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Why We Stan Grocery Stores

“Eater’s Digest” grilled supermarket loyalists about their love of H-E-B, Trader Joe’s, and Publix, and more

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The sun-dappled entrance to Publix, grocery store in Ocala. Universal Images Group via Getty

When people love a grocery store, it’s never casual. In fact, people get very intense about their love for specific stores. Maybe it was the place your mom always took you to shop, or it stocks your favorite special treat, or its regional specificity helps you reconnect with home after a long time away.

Whatever the case, we love how much people love grocery stores, so Eater’s Digest hosts Amanda Kludt and Daniel Geneen asked some major grocery stans to join them in studio to wax poetic about why their favorites are just that.

Regional charm

Nostalgia plays a big role in grocery store allegiance, and some stores make a point of emphasizing regional specificity. H-E-B in Texas, for instance, leans shamelessly into its own Texas-ness, resulting in a store that radiates pride in the Lone Star State and feels uniquely Texan.

But that doesn’t mean a grocery store has to be located in the place it celebrates to pull this off. H Mart, the stateside Korean grocery chain, manages to channel Korean culture from thousands of miles away. For those who are very far from home, a visit to an H Mart can soothe a homesick itch.

Warm, friendly people

Many grocery obsessives pick their favorite brand based on the quality of the people working the aisles. Trader Joe’s is known for employing wildly kind people to run the cash registers and stock the aisles during shopping hours, creating a friendly culture where no one is a stranger.

Publix, the Florida supermarket chain, is also deeply beloved for its friendly culture. Because the company is employee-owned, Publix superfan Patty Diez says it created a sense of pride in the aisles. Employees are also known to walk anyone and everyone to their car to help unload groceries, which definitely doesn’t hurt its friendly reputation.

Unique items

Where else can you get Texas-shaped tortilla chips than at H-E-B ? Or real-sugar Dr Pepper made and bottled in the very same state? (Yes, dear reader, this article was indeed written by a native Texan and H-E-B diehard.) H-E-B has managed to create a loyal fanbase at least in part by stocking its shelves with ridiculously specific items Texans know and love.

Publix has even managed to make a name for the sandwiches churned out at its deli counters: “Pub Subs.” These deli sandwiches vary from store to store, furthering the cult-y fervor with which people swear by their deliciousness.

A distinct vibe

Some grocery stores are better than others at creating a unique sense of place. H Marts, for instance, often include a restaurant inside the walls of the store. According to James Park, a longtime H Mart loyalist, this is where you can often find older members of the surrounding Korean immigrant community gathering to catch up. It’s due in part to these gatherings that James feels a distinct “Koreanness” at any of the H Mart locations across the states.

Wegmans, too, evokes a fervor in its loyal shoppers. According to the Wegmans website, its supermarkets are designed to “look like European open-air markets,” a quirky goal that Emma Alpern, a longtime Wegmans devotee, loves. While she’s not sure it succeeds in that goal, she does crave its very distinct vibe.

Listen and subscribe to Eater’s Digest on Apple Podcasts

Below, a lightly edited transcript of Amanda and Daniel’s interview with Eater’s Jaya Saxena on why we love grocery stores with such great fervor.

Amanda Kludt: So, Daniel, we want to talk about why people stan for grocery stores in general.

Daniel Geneen: What is stanning?

Amanda: Stanning — being a super fan, right?

Jaya Saxena: It’s from the Eminem song.

Amanda: So, we brought in our colleague, Jaya... She’s covered groceries and the phenomenon of people being obsessed with grocery stores. Jaya, welcome back to the show. So, why do people get obsessed with their grocery store?

