EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ - Those who have lived in East Brunswick for a long time have seen several supermarkets come and go.
There was a bustling Foodtown in Loehmann's Plaza. The East Brunswick A&P was behind K-Mart. The recently closed Pathmark was technically in the same mall. Judging by the statistics, we should all be much thinner in the home of Bears since our food supplies have been so cut back.
Specialty and ethnic shops have opened to serve the coordinating communities and people with broader tastes, but many Bears go out of town to Milltown, Spotswood or even Old Bridge to shop for food. But when" in town," where do residents go for "big shopping" of groceries?
The four grocery stores on Route 18 -- two on the south side and two on the north -- are the Hong Kong Supermarket, Stop and Shop, ShopRite and Wal-Mart.
Let's see how they compare on a few points. Today, TAPinto East Brunswick shopped for six items -- bananas, Friehofer's Whole Wheat Bread, 2% milk (store brand), a dozen extra-large eggs, a box of Ronzoni #35 elbow macaroni, and boneless chicken breast. TAP also checked out the availablity of fresh fish and organic produce in each market.
Here are the results for one rainy Tuesday afternoon in November:
Hong Kong Supermarket
Some East Brunswick residents may not know that this store is, indeed, an inclusive supermarket, offering most groceries needed on a daily basis. Except bread. They don't sell bread.
A good reason to shop here is that the Hong Kong supermarket has Asian staples at reasonable prices. In addition to traditional Western-familiar vegetables and meats, this supermarket may be the only place where one can buy roasted quail, pork hearts, fishballs, duck feet and beef stomach. It's not for everyone, but this large store has great appeal by carrying a wide variety of fresh veggies (sorry, no organic ones) and a whole line of Goya foods, rice, pork products and other Latin favorites, too. It's next door to the Tepanyaki Grill Buffet. It may also be the only store in East Brunswick that has a Shisedo cosmetics shop, a music education center, and a Chinese decorating store. It's not the only grocery store with a nail salon, though.
Reasons that might persuade you away include the awkward parking lot and that no-bread thing. If you are planning to have a festive Thanksgiving, Hannukkah or Christmas, you can probably get the some ingredients you like, but there is no display putting them right out there for you.
Chicken breast: $2.49 a pound (frozen and thawed)
1 gallon 2% milk: $2.99
Dozen extra-large eggs: $2.99
Ronzoni #35 elbows: $1.69
Total: $13.55 (then you have to go to another store unless you are willing to branch out from bread, but the variety of noodles is amazing.)
Organic veggies? No
Fresh fish: The freshest and the widest variety. Many are still alive (not just lobsters).
Stop and Shop
A good reason to shop here is that the prices are low and the atmosphere is pleasant. Stop and Shop is holiday-ready, too, with a line of Hannukah specialties and the Christmas/Thanksgiving baking supplies placed right up front where you can find them. Savings are increased when customers use a "store card " to catch values. There is a circular of sale items weekly.
Something that might turn you away is that you may not see it so easily from the highway and pass Stop and Shop by. This store has most of what shoppers need, but the venue is small and the variety is less than ideal.
Chicken breast: $3.99
Total: $13.83 (with card)
Organic veggies: Some
Fresh Fish: some but small amount
The best reason to shop at this long-time East Brunswick favorite is the variety and quantity of choice available. The prices are good, and there are a great deal of actual groceries, not novelties or only predominantly processed foods. The ShopRite features a salad bar and a soup/hot food bar. There is a Kosher section that sells fresh and freshly-prepared foods as well as fish and meat. Are they ready for the holidays? Can you say canned pumpkin? Unlike those of other stores, Shop-Rite buyers understand that Italian food is also part of every holiday in New Jersey so it is featured prominently with the Christmas and Thanksgiving displays.
The worst thing about the ShopRite is the parking lot, which is crowded and dangerous, especially on Saturdays and during holiday shopping. The front of the ShopRite is one of the famous bottlenecks in East Brunswick, almost an Olympic challenge. Like many other stores on Route 18, the entrance to ShopRite is difficult to access and the parking lot is huge, with many spaces very far from the store. The bread was overpriced, but at least it was there.
Chicken breast: $3.99
Organic veggies: Yes
Fresh fish: regular and Kosher
The best reason to shop at Wal-Mart is that is an inclusive store where you can get underwear, Christmas trees, sports equipment and frozen pizza in one place. You can also get a haircut, a manicure, a Subway sub and a bike. Prices are good. Christmas and Thanksgiving are ready to go, with easy-access displays of holiday foods throughout the grocery area. Wal-Mart features "Everyday Low Prices" instead of sales on most grocery items.
What might hinder you from shoping at Wal-Mart is that it's, well, Wal-Mart. There is no Kosher section, and nobody seems to know that lots of folks in the Garden State eat lasagne as well as turkey on Thanksgiving. The feel is that of a warehouse filled with country music. Wal-Mart is the same wherever it is.
Chicken breast: $1.99
Organic veggies: some
Fresh fish: no, all frozen
What's your choice, East Brunswick shopper? Wal-Mart is the cheapest, but Shop-Rite has everything. Stop and Shop is the nicest place to shop. The Hong Kong Supermarket fills a need and offers something for the adventurous, gluten-free or traditional Asian or Latin cook.
The stores that offered the fewest fresh items also had the fewest employees -- those that slice meat, handle fish, slice deli cuts, and specialize baked goods. Those foods are expensive and don't last very long. They need to be moved by workers on and off the shelves. The most workers were seen at ShopRite and Stop and Shop, and many at the fish and meat sections of the Hong-Kong Supermarket. Wal-Mart had very courteous employees (two of them wished us a nice day) but, proportionally, there seemed fewer of them to help out the customers.
Overall, ShopRite seemed to understand who lives in East Bunswick; Stop and Shop creates an inviting environment in which to shop; the Hong Kong Supermarket has a good sense of itself and what it had to offer; and Wal-Mart offered lots of everything but had no hometown feel or sense of what is eaten here.