"Grocerants" Filling Void Between Shopping, Take-Out & Dining Out

By Lee Allen
September 21, 2016

You’ve been working so hard you missed lunch. Or it’s well after quitting time, you’re tired and don’t feel like spending time in the kitchen whipping up a supper casserole.

A nearby grocerant may be your answer as supermarkets are raising the bar on their food service offerings. According to recent NPD report, "A Generational Study: The Evolution of Eating," “Restaurant-quality, fresh, chef-driven items and relaxing in-store experiences have given rise to the restaurant within a grocery store concept which is attracting the attention of the millennial crowd."

The report notes: “In-store dining and take-out prepared foods from grocers has grown 30 percent in less than a decade and accounts for $10 billion in consumer spending. Over 40 percent of America’s population purchases prepared foods from grocery stores and visits to grocerants rate higher than traditional quick-service restaurants.

“Many grocers offer restaurant-quality food at lower cost than full-service or fast-casual eateries in a range of varieties from Asian, Mexican, and Italian to seafood, soup, and sushi.”

And if you’re so tired you can’t wait to get home to chow down, a growing number of stores provide comfortable casual seating for in-store dining.

Food & Beverage Today magazine reports that the battle for stomach share has intensified. “The consumer is turning to the grocery store hot food section for quality, freshly-prepared, ready-to-eat, or even ready-to-heat foods with portability. The grocerant trend is the next big wave. It’s not a fad, it’s a confirmed long-term trend in the battle for the consumer dollar.”

Defining a grocerant retail food item as something either "ready-2-eat or ready to heat," it goes beyond items in the grocery store deli and lifestyle sections. Steve Johnson of Foodservice Solutions, who calls himself The Grocerant Guru, explains it this way: “It’s 4 p.m. and thought is just being given to what’s for dinner. Over 80 percent of American consumers are unsure what that might be. Today’s time-starved consumer wants to purchase meal components they can bundle into a family feast that will please everyone without spending time cooking.” Grocerants, a blurring of the line between grocery stores and restaurants, meet that need.”

The concept isn’t new. Decades back, dime-store lunch counters fed shoppers and office workers daily. Grocery stores got into the act by introducing prepared meals in the 1970s. Dismayed by restaurants grabbing of market share, grocers began to more aggressively market the convenience of cooked foods, a more appetizing version of the military MRE (Meals Ready to Eat). The offerings were hot and healthy, visually pleasing, and the aroma of the edibles lured the hungry in. 2014 statistics show eating dinner at grocery stores has risen to 1.8 billion visits annually.

Hot and cold food bars at Whole Foods Oracle in Tucson
Hot and cold food bars at Whole Foods Oracle in Tucson

Depending on how you define ‘dinner’ and ‘dining establishments,’ options abound from a grab-and-go QT pizza to a sit-down supper right out off the grill or out of the warming oven.

One of the latest local market and meal combos is Johnny Gibson’s Downtown Market at 11 S. 6th Ave. Yelp reviewers say “the place has filled a nosh gap downtown. While it may not be a culinary tour de force, you can get something fresh and nutritious that’s fast at a reasonable price.” Another reviewer called it “a high-end specialty grocery store serving breakfast and sandwiches from behind a traditional deli counter.”

Perhaps the ultimate in praise came from a Tucson diner who labeled the store vibe fantastic and added: “This place makes you want to buy everything you see with reckless abandon. Every display seems to have been calculatingly arranged by the offspring of a marketing impresario and a doctor of culinary psychology.”

That’s the plan, according to General Manager and co-owner Paul Cisek, who's also the former owner of Rincon Market.

“We were way ahead of the ‘grocerant’ curve because we inaugurated that concept at Rincon in 1987 where we had eating-seating within the café/grocery. We’ve been well received as the first grocery store downtown in 45 years and as our resident base increases and the AC Marriott hotel goes on-line nearby, people will want to come in and sit down in the store for a dining experience. We have some tables and counter dining on the main floor as well as 50 seats in a balcony mezzanine and patio seating for 80 to 100.

“We’re catering to people who walk, bike, or take public transportation and get hungry in the process.”

Another downtown and university area gem is Time Market at 444 E. University Boulevard. With tables and chairs throughout the market, lots of studying and net surfing takes place along with coffee klatching. The market is a finely curated selection of goods, including beer, wine, produce, cheese, chocolate, and much more. And the quality of ingredients for the food served is nearly unparalleled.

A bit more up-scale are grocerant offerings in traditional grocers like Whole Foods. The Speedway store at 3360 E. Speedway carries over 20,000 organic products with a deli and salad bar, an organic juice and java bar, and sit-down space to enjoy a deli lunch or dinner. One shopper/diner who visited the River Road site commented: “It seems odd to rate a grocery store as a restaurant, but there’s a lot of food here to choose from. Inside seating and tables out on the patio offer no-hassle, no- hurry dining.” In addition, both Whole Foods on River Rd. and Oracle at Casas Adobes offer extensive in-store dining options.

Reuben at Time Market (Credit: Adam Lehrman)
Reuben at Time Market (Credit: Adam Lehrman)

Recently, Fourth Avenue's Food Conspiracy Co-op joined the fray with a hot and cold bar including vegetarian and vegan offerings.

Even many Safeway supermarkets include an option for dining in store, however the quality of ingredients is questionable.

One of the higher end options for dining in-store is AJ's Fine Foods at La Encantada. With a full pizza oven, deli, sushi bar, and moe, AJ's also offers daily specials, such as Thursday's wildly popular Pasta Night.

Whether you're looking for a quicker lunch or dinner, or simply a less formal form of dining out, there's no shortage of options.

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