Twenty years ago, Vermonters who wanted wheat germ, local eggs or organic lemons went to the nearest small, hippie-run food cooperative — and it was often a haul. And, while they might have had a better selection of grains, legumes and meat substitutes than did the Grand Union, the co-ops came up short on fresh seafood, dryer sheets and decadent desserts. One-stop shops they were not.
Fast-forward to the big-box era. Whole Foods, which gives natural foods the mega-mart treatment, has colonized much of America. Around here, where the chain hasn't yet penetrated, Burlington's once-tiny co-op, Onion River, has morphed into City Market, downtown's only full-blown grocery store. In South Burlington, Healthy Living doubled in size when it moved to its new, 30,000-square-foot digs on Dorset Street earlier this month. And two smaller markets, Natural Provisions and Sweet Clover Market, have opened in the busy B-town suburbs of Williston and Essex Junction, respectively. Plenty of neighborhood stores have sprouted further out.
If you live or work in the Burlington area, healthy, organic, one-stop shopping is only a few stoplights away — the four shops mentioned are within eight miles of the city's center. But, with so many options, how do you decide where to buy your fresh-baked bread, organic arugula and natural deodorant?
We've done some comparison shopping for you, focusing not on pricing but on selection and usability. Seven Days spent hours at each store, counting the bulk bins and sampling from the salad bars, to provide you with this miniature grocery guide. Not surprisingly, the two largest stores, Healthy Living and City Market, offer many more products than do their smaller counterparts. However, each mart has quirks that make it distinct from the others. That's what indie is all about.
Sweet Clover, 3000 square feet (Essex Shoppes and Cinemas, 10 a.m. - 7 p.m. weekdays, 9 a.m. - 7 p.m. weekends): Local is king at this friendly, small-town market, with a secondary focus on organic and all-natural products. Their experienced butcher, Cole Ward, fabricates all of the store's meats and makes fresh sausages and burgers from local pork and beef. These high-end products, plus Ward's sage cooking advice, mean that Sweet Clover's meat market alone is worth the drive. Curbside delivery is available, and cooking classes are coming soon. The first one offers advice on using lower-cost cuts of beef. Natural Provisions, 10,000 square feet (329 Harvest Lane, Suite 100, Williston, 8 a.m. - 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. - 6 p.m. Sunday): A convenient alternative in an area filled with box stores, this smallish market is filled with natural light. The produce is organic, and there are pre-packed grab 'n' go items as well as a small selection of daily specials made in-house.
Healthy Living, 30,000 square feet (222 Dorset St., South Burlington, 8 a.m. - 9 p.m.): This one-stop-shopping emporium for the green gourmet boasts an extensive selection of pre-packaged foods, as well as a salad bar and a hot bar. Now with more elbowroom, the expanded store unabashedly promotes a healthy lifestyle, with everything from local veggies and organic wine to natural lipsticks and yoga mats. The frozen foods section is mammoth. In warm weather, the café will expand onto a patio.
City Market, 16,000 square feet (82 South Winooski Ave., Burlington, 7 a.m. - 11 p.m.): This member-owned business provides for the needs of the Burlington community by offering conventional items along with a wide array of healthy and gourmet nosh. It has the best seafood selection of the four stores surveyed, as well as the only in-house sushi chefs. Spirit seekers will find a significant collection of wine and sake, plus domestic and imported craft beers.
Picking Over the Produce:
Every store has button mushrooms and the "Scarborough Fair" herbs, but it can be hard to find locally grown oyster mushrooms (only City Market had 'em, along with nine other varieties) or a sprig of marjoram, exclusive to Healthy Living. City Market cornered the market on sprouts, with eight different kinds, including sunflower and pea as well as the more common mung and alfalfa.
Who's taking the localvore challenge? Well, everybody. But City Market has the most extensive selection of local produce of the stores surveyed, with significant representation from Vermont veggie growers at Golden Russet Farm, Riverside Farm, Rockville Market Farm and Arethusa, among others. (It also has the best selection of organic exotica, including kumquats, gooseberries, Meyer lemons, Jerusalem artichokes and galangal — a ginger-like root used extensively in East Asian cuisine.)
The winter produce selections at Sweet Clover and Natural Provisions feature root vegetables from Pete's Greens and local apples; the other organic produce, including lots of kale and cabbage, currently comes from out of state. At Sweet Clover, High Mowing organic plant seeds could inspire a few shoppers to grow their own.
Healthy Living's spacious, well-stocked produce section marks a bunch of products — including rutabaga and watermelon radishes — as "local," but doesn't list all the farmers. A staffer says more specific labels are in the works.
