The Market at Hartford 21 opened at noon today with expected fanfare in the form of speech-giving, ribbon-cutting, corny song-singing, and bagpiping. Kelleanne Jones, one of the storeís owners, got choked up while welcoming the crowd. In her speech, she noted that not everything was perfect yet and she wanted people to be understanding of that. With that in mind, here are my initial impressions of The Market at Hartford 21, which one man inside the store referred to as ďa wet dream for those living Downtown.Ē For the record, I would not have used that analogy myself, even though it was pouring outside.
Where do I park my bicycle? There were a few lamp posts out front, but no designated bike rack. There were tables set out on the sidewalk for customers, so in my mind, there is space for even a small rack. For just locking up a bike, any tall pole will do, but if I want to fill my panniers with a weekís worth of groceries, I need something that helps to steady the bike a bit. The point of having a(nother) grocery store Downtown, to me anyway, is having a convenient place to do real shopping; there are already a hundred bodegas where I can pick up last minute things, so this should not be redundant. And, if I am going to do my weekly shopping here, I am not going to feel like schlepping two bottles of juice, a package of tofu, peppers, tomato sauce, apples, beans, rice, and bread thirty minutes on foot (it takes just as long by bus); driving my car Downtown, except on days when Iíd be offered the chance of instant frostbite, sort of defies the purpose of living so nearby.
Selection and Price
If I want fancy prepared foods, I will go to a restaurant. If I want to prepare my own food, I will go to a grocery store or farmerís market. I also want to be able to actually do regular shopping. Here is a list of my staple foods and items: rice, pasta, sauce, beans, tortillas, olive oil, peppers, mushrooms, tofu, potatoes, garlic, juice, apples, toilet paper, paper towels, soap, shampoo and conditioner. Oh, and cat food and cat litter. When I walked through today, I looked for these items specifically.
A lot of the store was dedicated to what I would consider bourgeois boutique items. There were two whole displays dedicated to olive oil. While this is one of the items on my staples list, this seemed to be a bit much. I was ready for it though, having seen talk of truffle oil and other items worthy of eye rolling.
There was rice, but in small quantities only, which is not price effective nor convenient. This seemed to be the case for most items in the store, except for the bulk cereal and coffee.
I could not find the pasta; I did circle the store about five times, but it was so packed with people that there is the chance I just missed it somehow. There was sauce, but I can not buy it. The cheapest jar of sauce that I saw was six or seven dollars. I can get a decent jar of sauce for about three bucks at Whole Foods or Trader Joeís, and cheaper at Stop and Shop.
They are carrying Goya beans. These were priced okay, but I only saw canned beans; dry beans are more economical, not to mention lighter to carry. I saw no tortillas, but Iím not convinced they donít carry these. Iíll have to check again when there are fewer people in the store.
The produce and the chocolate counter were the most impressive to me. The produce looked fresh, like it should. Unfortunately, I could not tell the prices or what might have been organic. I spoke with two cashiers who said they will be pricing everything in the storeĖ it just has not been completed yet. If the fruits and vegetables are affordable, I could see myself buying from this section if the quality is consistent with how it appeared today. Any produce I regularly eat was there ó garlic, peppers, tomatoes, mushrooms, etc. This is conveniently right next to the chocolate and sweets counter.
There were two brands of tofu. If you look for it, the tofu is in with the vegetables and not in the dairy case where itís typically shelved in stores.
I was happy to see that they were carrying some local brands, like milk and ice cream by The Farmerís Cow.
I saw a lot of single-serving juices, but no large bottles of it. Again, maybe they had it and this was just blocked by the hoards of folks there for the Grand Opening. In any case, Iíd like to see more family-size and bulk options for everything. Individual-size is so wasteful and expensive. There are some families Downtown; itíd be worth catering to their needs.
The selection of ďpaper productsĒ was small and I was not into what they carry, so I would not get these from here. I did not see the price, so this is just a matter of personal preference. Other personal products were more on the level of what is carried in convenience stores. The maxi pads, for example, appear to be for women who are anemic or something. Ladies, you might want to stock up elsewhere. The same can be said for cat food. The quantity is fit for a cat on a diest. If I brought that size bag home, my cats would just sneer at me and then pee in the corner out of protest. The cat litter bag was a more suitable size, funny enough. This all could work for people who do not mind restocking certain dry goods every other day, or for those who need an emergency supply until they can get to a larger store.
During Ms. Jonesí speech, she mentioned that she is open to comments. Iím hoping that this is true and that certain adjustments are made over coming weeks so that this resembles something more like a grocery store and less like a convenience store with gourmet items mixed in.
I tend to avoid certain supermarkets because I feel so depressed while in them. These have a special losing combination of not-so-hot produce, miserable employees, sad-looking customers, dreary warehouse environment, and glare of fluorescent lights. If the food quality were great, Iíd put up with all that other stuff, but it just isnít.
The Market at Hartford 21 is nice. It feels warm and inviting. Thereís a great area along Asylum Street where customers can sit and eat lunch while doing some people-watching. The displays are all arranged nicely. There are murals that soften the environment a bit, making it seem distinctly not like a warehouse.
Itís located on a one-way street. On foot, this is a non-issue. For those arriving in other ways, this is more complicated. It demands a certain amount of salmoning from cyclists, depending on where they are coming from.
Itís on a bus line, which is probably most convenient for those along the Asylum Avenue or Farmington Avenue bus lines. Others still have to go a bit out of the way to connect to other buses.
Itís also close to the bus/train station, which provides a good alternative for travelers needing a snack thatís somewhat healthier than the fast food options directly inside of Union Station.
Customer Service and Employees
Iím hoping that the customer service today was not a fluke due to the Grand Opening. Employees were smiling. They seemed actually happy to be at work. They had plenty of reason to freak out (claustrophobia, overwhelming media presence, and inevitable first-day fails among them) but were professional. A few even entertained my ridiculous questions.
A bit over half of the storeís employees are Hartford residents; two of these employees are from the Open Hearth. The hope is that they continue to employ this number of city residents.
M-F 7-7 and Sat-Sun 8-6.
That itís open on the weekend is a good start for a market that says it wants to meet the needs of residents. Seven is a little early to close on a weekday evening when Whole Foods in Blue Back Square closes at ten and Stop and Shop on New Park Avenue is open until midnight.
I could envision myself picking up a missing ingredient here, or more likely, one of the fattening items from that beautiful display of chocolates, but this is not likely going to replace how I regularly get groceries. I need to be able to afford the groceries, have a place to park my bicycle, and purchase items in more economic and eco-friendly sizes. Itís a nice addition to Downtown, but I think something to always measure a store by is if its lowest paid employees can routinely shop there. I look forward to seeing how they grow into the space and continue their commitment to serving the needs of Hartford residents.
Reprinted with permission of Kerri Provost, author of the blog RealHartford.
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