By Sherry Slater
The Journal Gazette | February 5, 2017

(Full article available here.)

Try to find pepperoni that doesn’t contain nitrates or nitrites.

Go ahead, Frank Scorpiniti dares you.

As CEO of Earth Fare, a specialty market chain, Scorpiniti knows it’s not easy to find so-called clean cured meats. They are available, however, on take-and-bake pizzas in his stores, which ban all products with added hormones, antibiotics, bleached flour, high fructose corn syrup and artificial fats, preservatives, sweeteners, colors and flavors.

“We like to say, ‘We read the labels, so you don’t have to,’ ” he said.

As large grocery chains expand their selection of organic and international foods, specialty markets are pushing back with promises many of the big boys can’t match. Even so, officials with specialty stores acknowledge they have to work hard to counter the belief their prices are too high for average shoppers.

Fresh Market, Fresh Thyme, Three Rivers Co-op Natural Grocery & Deli and Earth Fare each operate a store in the local market. Ted’s Market, another local competitor, announced in January that it will stop selling organic groceries and convert to a German-style beer hall with craft brews on tap.

Kroger, Meijer and Wal-Mart operate multiple stores in Fort Wayne, and each has heralded its expansion of organic and locally sourced produce in recent years.

The Big O

Food growers, processors and retailers are responding to shoppers’ growing demand for organic and natural foods.

Even well-established brands have identified the market as an opportunity to grow sales. Heinz now sells organic ketchup, Swanson makes organic chicken broth and Gold Medal mills organic flour, for example.

Groceries have developed store brands to cash in on the shift in consumer expectations.

In late 2015, Kroger announced its annual sales of natural and organic food was $11 billion. That’s about 10 percent of the Cincinnati chain’s annual sales.

Kroger launched Simple Truth, its own natural and organic brand, in 2012. Raw chicken, dry spaghetti, boxed cereal, canned vegetables, deli meats and cheeses, and other staples are sold under the brand.

Sales of the brand have increased by double-digit percentages since it started appearing on store shelves.

In 2015, Meijer debuted its True Goodness brand of natural and organic food, which replaced Meijer Naturals and Meijer Organics brands.

True Goodness products are free from artificial flavors, colors and preservatives, the company said.

With the increase in competition, specialty markets have ramped up their game, by stocking a dozen options when the bigger stores offer just a few.

Take spaghetti sauce. A recent visit to the local Earth Fare store found 16 different brands of organic spaghetti sauce, including Paesana, Cucina Antica, Michael’s of Brooklyn, Monte Bene, Eden Organic, Lucini Italia, Rao’s, Organicville and Yellow Barn.

A similar visit to the local Fresh Market found 18 brands, but not all were organic. The options included Patsy’s, Mario Batali, Lidia’s, Dave’s Gourmet, Vino de Milo, Bellino, SMT and Mom’s.

Fresh Thyme’s supply was surveyed the same week. The local store stocked 10 brand names, though it’s unclear whether all are organic. They included Little Italy Foods, Newman’s Own, Racconto, Victoria and Nellos Sauce.

Fresh Market and Fresh Thyme, which is owned in large part by Meijer, declined interview requests.

But their shelves share their story of stocking hard-to-find items. Fresh Thyme has goat’s milk. Fresh Market offers a seafood salad bar.

Consumer Sentiment

Selection makes a difference to shoppers. Other priorities include price, crowd size and store size.

Bryan Daczuk divides his shopping between Kroger and Earth Fare, depending on several factors, including how much he plans to buy and what time of day it is.

When it’s a big trip, the north-side resident prefers Kroger because he believes it’s cheaper to stock up there. And if it’s late, he has to go to Kroger because the Earth Fare across the street at 704 E. Dupont Road closes at 10 p.m.

But when Kroger is crowded, the married father of two preschoolers prefers Earth Fare, allowing his girls to push tiny grocery carts that get them in the habit of shopping for organic foods.

“Earth Fare is really good because I like their slogans,” Daczuk said. “You have some peace of mind with a lot of products they have in the building.”

The 34-year-old said he’s not overly disciplined with his family’s diet. They love Earth Fare’s organic pizza, but also occasionally eat fast food.

“It’s a balance kind of thing,” he said.

Erin Stewart, a local mother of two, isn’t going for balance. She’s all in when it comes to natural and organic foods.

National chain groceries are her last resort. Just setting foot inside is overwhelming because she doesn’t know where anything is.

Stewart, 36, buys meat, milk, butter and eggs directly from local Amish farmers.

She shops Costco, a wholesale buying club, for bulk organic juice boxes, cereal, kids’ snacks, fruits and vegetables. Despite the store’s size, Stewart knows its well enough to be in and out in 10 minutes, she bragged.

The nursing mother prefers Three Rivers Co-op for other items, including foods that meet dinner guests’ dietary restrictions.

Because Stewart saves by buying directly from farmers, she’s doesn’t mind spending a little more at a specialty market.

“I pop into a grocery store almost every day,” she said. “My fantasy job is to be a professional grocery shopper.”

Careful Shopping

It’s a misconception that only rich people can afford to eat clean food, Earth Fare’s Scorpiniti said.

He cited his grocery’s Monday special that charges $5 for a free-range rotisserie chicken that has never been given antibiotics or hormones.

Add a $1.49 organic baguette and a $2.99 package of Earth Fare-brand frozen vegetables, and you can feed a family of four for less than $10, he said.

“We’re proud that we make such clean food accessible,” he said, adding that it takes planning and careful shopping to keep total grocery bills lower. Organic soups are half price on Tuesdays, he said.

Getting back to that pepperoni … Earth Fare’s Thursday special is an 18-inch, ready-to-bake pepperoni pizza for $6.

The crust is made with organic flour, the cheese is imported from Italy and the pepperoni doesn’t have nitrates or nitrites, Scorpiniti said.

Fresh Market and Fresh Thyme also sell ready-to-bake pepperoni pizzas, but the meat is cured. The only pepperoni pizzas free of nitrates and nitrites in those stores are found in the frozen food section.

As for Kroger, Meijer and Wal-Mart? Although each stocks one or two brands of frozen pizza containing uncured pepperoni, including Newman’s Own and Chicago’s Home Run Inn brands, none of their local stores offer it on fresh pizzas.

 

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