Review: Plum Market, Ann Arbor, Michigan

Perfect applesAfter much delay, I finally made my way over to the new Plum Market in Ann Arbor. My take? It’s nice, but I probably won’t be doing much of my shopping there; I guess I’m more a co-op gal than a Whole Foodsie. See after the cut for a department-by-department review.

Entrance

I admit I was a bit overwhelmed by the entryway. After passing the towers of 24-packs of 1/2 liter bottles of water and vitamin water flanking the doors, you’re faced with a towering wall of this week’s sale items. Extra-virgin olive oil for $8 a quart was quite a deal – $7 off regular price. Not organic, but still…

Produce

I really appreciate the fact that every item of produce is labeled with its state or country of origin. This time of year, almost everything is from California, but I understand they expect to get Michigan produce in stock in season. They had some unusual items, like galangal and lemon grass, along with all the standards displayed in perfect, gleaming rows. It’s a very striking presentation – glossy fruit in black cases – and makes the food look like art. I don’t seem to recall the prevalence of organics. I can’t believe I didn’t take note of that.

Meat, fish, and sushi

Next you come to the meat cases. They make sushi in-house, which is labeled with “raw,” “not raw” and “vegetarian,” and they do make brown rice sushi. The meat is non-local, brand-name stuff. According to the Plum Market web site, they offer “Piedmontese beef, a genetically gifted breed of cattle that produces naturally lean beef. … We also feature heirloom Duroc pork, raised hormone & antibiotic free on an all-grain diet. The resulting flavor is beyond compare. And of course we offer all-natural poultry from Bell & Evans.” Which tells me that the hogs, at least, aren’t pastured, otherwise they couldn’t be eating an all-grain diet. But hey – no antibiotics or eating of close relatives. Now I just have to dig up some information about the location and husbandry conditions that goes with the brand names. I certainly didn’t see any of the “brands” I recognize from around here: Yale Meats, D&K Cattle, Ernst Farms.

Dairy

The dairy selection is extensive – especially the cheese counter. They don’t carry our household favorite types of yogurt (Seven Stars whole milk and Brown Cow fruit flavors) but have several kinds I’ve never seen before. The variety of milks is extensive; not only do they have local Calder and Guernsey milks, they have something in a spiffy glass bottle with a nice font that comes from Illinois. And of course, Horizon “organic” milk from California. I didn’t peruse the cheese counter too closely, but I did see the real Pecorino-Romano cheese wheel from across the store.

The Middle Aisles

The dry goods were an interesting mix of organic and natural products cheek-by-jowl with Jif and Morton’s Iodized Salt. There were lots of canned or boxed goods with the names of famous chefs. I was amazed to see the very brand of pasta served at Zingerman’s Roadhouse, purportedly the best in the world, and even more amazed to find other dry pastas that outpriced it by a few dollars a pound (like, $6 a pound for linguine). Bulk goods were practically non-existent (and expensive) but the paper goods and cleaning aisle smelled refreshingly of…nothing, as opposed to that cloud of chemical stink that usually hangs over that aisle in a grocery store. Lots of “all natural” products but again, not all that many organics. I also don’t recall seeing Eden Organics, our only local producer of organic canned goods – but I wasn’t looking that closely, so I might have missed them. Oh, the middle section had a big wine aisle, but as I don’t drink wine, I can’t comment much on it.

Prepared Foods

As you get to the end of the store, you come to the prepared foods section, which I must say made me very hungry. There’s an extensive salad bar, with the usual tossed salad components and cold salads like edamame salad, pasta salads, etc. There’s a hot bar ($7/lb) with a full Indian buffet (meat and vegetarian) and the specialties of the day (lasagna and such). There’s also a wood-fired oven, and you can get pizza by the slice, as well as meats cooked in the flames (cedar-planked salmon, for example). Finally, there’s a full Zingerman’s bakery, selling a stunning array of artisan breads and amazing cakes. I had a taste of the hazelnut torte, which was magnificent, though I don’t see myself paying $30 for a cake any time soon. (But if I did, it would be one of those…). There’s also a See’s candy shop, which is a particular weakness of mine. Though I admit I haven’t had a fruit creme from our local chocolatiers, so I can’t compare.

