Monday, March 25, 2013

Out of the Kitchen: Healthy Living or "Wealthy Living"?

[This is where the picture would have gone, if "No Photography" hadn't been posted by the doors of Healthy Living (seriously, what's the big secret that can't be photographed?).]

I went up to the new Healthy Living store today, thinking that maybe this would be a new, better place for me to do my grocery shopping. Would this be the grocery Mecca that local bloggers are making it out to be? Or would it be, like some Yelpers have written, more like "Wealthy Living," a waste of time and a paycheck? I went in with an open mind and an empty notebook page; I didn't need to pick up many things, but I figured I'd take notes on some items I often buy, just to see how the prices were.

The first thing I noticed was that Healthy Living has definitely learned some things about how to set up a store. I've been to their Burlington, Vt., home base, and it's really, really horrible to navigate -- it's a maze of cramped, crooked aisles running this way and that, a place where you can very easily get lost, literally, "where is the door again? and how the heck do I get back to that thing I saw a minute ago?" lost. It's just terrible. But the new store isn't that at all -- it's got reasonably spacious aisles that are laid out in rows, like a normal store. The layout presented no problems at all. Kudos for figuring that out.

I wandered through the store, and as I shopped, I noticed that their selection of less-common groceries is actually impressive: You won't find a lot of the brands and items you usually buy, but if you follow a restrictive diet plan -- you're a vegan, say, or have celiac disease -- you'll love this place. It's the kind of place where they have tofu on the hot bar and seitan in the deli sandwiches. (I'd imagine that the majority of average grocery shoppers don't even know what seitan is.)

They also have a good-sized bulk-ingredients section, which is nice: If I need, say, a half-cup of whole wheat pastry flour, I know where I can get it and not have to buy a huge package of it.

And they have an emphasis on farm-raised, local foods that's nice, though it's clearly a bit of a work in progress in spots, since they're still learning about local food sources. For instance, they sell pies from Champlain Orchards in Vermont, but there's no need to bring in Vermont pies when we've got a really good pie-baking orchard of our own only a few towns away from their store, at Smith Orchards in Charlton (and they do sell to stores -- you can find their pies at the Meat House).

But how about the prices? Well, that was an eye-opener. The store's owners have said in the local media that their prices are reasonable... but are they?

I rounded up some prices of things I buy frequently while at Healthy Living, then went over to the nearby Hannaford and checked their prices on the same or comparable items. I also went down to Trader Joe's later in the day, which is where I've been doing a lot of my food shopping since they opened (if for no other reason than TJ's has a wide variety of non-corn-syruped, non-chemical-laden bread products).

So here's the breakdown ("n/a" indicates that the store doesn't carry that product):
Healthy Living Hannaford Trader Joe's
Bananas $1.19/pound (fair trade) $0.79/pound (organic), $0.49/pound (conventional) $0.29 each (about $1 per pound) (organic)
Scallions $1.49/bunch $1.19/bunch $1.29/bunch
Applegate lunchmeat: Roast beef, 7 ounces $6.89 n/a $3.99
Applegate lunchmeat: Smoked turkey, 7 ounces $6.49 n/a $3.99
Applegate lunchmeat: Ham, 7 ounces $6.39 n/a $3.99
Boneless, skinless chicken breast $14.99/pound (organic) $5.49/pound (Nature's Place) $6.99/pound (organic)
Eggs, farm-raised, 1 dozen $3.69 $2.79 $2.99
Milk, Battenkill Creamery skim, one gallon $4.59 $3.99 n/a
Van's frozen waffles, 1 box $3.99 $2.99 n/a
Frozen blueberries, organic $4.99/8-ounce package ($0.62/ounce) (Cascadian Farms) n/a $3.99/12-ounce package ($0.33/ounce) (TJ's brand)
Ben & Jerry's ice cream $4.99/pint $3.79/pint n/a
Amy's Organic creamy tomato soup, 1 can $3.29 $2.99 n/a

Let's see what we've got here... I'll assume one pound of anything that's per-pound, and I'll leave out the blueberries, just to keep the math sane and fair (since the packages are different sizes)...

Total if I had bought all of these things at Healthy Living: $57.99
Total if I had bought all of these things at Hannaford and Trader Joe's: $35.99

That's a more than 61 percent markup! For the exact same products!

So what have we learned today? We've learned that Healthy Living's claim to have reasonable prices is a crock. Their prices are MUCH higher than those at other stores.

Perhaps one could justify a small markup, since they're a smaller company and have overhead costs and all of that. But more than 60 percent is hardly a reasonable markup -- if I can buy the same product elsewhere, sometimes just up the road, for 60 cents or a dollar or even multiple dollars less than you're charging, you're charging way too much.

This isn't to say that Healthy Living is completely useless: Like I said, their vegan/gluten-free selection is vast, so if you have a restricted diet and can't eat a lot of the stuff that most people typically buy for groceries, this might be the place for you. But know that if you're buying regular stuff there, or even organic stuff, chances are very good that you're spending way more money on groceries than you could be. If you've got that much money to waste in the name of one-stop shopping, go for it, but most of us don't. As for me, I walked out with an empty shopping bag.


  1. KB, totally disagree with your assumption that produce at PC or Hannaford is the same as HL.

    Case in point: Bought organic portabella mushrooms from HL yesterday. They were $1 more expensive than Hannys (PC doesn't sell them). About 50% of the time at Hannys, they're rotten in the middle of the pre-sealed package. Rotten, moldy, can't eat it. When they are edible, they're limpy at best.

    HL's organic portabellas were fat and stout. I couldn't use my regular paring knife to get through it! I had to get my big kitchen utility knife to get through those suckers.

    Same went for the organic snap peas and organic peppers. Yes, they are more expensive but the quality of HL's produce dwarfs that of anyone else in the area.

    (Oh, and HL was out of basil. I asked for fresh basil and the gentleman working said that the batch they got didn't meet their expectations and they had to return it. PC and Hannys produce should be kept to that standard also. PC and Hannys will sell anything for any price!)

    Point is: You get what you pay for. Yes, PC and Hannys maybe a bit cheaper, but you get what you pay for.

    You are comparing apples to oranges.

    1. Not true. I took great pains to compare apples to apples, in fact. Okay, so you think their produce is way better -- that's still only one category of foods. If you're willing to pay more for their produce (though I've never had a problem with Hannaford's), fine... but how does that justify the exorbitantly higher cost of everything else there? How do you rationalize paying massively higher prices for an identical box of waffles, or pint of ice cream, or package of lunchmeat? That's just a waste of money.

  2. I agree that packaged foods are more expensive at HL than hannafords but you are comparing two places (tjs and hannafords) against HL. Are u assuming that you're driving out to colonie to get to a tjs? How much does that cost in gas? I would say from Saratoga, easily 60 miles round trip, and at a price of $4 gallon? Probably around $20

    Point is that HL is one stop shopping and produce is unbeliveable. Comparing something like scallions or bananas from hannaford to HL is not fair. It's not the same. Your reasons for hatinng HL are invalid, laughable at best.

    1. I usually drive to TJ's, then hit Hannaford on the way back. It's not that far of a drive from where I live, and it's worth it for me to be able to buy a few things (like lunchmeat and corn-syrup-free bread) at economical prices.

      On the other hand, driving a few miles to pay 60% more for my groceries, THAT's laughable.