The year in groceries.

By David Landsel
July 01, 2020
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It's remarkable how the unthinkable can just sneak up on you, like it did back in early March, when very nearly overnight, the American supermarket transformed from predictable part of our daily lives to something most of us had only read about in history books.

For weeks, Americans, so accustomed to having it all at the snap of their fingers, were left prowling picked-clean aisles, eagerly snapping up the last box of unusually-shaped pasta, the last dented tin of garbanzo beans nobody wanted, eventually realizing it was probably smarter just to stay home.

Yeji Kim

The supermarkets slowly began to recognize this as well, lumbering out of panic mode and into safety mode. Suddenly, the keepers of that last, vital link in the food supply chain were being hailed as frontline workers, keeping the country fed for very low pay, fighting in a battle they never signed up for.

Months have passed now, and still, in big cities across the country and sometimes even small ones, we wait in lines, long lines, to get in, following floor markers and wearing masks, feeling victorious each time we see paper towels or our favorite brand of mayonnaise on the shelves. Life comes at you fast, and this year it came like a freight train. We’re all part of the story now, and nobody can say, not for certain, anyway, when and how all of this ends.

Things were very different the last time Food & Wine spotlighted the best supermarkets in the country. In 2019, our needs were simpler—we wanted to know where to find the best values, the best product. Each chain was judged heavily on the relationship with its respective community, or communities. The world has changed, but the criteria has not. If anything, we’re just taking these things more seriously.

Throughout America, unemployment is skyrocketing, the economy is struggling—more than ever, value matters. Quality rolls right into this need, as well—we’re cooking at home, some of us more than we ever intended to in this lifetime. So where can we find the best of everything, once again, at a price we can afford?

The events of 2020 have thrown a spotlight on so many problem areas in our society. After decades of corporate gains, it took a pandemic to highlight the increasing difficulties faced by hourly laborers in America. While some chains reported record sales, supermarket cashiers—suddenly in one of the riskiest jobs outside of healthcare—were too often asked to report for duty without an increase in pay, or safety precautions. Even as the country began locking down in March, management at too many grocery stores were battling with their employees over simple protections like masks and gloves.

Tensions boiled over, predictably; a preexisting conflict between Amazon-owned Whole Foods and its workers only intensified, while do-no-wrong Trader Joe’s blindsided loyalists with their response to a small but vocal segment of its workforce that dared to show interest in organizing, at a moment when many felt that their lives were on the line.

This was just one of so many challenges that shoppers faced—how to show solidarity? Would taking your business elsewhere even do any good? Very few of our favorite stores passed the pandemic test with flying colors, after all. Some regional favorites struggled mightily with the new normal, almost stubbornly dragging their heels while dozens of their employees fell sick, leaning on early-days opaque CDC guidelines. Others, remarkably, went above and beyond, leading the way on worker protections, compensation, and expanded health benefits, very early on in the crisis.

One cannot help but be the slightest bit impressed by the timing of this hopefully once-in-a-lifetime event, which sent everybody home, rather urgently, and into their kitchens. The pandemic arrived on our shores in the middle of a lengthy and sustained period of evolution in American food culture, a time in which supermarkets have been impacted mightily, and often for the better. After well over a decade of significant change, during which Americans became increasingly interested in eating well, the country has better access to higher quality food than at any other time in recent memory. (Who is the number one seller of organic foods in the United States, these days? Walmart, that’s who.)

Yeji Kim

Very few communities of any size are left lacking at least one premium alternative to the standard chain offerings, whether it be a Whole Foods, a Sprouts, a Fresh Market, or a smaller, well-liked regional brand. Best of all, remote grocery shopping had already become simpler than ever, before this started. From store-operated curbside pickups at Wegmans, to Walmart’s nearly on-demand grocery delivery, backed by a thoroughly dynamic inventory keeper, it was possible, if you could tolerate doing so, to pretty much stay home indefinitely.

Some of us, a great deal many of us, it seemed, retreated to the internet entirely, relying on promising mail-order sites like Thrive Market, or Public Goods, or Mercato, all of which were immediately overwhelmed, but managed to weather the storm, and in the process gained streams of new customers. Everyone was hiring, to keep up with demand—Instacart alone announced it was aiming for a quarter of a million more shoppers across the country. Supposing you did not love going to the supermarket, before all this kicked off—the way the industry seems to be battling it out on home delivery, your prayers have been answered.

Whether you choose to never set foot in the store again, or you’re stuck at home longing for a return to normal at your old favorites—is Whole Foods even Whole Foods, without the olive bar?—you’ll want to know where to spend your grocery dollars wisely, and there were some clear winners this year. There wasn’t a corner of the business left unpillaged by the virus, but the question was, how did they respond? What steps were taken, when did they take them, and what are they doing now?

Quite simply, we wanted to know: Who do we want in our foxhole, now, and, let’s hope not too far into the future? Who did we want leaving our two-week supply on the doorstep, or in the trunk of our car? By virtue, no major corporation made up of human beings is ever going to be perfect, but here are ten companies we felt did their damndest.

1. H-E-B

Even Texans already deeply loyal to the hometown favorite found new ways to fall in love with the nation’s best supermarket chain, which began back in 1905 as Mrs. Florence Butt’s general store, up in the Hill Country. As early as mid-January, while the political class whistled, H-E-B was doing strategy, building on a company-wide emergency plan it had already used during previous disasters. By mid-March, as much of the industry flailed, Texans were joking that H-E-B ought to run for president.

