Thursday, March 24, 2016

Invasion of the Uppity Grocers

Place: Culver's
Lunch: Mushroom-Swiss double basket with cheese curds, Culver's root beer

Culver's advertises the holy crap out of their "North Atlantic" cod sandwich, which Craig Culver claims is the "best fish sandwich in the business".  Which is stupid because 1. it's not even the best cod fish sandwich, let alone the best fish sandwich, and 2. the best fish sandwich is YOUR OWN NORTHWOODS WALLEYE SANDWICH, which Culver's doesn't advertise at all and barely acknowledges exists save for a counter card at the order counter.

You suck at fish math, Culver's.

Anyway, I'm here to get in one more walleye before the end of Fast Food Fish Season (aka "Easter"), but the counter card is gone, so I'm guessing they're already done.

Me: "Do you still have walleye?"

Counter Girl: "No, it's out of season now."

Me: Okay, Mushroom -Swiss..."

Counter Girl interrupts: "Well it's not out of SEASON, we just don't have any."

Me: "..."

Counter Girl: *stares*

Me: Mushroom-Swiss basket with cheese curds."

Counter Girl: "Do you want a basket, or the two items separately?"

In the history of Culver's, no one has ever asked me this.  Why would you?  What's the difference other than price?

Me: "No, I want the basket."

Counter Girl: "Okay, no basket."

At this point I throw my hands in the air.  "STOP.  YES, I WANT THE BASKET."

Counter Girl: "You DO want the basket."

Me: "YES."

Counter Girl: "I can't hear you very well...with all this...noise...of the kitchen."

Yeah, its not loud.  At all.

The food arrives and there's fries instead of cheese curds.  And she got me so confused that I forgot to ask for pickles, onions and mayonnaise on the burger.  Because Culver's automatically puts nothing on most burgers unless you specifically ask.  I complain about the cheese curds and that situation is remedied.

*sigh*

It's no secret I'm a fan of supermarkets.  Always have been.  From the days of following my grandmother around the neighborhood Safeway, I was hooked.  I loved everything about them.  The colorful department signage.  The stacks of sale merchandise.  The neatly organized freezer cases.  All of that food just waiting to be tried.  And my grandmother was a grocery shopping master.  She knew exactly how to pick the freshest produce.  She knew what was on sale and where.  She had an inch-thick clip of coupons, and knew how to maximize them.  Which is why a six-year old would be seen alone in line buying two rolls of toilet paper because she had two coupons, and she was buying the maximum allowed on each coupon.

I'm not the bargain-hunting coupon-clipping saver she was, but I do love to browse supermarkets.  I'll buy things I haven't seen before and go to specific places that carry specific items that I desire, not only locally, but when traveling.  I bring soda back from Texas.  Salsa from Wichita.  Pasta sauce from Cincinnati.  Chip dip and clam chowder from the Pacific Northwest.  And if I moved to a different region of the county, I'd be bringing stuff from here there.

Some of "there", however, is coming "here".  Three new upscale (gourmet?) or healthy type grocery stores have recently come to town.

These are grocers operating in a smaller footprint than the modern behemoth supermarkets being constructed by the chains of today.  They're usually in a footprint of 15,000-25,000 square feet.  They tend to market themselves as "fresh", "organic", or "healthy".  At the rate they're expanding, they must be doing something right.  People seem to love them.

Whole Foods and Trader Joe's apply to this concept.  We have both of those now and I've covered them previously.  Now, let's look at the new ones.

The Fresh Market
Apple Pay? Yes, but it's stupid
Paper or Plastic? Plastic

The Fresh Market is less organic and more upscale.  It's quite possibly the most beautiful market you will ever shop in.  A friend of mine described it as "hoity-toity".  Enter to the always piped-in classical music and marvel at the colorful produce section.  The wood tones and muted targeted lighting makes the colorful produce pop.  A lit refrigerated beverage case full of fresh squeezed juices in the vicinity doesn't hurt.  Grab a half gallon jug of The Fresh Market's lemonade while you're wandering by.  It's the BEST LEMONADE EVER.  In the center of the store is a large deli island where you can get prepared foods like potato salad and some hot foods.  There's the prerequisite salad and olive bars.  The meat department is also very impressive, though also very pricey.  The seafood selection is kind of limited.  The bakery has impressive looking treats, including some amazing cheesecake slices. There's an extensive candy selection, both bulk and boxed (including some ridiculously expensive Godiva boxes).