Conclusion

Overall, this is a very pretty place to buy food. Most of the stuff in the store does actually qualify as food – no Lunchables, and fairly light on the organic cheez whiz. If it falls off the “real food” scale, it’s at the other end – things so gourmet they are more art than ingredient. A lot of effort goes into making the food look beautiful and abundant. Shiny piles of apples. Perfectly faced rows of colorful jars and boxes on nicely-lit dark shelves. A mountain of cheeses that could kill a person if it fell. Thirty kinds of canned soup.

It was, perhaps, a little too perfect and pretty and abundant for me. I’m a gardener. I expect some dirt to be associated with my food. No, I don’t want dirt in my food, but I want to see honest, unwaxed fruits and slightly irregular veggies. I don’t like seeing only the cream of the crop, because I worry about what’s happened to the rest of the crop. The insane variety of high-end American grocery stores overwhelms me. Shopping at the co-op for years, I’ve found that I’m generally happiest with 3-4 choices, especially in canned or prepared foods. More than that just seems wasteful, and it pressures me to pick the “right” one.

I think of “natural” groceries in Ann Arbor along a spectrum of farmer’s market –> co-op –> Arbor Farms  –> Whole Foods. The market is the closest to local farmers and “straight from the ground” and Whole Foods is the most “gourmet.” Selection at Plum Market was most similar to Whole Foods. Prices were generally higher than Arbor Farms, but maybe a little lower than Whole Foods. They seem to have deep sales on some items – perhaps as loss leaders – that don’t seem to happen at Arbor Farms and the co-op.

I do worry about the fate of Arbor Farms, especially, since they are closer to the same niche, and they’re less than a mile apart. (And a Whole Foods is going in a couple miles away on the other side of Arbor Farms.) Still, they don’t have to worry about losing my business. I’ll mostly continue to shop as I currently do – most things from the co-op, meat and incidentals at Arbor Farms, and occasional Meijer runs for things I can’t get at either of those places.

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5 Comments

  1. TeacherPatti said,

    April 15, 2008 at 6:19 pm

    I was there tonight! I picked up some pizza & buns for dinner–the pizza and bread dudes were super nice and helpful. I also discovered the hot food bar which had some very unhealthy stuff (YUM), and so of course I had to get some onion rings 🙂
    I’d shop there before I’d go to Whole Foods, but I’m like you…more food co-opy than grocery store-y.

  2. Momster said,

    April 15, 2008 at 8:21 pm

    I liked having seven salads for lunch for a reasonable price!

  3. Suzie said,

    April 16, 2008 at 5:23 pm

    I enjoyed your commentary! I cannot shop at Whole Foods (and therefore probably not Plum either) because the whole pretty place to shop thing totally works to snare me in, and I spend either 3x what I normally would (it’s all so tempting! so beautiful! I can eat one of every kind of fruit and vegetable in the next week, can’t I?) … or I spend the same amount, but it’s all on splurges.
    🙂
    Ah, marketing, you strumpet, you have found my number….

  4. Suzie said,

    April 16, 2008 at 5:26 pm

    This article (loosely related, but fantastic) may interest your readers:

    Another Inconvenient Truth: The reason why companies greenwash their products.
    By: David Roberts
    http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/123/another-inconvenient-truth.html

  5. Anonymous said,

    February 11, 2009 at 9:10 pm

    According to a friend of mine, Plum has been having some problems lately. The owners are trying to open a new store in West Bloomfield amidst the economic crisis and are running the employees very thin; cutting hours, not giving raises, cutting the daily teams in half or worse. As customers, please be kind to the employees. Any positive comments you can put in the customer feedback box are extremely appreciated! If you’d like to see the store continue to do well, help them out. Prove that good service is worth more than additional expendable profits.


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