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The great American road trip

7 independents that are worth visiting the next time you're down south

There’s a reason why independent grocery stores exist. They do more than fill the gap in markets that aren’t well served by national chains. They offer great food at good prices and do it with an understanding of what their customers need, because the owners are in the store every day.

Independent supermarkets are active in the communities they serve, supporting local schools, churches, youth and senior programs and athletic activities. In times of crisis—from floods to forest fires—communities turn to them for help.

Born into a supermarket family, I’ve worked in and written about the American grocery industry for over 30 years, visiting hundreds of stores across the country. From my travels and discussions with dozens of experts, I’ve compiled this must-see list of great American independent grocers.

WEBER’S IGA, SEDONA, ARIZONA

Sedona is a resort town known for its beautiful rock formations and New Age spirituality. Weber’s IGA, the first full-service grocery store in the area, opened in 1985 and quickly became a leader in bringing fresh food to shoppers. The meat department has the best selection in town, the prepared foods section offers at least five complete meal choices every day, and the liquor department features local wines and an assortment of micro brews. Each year, the very best IGA retailers are awarded the group’s coveted Five Star Retailer status, which results from a series of rigorous assessments to ensure customers are encountering an exceptional experience each time they enter an IGA store. Weber’s IGA has received the honour every year since the award’s inception in 2010. Sedona, Arizona

NEWPORT AVENUE MARKET, BEND, OREGON

Employee-owned Newport Avenue Market is the kind of store you’d expect in hipster-driven Portland, but not in blue-collar Bend, where pickup trucks have gun racks and country music is heard in most bars. Still, the store features an impressive selection of specialty groceries, from artisan cheeses to fresh produce, and has extensive inventories of craft beer and wine. With more than 500 different lagers, ales, stouts, IPAs and more, some organization was needed, so the store started the “Brew Crew” of suds-loving staff and customers to help shoppers choose their favourites. Like many of the grocers three hours north in trendy Portland, Newport Avenue Market specializes in local foods. This carries over to the retailer’s focus on health, which includes a wide range of organic products and eclectic selection of specialty items. All this, plus staff that acts like they own the place, because they do.

DOROTHY LANE MARKET, DAYTON, OHIO

Dorothy Lane Markets has three stores in and around Dayton, Ohio, with thousands of amazing specialty food products that shoppers can’t find anywhere else. But it’s the employees offering samples, providing cooking advice, pairing wines with meals, carrying bags to cars and much more that makes Dorothy Lane special. That customer-first culture permeates everything in and around the stores, and extends online, with a top-rated ecommerce site called Shopdlm.com. Owner Norman Mayne and his son, Calvin, make sure their customers have a great experience by actually being there nearly every day and by sharing their thoughts about food online.

PENNINGTON QUALITY MARKET, PENNINGTON, NEW JERSEY

The owner is almost always in at Pennington Quality Market and it shows. Larry Rothwell and his children, Mike and Barbara, make sure the floors are perfectly clean, the aisles are impeccably set and the staff are never too busy to help shoppers. Serving a rural/suburban community just west of Princeton, Pennington shows its commitment to providing the finest in quality, variety and service. The bakery, prepared foods and seafood departments all have a selection comparable to large chain stores, the catering department is as good as any white tablecloth restaurant and the flower shop is better than most dedicated florists. The “PQM Café”, a cross between a British tea house and a New Jersey diner, is crowded with professionals from nearby office buildings during lunch.

TREASURE ISLAND FOODS, CHICAGO

Treasure Island, the book, features pirates traveling halfway around the world in search of stolen and buried booty. Treasure Island, the store, searches the world for the latest quality foods. Started in 1963 on the north side of Chicago, and now at seven locations in and around the city, Treasure Island feels like a European market, with wire shelving and only two or three facings for even the most popular items. The produce and meat departments are relatively small but pack in an impressive assortment, including a large selection of organic and natural items. The “Treasure Island Cooking School” works with local and international chefs who understand the importance of creating authentic dishes. Rounding out the service offerings are personal shoppers and same-day delivery.

WRIGHT’S MARKET, OPELIKA, ALABAMA

About an hour east of Montgomery and 15 minutes from the Georgia state line, Opelika is the classic southern town with a historic downtown and even a covered bridge. And, as is fitting, the local grocery store, Wright’s Market, is the classic family-owned and operated community supermarket, with a focus on customer service, selection and family values. People who visit the store can find most southern delicacies at Wright’s Market, such as barbecue, fried chicken, ambrosia, grits and more. Plus, they get friendly service from staff members who work hard to earn their business. Staff in particular make this store stand out. Indeed, there is a large amount of pride among employees at Wright’s Market, and it starts with store cleanliness and continues to cheerful baggers who carry groceries to cars.

TONY O’S SUPERMARKET, NORTH KINGSVILLE, OHIO

Tony Orlando is a well-known American supermarket operator, not just because he runs a great store with a high-end, restaurant-quality catering service, but because he writes extensively about the industry for trade publications and speaks at major industry events. His store features some of the best meat and produce in Ohio and has a top-rated made-from-scratch prepared foods section. On any given day, shoppers can find five or more gourmet entrees plus seasonal soups in this department. Tony O’s also has an aisle of gluten-free products and the store was one of the first supermarkets in the American Midwest to dedicate so much space to the growing gluten-free segment.

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