The grocery section has several upscale brands but the focus is on The Fresh Market's house brand.  And some of that crap is really freaking good.  Their Alfredo sauce is the thickest I know of available in a jar.  It's heavy on the garlic.  REALLY good for crab Alfredo.  Don't be afraid to try their store-branded stuff.  For a good laugh, check out the ice cream section and wonder how pints can cost north of $10.  The booze selection looks impressive,  but I know nothing about booze.  You can get some classic sodas in glass bottles like Moxie, Cheerwine, and Dad's Root Beer.  But you can also get HFCS Coke and Pepsi.  Come on, guys.  Even Walmart has real sugar Pepsi.  You don't need to carry that crap.  Expand the real sugar glass bottle soda line.  Carry the glass bottle cane sugar Faygos.  And bring back the Pop Shoppe sodas you had for awhile.

The negative with The Fresh Market is they have a track record of discontinuing stuff I really like.  They used to have the BEST full-strength (whole) chocolate milk.  They used to be the only place in the Midwest I could find Newman's Own Limeade at, but they recently quit carrying it.  They also used to have the real restaurant-grade natural casing Nathan's hot dogs, but those went away.

Oh, the deal with Apple Pay?  They accept it, but they make you go through extra steps that vary between locations.  At this new store, they make you confirm the amount on the touch screen.  At the Wichita store, they make you confirm what type of payment Apple Pay just verified AND confirm the amount.  Completely unnecessary steps.  You're doing Apple Pay wrong, Fresh Market.  And THAT'S NOT VERY FRESH.

Natural Grocers
Apple Pay? No.
Paper or Plastic? No.  Bring your own, or you can have a used shipping box (much like Costco).

Colorado-based Natural Grocers started out as Vitamin Cottage and still devotes a crap ton of floor space to vitamins and natural health and beauty products.  This is really a health food store.  The store size, at about 14,000 square feet, is the smallest of anyone in the segment and there's no prepared foods area, so don't plan on picking up hot take-out meals or salads.  Sorry, no olive bar either.  The meat is all pre-packaged.  The produce area has a big focus on organic.  The frozen foods and regular groceries are the usual brands you expect to find at any healthy or organic section of any major supermarket.  Natural Grocers is more picky than their competitors when it comes to their suppliers' processes and practices.  I used to buy Brown Cow yogurt there (WAY cheaper than Whole Foods), but they discontinued it and several other brands when they revised their "dairy ingredient standards" and considered Brown Cow no longer qualified to be sold there.  They DO have goat's milk yogurt, which I'd never seen before.  (Yes, I tried it.  It was okay, but not $1.89 okay.)  I used to buy cat food here, but then my cats decided they didn't want that brand anymore.

One of the odd quirks about Natural Grocers is their store hours, which are often posted as something odd like 8:00pm-9:04pm.  No idea why, other than they can.

Fresh Thyme Farmer's Market
Apple Pay?  Yes.
Paper or Plastic? Either/or


There used to be a chain called Sunflower Market out west that was bought out by Sprout's Farmer's Market.  The guy who ran Sunflower started Fresh Thyme, apparently financially backed but not managed by Meijer, a Walmart/Target-style hypermart chain out of Michigan.  (Side request, could we please get a Meijer here?  K thanks.)   The business model seems to be "jump into Midwestern markets Sprout's hasn't yet and be Sprout's in everything but name."  And do it mostly in aging shopping centers with cheap available leases (though the first Fresh Thyme I visited elsewhere was new construction).  I overheard a manager explaining to a group of customers that they "compare to Whole Foods, but have much better pricing".

