What is it about walking through the doors of the Carrs-Safeway on Abbott Road that feels like a change of climate? Is the air more calm? Are the shelves taller? The meat section is gigantic. The health food aisles are stocked. Banks of olives and cheeses and organic fruits. There's a nut bar. A nut bar!
This kind of shopping splendor overwhelms a person who regularly patronizes the Abbott Carrs' stepsister store over at the Northway Mall. That store does not have a health food section and often smells like doughnut grease. Want to buy a personal item like a pregnancy test at Northway? Wait in line at customer service and then point to whichever embarrassing product you need inside a glass case full of other embarrassing products people are prone to shoplift. Pick your poison in full view of the characters lined up behind you cashing money orders and buying cigarettes. Best not to make small talk. I speak from experience.
Carrs Northway keeps it real. No frills. I can appreciate that. But every time I go to Carrs Abbott, I take the fanciness a little personally. Why must you live in South Anchorage to have access to such a beautiful store? Is my west-side money not green? I ask you, dear readers, do we not all deserve a nut bar?
I'm joking. (I'm actually allergic to nuts.) But I don't think I'm wrong when I say that the grocery store scene in Anchorage underwhelms. Especially if you've lived in most any other West Coast city. The stores are totally adequate for the distribution of food. But they don't have heart. Maybe the word I'm looking for is "generic." If you cook a lot, then you know what I am saying. You want to be inspired. And it just doesn't happen. Maybe this seems snobby but that's not how I mean it. Is it wrong to want my grocery store to love food the way I do? I grew up in this town in the days before Costco and Fred's. I didn't lay eyes on a mango until I was about to go to college. When I left Alaska, I discovered there was so much out there to eat. The novelty of cooking and eating new things never wore off. I don't think I'm the only Alaskan who feels this way.
I usually need to go to at least two places to get what I need when I'm grocery shopping. First, there's a pilgrimage to The Church of Costco with its magnificent heaps of raspberries and flotillas of frozen chicken thighs. The carts get so thick it's bumper cars in the meat section but the prices are decent if you avoid impulse buys. The quality is great. But a person cannot live on pillow-sized bags of baby kale alone.
So then there is a trip to the regular grocery store. Maybe Fred Meyer. Maybe I go on a Sunday because I forget that Sundays are bonkers. Like impending-hurricane, people-are-going-to-cut-you-for-the-last-bunch-of-basil bonkers. And then I can't find what I need because there isn't any left. So I wind up at New Sagaya, which isn't too crowded because you would go broke doing a full shopping run there. I get coffee. And I browse through the beautiful produce. And before I know it, I have paid $5 for a single nectarine and half the day is gone.
I asked readers on Facebook to describe what would make a truly awesome local grocery store and a hundred wrote back. Naturally, some of them wanted hipster Outside chains. Cheap and delicious Trader Joe's! Expensive and delicious Whole Foods! Some kind of cheap/expensive TraderWholeJoe'sFoods amalgam. They waxed nostalgic about New Seasons in Portland or Metropolitan Market in Seattle or even Wegmans on the East Coast. These are places that know the locals and take pleasure in teaching shoppers about food.
Other readers just wanted an in-one-place combo of what we have now. Sagaya's fish counter, Natural Pantry's natural food selection, Red Apple Market's ethnic foods, Carrs Abbott's meat counter. Clean and bright with an awesome deli and bakery where the selections change and the soups don't come out of a plastic bag. Local produce and fish in the summer. A sane parking lot. Many were like me. They want a store that understands our well-traveled, hyper-seasonal, diverse city culture. They want a full service grocery store that's local and passionate about eating.
Maybe I'm romanticizing it but remember Carrs-Safeway back when it was just Carrs? Before the locally owned chain sold, Carrs was a place you took people visiting from Outside. It had all the fancy grocery stuff like local coffee and Chinese food and sushi way before it was the norm. You could buy Cheez-Its or caviar or rain boots in July. But beyond that, it just got Anchorage. We were loyal to it. We mourned when it was sold. Has anything really replaced it?
I'm no expert in business but I have lived here a while. I know that the people of our city don't love food any less than people Outside. We have money to spend. Clearly. Grocery stores become a mob scene on weekends. There has got to be an opportunity in all that. If you could build a store that understands this city and wants to inspire it, I'm sure the customers would follow.