “healthy food for everyone” isn’t just a message they slap on their website and in big letters on the side of their building. It’s a reality.

I ordered a turkey wrap and watched the gentleman behind the counter roll a stack of juicy, tender, white meat bigger than my fist into a whole wheat wrap. The company pledges that its food is free of antibiotics and artificial preservatives. And that’s probably why my lunch lacked the funny looking colors that often plague deli meat, and looked more like it had just been carved off the bird. The wrap was bigger than a mason jar and it came with a bag of chips for $6.99.

I ate at one of a handful of community style tables underneath that “stay awhile” sign. The woman to my left had sushi and the men behind me had gone for the pizza. Earth Fare also had an assortment of Asian food, a salad bar and a hot foods bar featuring things like maple bourbon barbecue chicken, macaroni and cheese, and ginger scallion salmon.

Then I got to shopping.

The store itself was a happy medium between downtown Sarasota’s Whole Foods Market, at 36,000-square-feet, and the 13,000-square-footTrader Joe’s on the south end of town. But the retailer took a dramatically different approach to how it used its space. Earth Fare had a small hot foods bar and a salad bar, but it wasn’t a main event like it is at Whole Foods. Instead, the company put a huge emphasis on buying in bulk.

That reduces packaging costs, but it also keeps consumers from buying more than they need. It’s an easy alternative to constrictive packaging, whether you’re a family of nine or a party of one. Earth Fare shoppers had their choice of the traditional nuts, grains, candies and snack mixes, but could also buy things like peanut butter, apple cider vinegar, olive oil and pasta by the pound.

That’s when I went a bit nuts. Pun intended.

I opted for the cashew butter, but I had my choice of honey roasted peanut butter, chocolate peanut butter or almond butter. Cashew butter is one of those things that I love, but that I’ll never spend $10 per pound on. But $2.50 for a quarter pound? No one had to talk me into pressing the button that ground it, or putting it into my basket.

I loaded up on granola, couscous and quinoa, too. I have a bad habit of letting granola go stale before I finish it. By buying in bulk, I could have a half pound of toffee granola, a half pound of the almond vanilla and little to no worry that either would go wasted.

I picked up a handful pumpkin panzotto raviolis off the raw pasta bar, too. Those came out at less than $2, and they had the potential for an easy single-serve dinner.

Things like Kashi bars and Late July tortilla chips were along the same retail price at Earth Fare as they are in Sarasota’s Publix stores, but the chain’s in-house brand was notably less expensive. I picked up a bag of frozen Earth Fare edamame for $2.29, and I typically only see sticker prices that low at Trader Joe’s.

By the time I’d added chicken sausage, tea and chips to my basket, and my notetaking was done, I only had one complaint. I’d have to remember what type of bulk grains and granola I bought because none of them had labels.

Then I noticed my grocery bill was less than $30, and any irritation I had vanished.

As I was walking out, I spotted another sign hanging over the exit.

It said “See you soon Seminole,” and I laughed a little.

Because if those building permits I found are any indication, Earth Fare will be saying “See you soon Lakewood Ranch” before long.

And my credit card and I are both excited about that.

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