Fresh Thyme opened this week after a construction period so long that I assumed they abandoned the project.  All they were doing was spiffing up an old Office Max, yet start of construction to open took longer than it took Natural Grocers to construct a whole building.  Once completed, the building sat empty with no sign of activity for several months before a grand opening date was finally set. They held a job fair last November for crying out loud.

The location is terrible.  There's no street visibility.  Do they think they're going to draw business from neighboring TJ Maxx and Dollar Tree?  How do they market themselves?  "Cleverly hidden behind Tires Plus and the abandoned Quizno's"?  Doesn't seem to be hurting them, the place is packed for the grand opening.

Fresh Thyme has a similar product mix and layout as Sprout's, sticking the produce section in the center of the store.  I like the look.  The prices can be lower.  I picked up blackberries and strawberries on sale at Walmart-like prices.  But I also saw grocery  prices WAY higher than the traditional markets.  And there were far more comparable items than the others.  Fresh Thyme carries more traditional brands than their competitors.  They had Kemps ice cream and Campbell's soup for example.  They do have their own store brand label offerings, from canned or frozen items to fresh bakery items. I picked up a clam shell 4-pack of chocolate mint cupcakes from the bakery area.  Those never are as good as they look at traditional supermarkets, but these were delicious in a very homemade way.  (Cookies, not so much.)  They have Newman's Own lemonade and pink lemonade, but no limeade.

*sigh*

Sprout's Farmer's Market
Apple Pay?  Yes
Paper or Plastic? Plastic

We're not getting one here, but there's one that I pass right by on the Wichita commute, so I'm covering it.  The focal point of the store is the centrally located produce section, seemingly taking up a third of the floor space.  This is my go-to place for watermelon.  I have NEVER EVER EVEN ONCE gotten a bad watermelon at Sprout's.  EVER.  Even out of season.

Sprout's has the real Nathan's restaurant-grade natural casing hot dogs that The Fresh Market stopped carrying, so Sprout's wins there.  They're also the only place I know of that sells Sabrett's hot dogs.  But the biggest deal for me is that Sprout's brought Tillamook yogurt to the Midwest.  Which is crazy because Sprout's doesn't even carry Tillamook cheese.  Now, if they would just bring Tillamook ice cream, that'd be magical.

Actually, the first of these stores to just start carrying Tillamook everything will win my heart forever.

Not holding my breath.

*sigh*

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Auto Show 2016

Place: White Castle
Lunch: Six sliders, Original Shrimp Nibblers (with cocktail sauce), Coke

They're "original" Shrimp Nibblers because they now also have Sriracha Shrimp Nibblers.  Can we get over the Sriracha fad already?  GOSH.

Hey!  What say we head down to the convention center and get high on that new car smell.  It's Auto Show time, and the cars are as deep as a Minnesota accent.

Alfa Romeo

Giulia - It's a sedan that is beautiful and fast.  There's one with a 2 litre 4 cylinder that somehow makes 295hp, or get the Giulia Quadrifoglio twin turbo V6 with 505hp.  Forget the engine, that awesome name is worth the extra cash.

Audi

Q7 - Audi should call this the QE7 and make joking comparisons to the Queen Elizabeth cruise ship.  This all-new second generation luxo-barge is lower, leaner, and far more tech heavy with added driver assists.  A blind person could probably drive this thing.

Buick

Cascada - GM's European division Opel has a convertible called Cascada, and apparently this is it.   So when a preview vehicle was at this auto show last year and I noticed the guy walking by exclaiming "Wow!  That's a Buick?", the correct answer would have been "No, it's a rebadged Opel."  And I can't recall any rebadged Opels that have had success in the US in recent (and by recent, I mean 30) years.