Best of the Bulk
For a miniature market, Sweet Clover has a surprising number of bulk items for sale, including 19 herbal teas and 57 different spices, along with a nice supply of grains and beans. They have a few "wet goods" in the bulk section, too. There's a fill-your-own syrup tank, and bulk natural peanut butter and honey are sold in plastic containers. Here, as at Natural Provisions, raw nuts and seeds are kept refrigerated. Active dry yeast, which can be difficult to find, is bagged and available at both stores.
There was plenty to love about Healthy Living's bulk section even before it expanded. Now, with hundreds of scoopables, it offers 50 kinds of pasta and rice, and 50 other beans and grains — everything from jasmine rice to pearl barley — plus plenty of organic spices, herbs and loose-leaf tea. Additional "wet" items, such as health-food standbys molasses and honey, are on the way.
Bulk syrup, honey and molasses are also missing from Natural Provisions — which otherwise offers a good balance of nuts and seeds, grains, beans, snack foods and staples. For DIY vanilla, olive oil, sticky sweet stuff and numerous nut butters, you'll need to visit City Market. Its hundreds of bins stock a huge selection of granolas and crunchy snack mixes, as well as grains, pastas and legumes. Many herbs and spices are offered whole or ground and in conventional and organic versions — there's even hard-to-find kudzu powder and stinky asafoetida. Caffeine hounds will find lots of organic, Fair Trade and local coffee.
Spicing It Up with Condiments and Ethnic Foods
Healthy Living and City Market offer the greatest selection of balsamic vinegars, with prices ranging from about $3 for the extra-tangy stuff to more mellow Villa Manodori, which runs around $40. Sweet Clover has a good range of vinegars and a small but high-end selection of olive oils — you'll find the Vermont-imported Greek Kalliston, for one — while Natural Provisions has limited offerings in both categories.
Sweet Clover is a great place to sample some unusual Vermont fare. It has local salad dressings not found elsewhere, including ones from It's Arthur's Fault and Cold Hollow, plus five brands of local artisan salsa: Fire-in-the-Mountains, Salsa From the Gut, Profoun Salsa, Fox Meadow Farm and Granny Blossom's. Natural Provisions has a special shelf for Vermont products, such as salsa, sweets, jam, honeys, pickles and syrup.
Healthy Living shoppers may find the condiment set-up unusual — oils and vinegars are shelved near the Italian foods, away from everything else — but will like the extensive selection. There are lots of exotic sauces and garnishes on the "ethnic" shelves, with a particularly good roundup of Asian ingredients.
Good organization makes City Market's condiments easy to locate, and the store boasts plenty of ethnic food and 16 different brands of salad dressing, including Drew's and other big-name Vermont varieties. A very small kosher section swells around the high holidays.
That's "health and beauty aids" in store manager's lingo. It used to be this section began and ended with vitamins and a few "alternative" pharmacy items. That's no longer the case — more and more recycled paper products have been added to the mix, and all four stores surveyed offer green ways to clean and plenty of pills, soaps, lotions, essential oils and the like.
Healthy Living is the HABA hub, featuring a massive supply of vitamins and a house brand of supplements, as well as candles, incense and "healthy" makeup — they carry the full Dr. Hauschka line. There are lots of eco-friendly paper products and cleaners, not to mention more than 80 cookbooks and, yes, yoga mats. The help-desk staffers make the section easier to navigate.
City Market is the place to pick up mainstream pharmacy brands such as Listerine and Tampax, though it also has a fine selection of "natural" supplements and beauty products. Alongside the paper goods, there are handy gadgets and household supplies, such as extension cords and tape.
The smaller stores have HABA, too, although Sweet Clover stocks fewer vitamins because there's a Vitamin World right across the way. At Natural Provisions, you can get fish-oil capsules and top-of-the-line cleansers.
Foraging in the Fridge
When it comes to dairy, Vermont delivers. The bounty is well represented in the refrigerated section of Healthy Living, which stocks wares from 25 local cheesemakers — among them Peaked Mountain Farm and Woodcock Farm of Southern Vermont — as well as the best selection of Spanish cheese in the area. The coolers also hold a range of high-end milk brands, five kinds of butter, 12 different brands of yogurt in 8-ounce cups, and four varieties of local ice cream and sorbet.
City Market is right behind Healthy Living in the cheese department, with selections from 20 artisans. There's lots of Willow Hill's new, washed-rind Panniolo and Cobb Hill's nutty Ascutney Mountain. When it comes to yogurt and ice cream, the two have similar selections. City Market has more milk options — all rBGH-free — and 15 brands of butter or butter replacements.
At Sweet Clover, dairy and meat substitutes get their own rack. Near the produce section, there's a good selection of cheeses from 18 local producers. The dairy section itself is respectable, though Ben & Jerry's addicts won't find their dairy drug in this freezer.
Natural Provisions has the smallest selection of local cheeses — just six, including Cabot. The rest of the section is fairly well stocked, though, with eight butter options and lots of yogurt.