Jaya: I think that the grocery store... Mainly, when I was interviewing people, I got a lot of people saying that the act of grocery shopping can be something very calming. It’s something that you do pretty often. It’s something that provides you with literal nourishment, the thing you need to survive. So, I think it’s really easy to sort of latch onto that. And then also, if you’re not shopping at a truly national chain, there are little things you get attached to, whether it’s the store brand of something that was really comforting to you. People go nuts over Publix subs, over the cookies at H-E-B, over the cafes at Wegmans, is we sort of saw in Brooklyn when Wegmans opened up. There’s sort of these little differences between different grocery stores that people apply sort of a lot of meaning to, which is understandable because ultimately, the experience of grocery shopping varies really only by price point and availability of certain types of produce and meat and things like that. But it’s pretty much the same thing. You walk around. You get your milk. You get your fruit. You leave.

Amanda: Is there a chain with an especially fervent fan base?

Jaya: There are a couple. I mean, Wegmans definitely has a very fervent fan base. H-E-B, in Texas, definitely is one of them.

Amanda: Do chains lose their fandom when they go national?

Jaya: I think it depends. I think that it certainly loses a little of its luster. I think you’re seeing that with Wawa right now, which not necessarily a big grocery store-

Amanda: Love Wawa.

Jaya: Love a Wawa. But was more of a, yeah, convenient store, sandwich shop that was a Jersey/Pennsylvania thing, and now is expanding all the way up the East Coast. And I think you’re seeing complaints of people saying that “they’re overexpanding and the quality is declining.” And that also, right, maybe it makes it a little less special if you don’t have to be in New Jersey or have to be in the Philly area to get a Wawa sandwich. That now, you can be in Florida, you can be in New York, you can be sort of anywhere and get one.

Daniel: There’s something to, though, the pre-packaged goods of a specific grocery store. The Whole Foods in Toronto that I grew up with had blackened chicken salad, which became a thing for me and my brother.

Jaya: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s something where... I mean, I think that’s the big conversation around the Publix subs, right?

Daniel: Mm-hmm

Jaya: I did not grow up with Publix. I’ve had a Publix sub. They’re very good sandwiches. I don’t think that they are particularly transcendent when compared to a lot of other deli subs that you can get. But people really... If you grew up with that, that was your opportunity to get this sort of sandwich and it was great.

Amanda: So, there’s a lot of nostalgia that’s kind of mixed in.

Jaya: I think there’s a lot of nostalgia. I think there’s a lot of... If you don’t live in the same place where you grew up or if you do travel around a lot and are not always there, there is this sense of coming back to a place of like, “Ah yes, I went here with my family every week. My treat was getting the cookies here, the sandwich here, the blackened chicken salad here.” Something like that.

Amanda: And it becomes part of your identity too, like, “I am a Floridian. I stan for Publix. This is what makes me special.”

Jaya: Yeah. And I think it winds up being a bit of a double-edged thing, because I think we all value local stores. We all value regional specificity. I think a lot of people would find it very boring if every single shopping experience was a national shopping experience. But then it also turns into sometimes, if your sense of identity is very much aligned with a brand, that’s something extremely outside of your control. So then I think that’s how you get people being upset, where if a brand does expand and becomes national, then it becomes not just, “Ah man, they’re quality dipped,” but, “Oh my goodness, this thing that I defined myself by is now available to everybody. And it’s not special anymore. And therefore, am I not special anymore?”

Amanda: Right, yeah. “My love of Wawas, my identification as a Wawas person means less now that you can get Wawa’s food anywhere.”

Jaya: “And therefore, my identity is...” It’s a whole existential thing.

Amanda: Right. Well, especially if you talking about Whole Foods and Amazon. So now, Amazon owns Whole Foods and then you might be more conflicted about any identification with Whole Foods.

Jaya: Right, exactly. And I think that you definitely saw this with Trader Joe’s too... It originated in California, I believe. And then as that became a national brand, I think a lot of people saying like, “Well, I was there first. And I was shopping at Whole Foods before you got... “ or, “... at Trader Joe’s before you got a Trader Joe’s.” And it just turns into this whole argument, where I understand it, I identify with things all the time but, at a certain point, you’re like, this is —

Daniel: Yeah.

Amanda: It’s a giant grocery chain.

Jaya: It’s a giant grocery chain.

