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First Trip: Fresh & Easy, Mesa AZ

JK Grence the Cosmic Jester | Dec 7, 200701:06 AM

It was interesting looking through the LA boards about the new Fresh & Easy chain that British retailer Tesco has opened here in Arizona, Nevada, and California. A lot of people were critical about the lack of British food (do you really expect such things to sell well when their target demographic is everyday Americans?) and apparently excessive packaging (i.e. produce that's already bagged for convenience's sake). I just went to Fresh and Easy this morning and I would say I like it quite a bit. It is larger than a Trader Joe's by a good margin; the one I visited on Alma School and University was formerly a Walgreens-type drugstore and was still the same size. They showed a definite slant toward the predominantly Hispanic population in that neighborhood, with things like bolillo rolls, tres leches cake, and pig trotters (that last one with a primarily Spanish bilingual label). The British influence of Tesco is subtle, mainly through the hot tea being MUCH more prominent at the sample station than the coffee, a glut of Indian items in the heat-and-eat fridge and freezer cases, and a small handful of quintessentially British items scattered about, including Stilton cheese, back bacon, and shortbread. So you get an idea of prices, here's what I got:

10 oz Mint creme sandwich cookies, 1.99
12 oz Fig bars, 1.99
5 oz Jalapeño Cheddar potato chips, 1.19
10 oz Cheddar cheese crackers, 1.69
1 pound frozen edamame, 1.39
24 oz Frozen mac & cheese, 2.99
24 oz frozen Beef Bourguignonne dinner with veggies and mashed potatoes, 4.99
8 inch frozen pepperoni pizza, 3.89
20 oz Tomato basil soup, 2.99
Pint mango sorbet, 1.98
25 oz Puttanesca sauce, 2.39
16 oz organic ginger limeade, 1.98
16 oz peppermint infused water, .79
1 bottle Big Kahuna (store brand) Australian Cab/Shiraz blend, 2.99

for a grand total of 33 dollars and change. Not bad, about what I'd expect to pay, maybe a little less. Nothing strikes me as a steal value wise, but conversely, nothing is outrageously more than I'd expect to pay. Thank goodness they don't have those damn frequency cards, I despise those with a passion. After all, what's the use of paying 1.49 for a big box of cereal when the Ben & Jerry's ice cream is 4.50 a pint?

So far I have tasted the ginger limeade, the mint sandwich cookies, and the fig bars, and I think all of them are very high quality. The limeade is a good balance of sweet and tart, citrus and ginger. The filling of the fig bars is VERY figgy; now that I've tasted these ones, I might not be able to go back to another brand without quietly cursing that they aren't as figgy as F&E's. I wish the fig bars were whole wheat ones, but that's just personal preference coming into play. Next time, I'm tempted to pick up one of their chickens for roasting; butterflied and marinated, ready to pop in the oven, $2.99.

There are a number of things I noticed around the store that I was very happy to see. One big one is that the produce is very fresh; I don't remember the last time I was in a grocery store that the lemons actually SMELLED like fresh lemons off the tree! They have plenty of organic items, often at the same price as a similar non-organic item. And the ingredient lists on the house brand items (which is about 60 percent of the store, and 100 percent of what I bought today) are almost entirely things that I would use if I was making the same thing from scratch; no polysorbate 80 to be found anywhere, as far as I can tell.

There were some bugs that needed to be worked out. One puzzling thing was that the carts had little cupholders built into them, but they were practically useless since the beverages available in the store were all in straight-sided bottles that fit all the way through the cupholder. The self check-out is a bit different than I've seen, with a conveyor belt that scoots your goods down to the end of a regular length checkout counter to make it easier to bag them. Sometimes the conveyor belt would get a bit confused and not take the item all the way down to the end of the conveyor belt, or not even notice that a particularly light item was merrily sitting there, ready for its journey down the counter. I have a feeling that at least the technological issues will be taken care of in fairly short order.

The whole experience of shopping at Fresh & Easy is much like the food they serve... just a little bit different. Shopping carts are smaller, much of what they offer is ready to eat with minimal prep at home, and the check-out lanes are entirely self-check out. I got the sense that it really lives up to the name of "Neighborhood Market" a lot more than the Wal-Mart Neighborhood Markets that dot the east Valley; the staff was courteous enough to make me feel right at home, and the large amount of prepared perishables would mean that you'd make two or three small trips to the grocery store every week instead of one really big one. I would have been comfortable bicycling my purchases home, something I certainly couldn't say when I go to Super Target or even Trader Joe's. I'm looking forward to the ones closer to my place opening soon... Mesa is a lonnnnng way to go for me to pick up lunch supplies! It just might be worth it, though.

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