Encore - Buick's hottest seller and arguably the vehicle that started the whole subcompact crossover movement gets a "Sport Touring" model with snazzier wheels, a spoiler, and a peppier engine.  Not TOO peppy, it's a turbo four-banger, but probably enough for Buick buyers while the rest of us roll our eyes.  I sat in the back seat of an Encore on the show floor and it was surprisingly comfortable.

Envision - Buick had a Equinox-size hole in their SUV lineup that will be plugged with this China-built crossover this summer as a 2017 model.  Envision has already been on sale in China for awhile and has been a huge hit there.  They had one on a turntable here and it's easily the best looking GM SUV out there.  Remember when Buick was the 'car' side of Buick-GMC dealerships?  Nobody's buying Buick cars anymore.

LaCrosse - Despite no one buying Buick cars anymore, we have an updated LaCrosse.  The new model debuts mid-year as a 2017 model.  It's a little lower and a little meaner looking.  Buick continues to insist this isn't your grandfather's Buick, which I suppose is technically correct, as my grandfather's Buick was an Electra 225.

Cadillac

XT5 - Now headed by Johan de Nysschen, the guy who renamed the Infiniti lineup into a naming scheme similar to the Jollibee combo menu, Cadillac is now doing the same, but they're phasing the names in with replacement models.  The XT5 replaces the SRX.  It's all new but not unrecognizable.  It has a bigger grille, smaller lights, and it appears a much improved interior, though I'm probably going to still hate the touch-screen infotainment system.  In the initial images Cadillac released of it, the women were glancing at it, and the men were ignoring it, which is unintentionally hilarious.

Chevrolet

Camaro - All new for 2016, in fact far newer than the naked eye might initially interpret.  It shares a smaller platform with the Cadillac ATS Coupe, it's lighter, and has a new four-cylinder engine option.  But don't freak out, you can still get a V6 or V8...the Corvette's V8, specifically.  I would own one tomorrow as a second car if I could afford it and justify owning two cars.  While I was sitting in one running though the manual transmission gears, four giddy guys started yelling at me.  "ISN'T IT COOL?  IT'S SO AWESOME!  HARD TO GET OUT OF THOUGH!"  Yeah, shut up.

Cruze - All new for 2016.  Has a Corolla-ish look up front.  Has a cheap Korean look from the rear.  From either angle, it's not exactly going to stand out, aside from people staring at the name badge and wondering why Chevy can't spell "Cruise".  I drove the previous generation 2015 around Seattle this summer and found it a surprisingly nimble and capable toss-around-towner, which was especially appreciated navigating downtown with its heavy pedestrian and bicycle traffic and its often cramped parking garages.

Trax - I guess I wasn't the only one who thought Trax looked odd up front.  A new look front end is coming this Fall for 2017 and it looks waaay better.

Malibu - That fake focus group TV ad where the group members are willing to pay upwards of $80,000 for this while comparing it to every luxury brand that isn't Cadillac is the second dumbest car ad on TV (behind the Toyota Prius police chase ad).

Volt - Chevy's plug-in hybrid is all-new.  More efficient and less goofy looking.  Those can't be bad things, though the whole "plug-in hybrid" idea still seems silly to me.  If I'm going electric, I'm going FULL electric.  A pure electric for beating around town sitting next to my road trip gas hog inside my garage isn't out of the realm of possibility.

Chrysler

Pacifica - The alleged "inventor of the minivan" (because the VW Type 2 was apparently something else) retires the Town & Country name in favor of reviving a brand that they used briefly on a tall station wagon?  What?

Fiat

124 Spider - FINALLY Fiat markets something here that isn't called 500.  It's a two-seat convertible that will immediately make you think of the Mazda Miata.  And there's a reason for that...it IS a Miata.  Sort of.  Fiat and Mazda conspired together on the platform, but the Fiat has its own sheet metal and motor...the Abarth motor, specifically.  They didn't have one here.  In fact the only 500x they bothered to bring was on a turntable and not accessible, even though the thing has been available at dealerships since last Summer.

Ford

Escape - Escape is getting a new Edge-like front end for the 2017 model year, which I had no idea was coming until I saw it here.  Holy CRAP it looks better.