Daniel: There are few things that give me more pleasure, relative to how unimportant they are in daily life, than when someone’s like, “I went to Trader Joe’s long before you even knew what it was.” And I’m just like, “I super don’t care.”

Amanda: Yeah. It doesn’t matter. It’s a store.

Daniel: It’s a store. But I think that also, in terms of being attached to a grocery store, when you walk into a new grocery store, you often don’t know where everything is. So, there is the logistics side of it, which is like, “I know I will be much more efficient in my home grocery store where I know where every aisle is. And I know where the express lanes are and which aisles are going to move better than others.” And I think that some of the commitment to your home brand is because you know you’ll be able to have an easier time navigating it.

Jaya: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that that becomes so embedded in the experience because, again, this is a type of shopping that you do all the time. Even if you’re shopping for clothing and you have a favorite department store or a favorite boutique or something, you’re not there as often as you’re in a grocery store. So, yeah, that just sort of inserts itself into your brain immediately.

Jaya: I mean, I live in New York. I have a lot of grocery stores available to me. When I moved a couple blocks from my old apartment a few years ago, suddenly a different grocery store became the closest one. And it was a big learning curve. And now, they just redesigned.

Amanda: Oh, I love a grocery store renovation.

Jaya: Oh my gosh, it’s so weird. Now, they have gone the complete opposite, I think, of standard grocery store design, where the first thing you see when you walk in is not the produce. It is a giant cake stand. And you get a bunch of pastries and gelato and pre-prepared stuff, and then behind that is the fruit. And I’m like, “Well, this is just too much.”

Amanda: I feel like whenever a grocery store redesigns, I think, “How was I even living before?” because it always makes things slightly better.

Jaya: It does make —

Amanda: And you’re like, “What was I doing looking at apples as soon as I walked in? I could be looking at cake!”

Jaya: Yeah, I know. It’s like...

Amanda: What a world!

Jaya: There’s cake and there’s a hot bar and there’s the kombucha aisle. I was like, “This is extraordinary.”

Amanda: Oh my god.

Daniel: Oh, we’re happy about this. I thought that that you were tapped into some greater grocery store philosophy, which is that they led with their produce and fresh veg and stuff so that you would think you were walking into an oasis.

Jaya: No, it’s literally —

Amanda: I mean, that is what people do.

Jaya: That’s what they do. It is to —

Amanda: They’re bucking the trend.

Jaya: — give you the impression of freshness and things. And then in the middle is all the processed foods and what not. I mean, it was a bit jarring but I sort of appreciate that my grocery store is like, “Nah, here’s some cake.”

Amanda: Mm-hmm. You just want the cake.

Jaya: You just want —

Daniel: Yeah. That’s disrupting. Yeah.

Amanda: Jaya, what is your favorite regional grocery chain?

Jaya: I don’t know. I do remember growing up, being very excited when my mom would take me to the Fine and Fair, which is a couple further blocks away from the Gristedes, but the Fine and Fair had tasty cakes. And that was like the Butterscotch Krimpets—

Amanda: That’s all it takes sometimes.

Jaya: ... specific treat was really good. I think right now, I live near a grocery store called Trade Fair, and I really like it because it has a huge aisle of just bulk Indian spices. And it has its own separate halal butcher counter where you can normally get even better quality meat than sort of in the regular aisle. And I enjoy a New York grocery store that’s all little rabbit holes and different little corners. The big suburban aisles sort of freak me out.

Amanda: Yeah. It’s a little intense. Yeah. You go to a Kroger in the Midwest and you’re just like, “What is this?”

Jaya: I’m just like, “This is too big. It’s too bright. I don’t understand what’s going on.” I like the —

Daniel: Do the halal butchers talk shit about the regular butchers in the grocery store?

Jaya: Oh my God. I bet they do. But there was one time I was walking through this grocery store, and I felt a tap on my back. And I turned around and it was an entire skinned goat in a grocery cart-

Amanda: Tapping you on the back?

Jaya: Being pushed into the back. Just its leg touched me. I’m like, “I love this.”

Amanda: Oh my God.

Jaya: “This is great.”

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