Digging the Daily Bread
If you crave Klinger's or Red Hen, look no further — all four of these markets carry their loaves. But for Gerard's or O'Bread's olive ciabatta, you'll need to check out City Market or Healthy Living. Sweet Clover alone sells the wares of the Old North End's Panadero, but each market represents at least five bakeries on its shelves.
All but Sweet Clover have their own in-house bakeries, too. Natural Provisions makes fresh muffins, scones, cookies and gingerbread loaves, while Healthy Living offers a luxurious selection of sweet treats, and City Market supplements local artisan bakery offerings with vegan and gluten-free goodies.
Where's the Meat?
Sweet Clover really shines in this category, as the only store with a full-service butcher equipped with a band saw. Cole Ward also makes burgers, meatballs, marinades and sausages — including hot dogs — from scratch. Local meats come from Boyden Farm, Misty Knoll, North Country Smokehouse and North Hollow Farm. Deli meats and cheeses are cut to order, and the roast beef is cooked in-house. Seafood only comes smoked or frozen, however, and there's no sushi.
Natural Provisions doesn't excel in the fruits de mer department, either: On a recent visit, the only seafood I saw was smoked salmon. The meat selection was sparse, too, with options from Jericho Settlers' Farm, North Hollow Farm and Misty Knoll.
Healthy Living does offer a selection of seafood, though the sushi is made off-site. On one visit I found salmon, tuna, scallops, tilapia, sole, trout, haddock and scrod — all pre-wrapped. Alongside meats from Boyden Farm, Hardwick Beef, Maple Lane Farm, North Hollow Farm, Jericho Settlers' and Misty Knoll, Healthy Living sports some fancy items that will impress your dinner-party guests, such as boned quail, pheasant, smoked duck breast and duck confit.
For an array of seafood, check out City Market, which has a wide selection of farmed and wild-caught fish kept on ice and wrapped to order — plus sushi made in-house. Pre-packaged local meat, including buffalo, hails from Hardwick Beef, LaPlatte River Angus, Apple Ridge, Farmers Diner, Jericho Settlers' Farm and Misty Knoll.
Perusing the Brews
Beer lovers won't be disappointed at any of these markets — though Sweet Clover doesn't carry local fave Magic Hat. It does have a small, mainly domestic selection of craft beers with colorful names: Smuttynose Brewing Company, Sea Dog, Allagash, Gritty's and Dogfish Head. Natural Provisions has plenty of microbrews, including Peak Organic, Samuel Smith, Trout River and Rock Art. Healthy Living also has a fine, large selection — as well as more wines than ever — while City Market stands out by offering the largest number of "big bottles," such as Belgian lambics and Canadian offerings like Unibroue's strong dark ale Maudite "The Cursed One."
Getting It to Go
These days, almost every natural-foods store offers some sort of café for a fast-food fix. Healthy Living's expansion in this area is truly prodigious: Its café, which is still under construction, already offers 40 seats, 29 raw veggies to pile on a salad, six cold salads, two soups and 12 hot dishes every day until 7:30 p.m. Where else can you find Persian vegetable stew and turkey "goulash" in the same place? Late-night shoppers can choose from a huge selection of pre-packaged grab 'n' go items. On a recent visit, I found around 15 different pre-made sandwiches, including meat-free offerings made with tofu and tempeh, four kinds of tuna salad and a slew of baked goods. Homemade dressings are packaged in small and medium containers, as are flavored cream cheese and spreads. Not everything is elaborate: Individual boiled eggs, a true convenience food, go for 75 cents. The bakery stand offers hot drinks made to order — a unique feature among these markets.
City Market feeds its patrons with a 21-item salad bar, 22 additional hot and cold items, and 18 dishes that can be scooped up at the deli until 8 p.m. Long-standing favorites include the grilled tofu with peppers and the Asian slaw. Sandwiches come pre-made or made to order, and there's a tantalizing array of ethnic — especially Asian — foods from local producers, from samosas to egg rolls to Sunja's noodle dishes. The 20-seat eating area may feel a little cramped during the lunch rush.
On a recent Thursday, Natural Provisions had 18 items in the salad bar, about 20 pre-packaged dishes such as roasted beets and ham salad, and just two kinds of sandwiches in the grab 'n' go area. The most appealing items were two daily specials: a flavorful steak sandwich with onions and peppers, and a bulgur-stuffed pepper topped with cheese. The sunny café seats about 20.
Unlike the other markets, Sweet Clover doesn't do packaged foods or a hot bar, but that doesn't mean it offers nothing for the lunch-break crowd. On a recent visit, a crock of hot beef stew brimmed with huge chunks of potato and tender beef. A microwave and a few seats facilitate immediate consumption of items from the shelves, such as frozen meals or soups.