Explorer - Exploder gets a style refresh, suspension tweaks, and an optional EcoTec 4-banger.  Yay?

Flex - Ford's coolest vehicle...and worst seller...continues on unchanged.  I read an article somewhere explaining why it continues on and it basically comes down to being cheap to continue since development costs are long paid for and it does well in surfer markets, or something.  I was reading consumer reviews on this thing and they were almost universal..."We went in looking at Edge and the sales reip insisted we test drive the Flex, which we had no intention of buying.  But we loved it and took it home."  So apparently the trick is to get people to drive it.  So go drive it, people.  Cool cars like this deserve more homes.  If I had to own a Ford, it would be Flex.

Genesis

So remember last year when I made fun of Luxury Lane for having a Hyundai Genesis in it?  Well, Hyundai is spinning off Genesis into its own luxury brand, complete with a logo that totally rips off Bentley.  There apparently won't be standalone dealerships, at least yet...cars will be sold in designated space at Hyundai dealerships (think the Magnolia store-within-a-store deal at Best Buy), but there will be additional Genesis models in the next few years.

Infiniti

Infiniti not only didn't bother with a display, their entire existence was a Q70L in Luxury Lane.  And it was LOCKED.  Alfa Romeo had more cars here.  BENTLEY had more cars here.

Q30 - What???  Something NEW???  Sort of.  This is a Mercedes parts bin partnership hot hatch.  It has Infiniti style, but is largely Mercedes A-class underneath with a co-developed 2-liter turbo four.  The US model will also not have all wheel drive.  And it'll probably be way more expensive than anything youthful hot hatch buyers in the US would be willing to spend.  In other words, nobody in the US will want this.  But what if they made it taller and gave it all wheel drive?  Well...

QX30 - Behold, this is the answer.  It's the Q30 but two inches taller and with all wheel drive.  You're welcome, America.

Q50 - That 2.0 4-banger from the Q30 will also be available in the Q50, as will a new 300hp twin turbo.  A 400hp twin turbo will be in a sport edition.  I am keenly interested in this motor.

Q60 - The coupe finally returns looking more conservative than last year's concept with the same engine options as the Q50.  Nobody is ever going to buy that four-banger in this car.  NOBODY.

QX50 - The horrible selling former EX (sold, believe it or not, as the Nissan Skyline Crossover in Japan) gets stretched to give back seat riders leg room and a style refresh with literally none of the new tech introduced in the Q50 two years ago.

QX60 - Infiniti's bread-and-butter people hauler gets a style refresh that gives it a more Q50-ish front end.

Kia

Optima - Despite the fact it doesn't look THAT different from the 2015 Optima, this is an all-new model with a new chassis and engine.  I drove the previous generation as a rental last year and found it surprisingly peppy, though the one time I pushed it in a last-second brake-and-turn, the wheels locked up and skidded straight forward instead of turning, and the whole front end felt like it was going to collapse.  (Side note to UNLV, sorry for skid-marking your pavement.)

Sportage - Wow.  I am NOT a fan of this new front end.  It's like it was designed for a taller vehicle.  There's just too much grille, too much fog light, and squinty headlights.  It's almost like the inspiration was Nick Offerman's face.

Mercedes

GLE Coupe - The name makes perfect sense because it's a four-door SUV.  Uh, what?   I had to explain to a guy sitting in it how to adjust the seats.  At least he didn't have to figure it out on the fly while driving the Banfield Highway in the rain.

Mitsubishi

Yes, they still sell cars here.  No, I don't blame you for not noticing.  Mitsubishi is closing their North American plant in Normal, IL soon.  The plant once produced 220,000 cars a year.  Same plant produced fewer than 70,000 vehicles in 2014.  Still, sales are improving.  Mitsubishi sold nearly 100,000 cars here in 2015 vs 64,000 in 2014.

Mirage - The 2017 Mirage gets a style refresh and some tech updates but is otherwise still the most basic of basic transportation.

Outlander - Outlander gets a style refresh that looks like a lot more than it is, which is to say it looks quite a bit different but is basically the same motors and platform.  It does have an improved CVT and better sound insulation.

Outlander Sport - Outlander Sport also gets a style refresh.  New hairdos for everyone!

Nissan

Altima - Altima gets a style refresh that certainly looks cleaner and sharper up front.  You can get a sporty model (SR) too.  Doesn't get you a manual tranny, but it does get you paddle shifters.

Armada - Nissan's biggest SUV, which shares a truck frame with the Infiniti QX80 and the non-US market Nissan Patrol, basically looks like those two vehicles from the windshield back but with a Nissan USA front end.  Seats eight and has a V8 with heavy towing capacity.  If you thought the only competition for Chevy's Suburban was GM's other essentially rebadged Suburbans, Armada proves you wrong.

Leaf - Same goofy looking all-electric, but it gets a bigger battery this year to extend mileage.  The next-gen coming in a year or two should have a MAJOR range bump.  The thing about Leaf is that resale value has been horrible, which means if you're intrigued by a pure electric but have held back due to price, there are some perfectly good late model examples out there for DIRT CHEAP.  The Auto Show had a room dedicated to electric vehicles and some radical hippies were staffed there to answer questions about the general technology  One of these guys seemed to get upset when I didn't express that much interest in them.  When I explained how many highway miles I drive made the current range of these cars impractical to me, he seemed less suicidal.

Sentra - Sentra gets a style refresh to better match Nissan's modern look, as well as suspension and interior improvements.  I drove a 2015 rental just last week and really had no complaints about the interior, but while perfectly capable, the suspension, brakes, engine, and CVT screamed "cheap transportation".  Which, to be fair, it is.  You could get one equipped like my rental for under $20k.  And that'll still get you push-button start, an infotainment display, rear-view camera, and USB iPhone and Bluetooth audio connectivity.

Titan - Nissan's big pickup is all new.  That's nice.

Scion

SAYANORA SUCKAZ!  The Scion brand is done with the 2016 model year.  You'll still be able to buy the existing models, but they'll be branded as Toyotas.  Toyota's "youth" division used to make some cool quirky cars that you could cheaply customize in neat ways.  In the end, they were mostly offering re-branded models from other manufacturers.  Scion's dealership network was literally 100 percent within existing Toyota dealerships, so aside from the nameplate on the cars, there's nothing different here.

Tesla

Model X - Tesla's SUV certainly sounds snazzy with its falcon doors and electronic rear seats, but there isn't one here, so...

Toyota

Prius - Stinky Prius moves to the next generation with a new look that is even weirder than before.  From some front angles, the thing almost reminds you of the Batmobile.  From most angles, it's almost Pontiac Aztek ugly.  It 's as slow as ever, but Prius buyers aren't interested in speed.  They're interested in gas mileage, and they get it.  This thing gets 30 mpg better than my car does around town.  It's said to handle way better than the previous model and the weird dash display has improved screens.  This is apparently Seattle's favorite car, based on my trip there last Summer.  I about lost my voice shouting "STINKY PRIUS!".  Even the taxi cabs were Prii.

Volkswagen

I was a longtime VW guy who became increasingly frustrated with their continuous missteps, quality issues, and arrogant ignorance of the US market over the years before finally giving up on them and moving on to Nissan/Infiniti, but even I couldn't have seen the "Dieselgate" debacle coming.  This is a new low for the industry, even if they didn't put lives in danger.

Beetle - They had a "Dune" edition here with a brownish mustardish metallic paint job.  Cool.

eGolf - Wow.  They had an eGolf here.  Available in very limited markets, one of the local dealerships snagged a used 2015 model and brought it to the show.  It's for sale too.

Passat - Passat gets a style refresh that keeps it looking...fresh, I guess.  Not exactly revolutionary.  But nice for the price.  It has a little analog clock on the dash.  As you might imagine, there won't be a diesel option anymore.