From the roving band of mariachis enlisted by one store manager at the height of the panic buying phase, to a useful assistance program for customers trying to access federal stimulus funds, to the mid-crisis launch of an initiative selling prepared foods from top regional chefs like Chris Shepherd, the home of Here, Everything’s Better, a store nearly everybody already liked, did the most possible to lock down Texans’ undying affection.

What was already good—the affordable prices on a wide range of high-quality own-brand products, the in-store tortillerias, the excellent curbside pickup program—seemed even more important now. There are those who think they are shopping at the best supermarkets in the country, and then there are the H-E-B shoppers who know this for a fact.

2. Wegmans

Name a better large-format grocery store chain on the Eastern Seaboard, we’ll wait, and rather comfortably, thanks. From the value-minded house brand to a dizzying array of baked goods and prepared foods, and don’t forget those ridiculously good subs, Wegmans doesn’t seem to lose many shoppers over time, rather adding only more to the fold.

In recent years, this Western New York institution has gone wide, opening up shop everywhere from suburban Boston to North Carolina. The family-owned company notably went the extra mile on safety, and rather quickly as well, choosing to operate stores at a fraction of their normal capacity without necessarily being required to do so (the store’s curbside pickup program quickly became one of the hottest bookings in town), implementing daily wellness checks for employees, offering telemedicine if they did not have access to a doctor, alongside now nearly standard protections like cash register shields.

Courtesy of Wegmans

An already generous paid sick leave program became more flexible than others, and the company took the step of asking its customers to wear face coverings long before many local governments followed suit. There are now more than 100 Wegmans stores, including one very popular New York City location—fans would insist there’s room for at least 100 more, and they’re not wrong.

3. Hy-Vee

There were supermarkets that coped rather well at the peak of the pandemic, and then there was the pride of Des Moines, which seemed almost energized by the challenge, implementing flexible time off and job leave protection for workers, going into overdrive to expand their growing home delivery service, offering curbside delivery of their exceedingly popular homestyle prepared meals (the meatloaf might be better than Mom’s, just saying), and matching, dollar for dollar, customer donations to local food banks. Much like H-E-B in Texas, the employee-owned Hy-Vee just seemed like it was there, in any way it possibly could be, for the communities they serve; this will have come as no great surprise to the Midwesterners lucky enough to shop there on a regular basis.

4. New Seasons

Go less often sounds like the sort of advice you’d expect from your local public health official, rather than a low-margin business hoping to make a modest profit, but Portlanders quickly became accustomed to hearing the exhortation from their favorite hometown supermarket chain, which was only asking to be loved a little bit less, just for a little while, until the smoke cleared.

Not only a kick-ass grocery store stocked with high-quality and often organic product, but also something of a gathering place for each community it serves, New Seasons also proved to be an industry leader on the safety front, requesting face coverings for everyone, way back in April. Shoppers at the Northwest’s little gift to itself, if only we were all so lucky, responded to the company’s moves with overwhelming positivity; one store employee mused that nearly every day felt like the day before Thanksgiving. While still primarily a Portland area thing (and how), there are now two equally excellent stores elsewhere—one in suburban Seattle, and another in San Jose.

5. Market Basket

While lesser New England chains dithered, the head-and-shoulders-above regional favorite announced that their associates had always been able to wear masks and gloves, if they so preferred; up went the plexiglass shields and in came the crowds. Like everyone else in the hard-hit region, the family-owned company couldn’t escape the virus entirely, even if it tried damn hard, but some relationships are built to last. Long after the dust settles, after people stop banging on about grocery stores being essential businesses, Market Basket will remain just that, wholly essential, both to its local customer base and the streams of summer people, who, for example, not that we’d know anything about this, pay too much for their Cape Cod rentals and then roll up on the Bourne store after sitting in so much bridge traffic, filling up what room is left in the car with groceries that are at times so affordable, shoppers from less lucky places might wonder if the prices aren’t a mistake.

6. Lidl

Just when we thought we couldn’t love this fast-spreading European import even the slightest bit more (you’ve never had a better cheap chain supermarket croissant in this country, promise), the company came out with a first-in-the-business promise to cover all costs of coronavirus testing and hospitalization, for any employee unlucky enough to need either one. They’d already stepped up to the plate last fall with medical coverage for everyone, whether part-time and full-time—Lidl isn’t just trying to change the way Americans shop for groceries, it could end up changing the way grocery store employees work.

© Martin Divisek/Bloomberg via Getty Images

What’s so great about a store filled to the brim with mostly unrecognizable brands? Just ask the home cooks across the Atlantic that rely on them for their low-cost, often high-quality product; not to be impolite, but if it’s good enough for French home cooks, it’s good enough for you. Right now, interested shoppers can find the stores everywhere from Northern New Jersey into Georgia; with any luck, they’ll eventually end up nationwide, and then stay that way.

7. Winco Foods

Kudos to the manager at this Boise-based chain with the bright idea to ensure social distancing while customers waited in line to enter—why not hand out a freshly-sanitized cart to each one, saving already stressed out workers from the messy work of enforcing social distancing rules? This spartan, employee-owned treasure—known for one of the largest, most reasonably-priced bulk aisles in the business, a temporary victim of the pandemic—has for years been a favorite in the inland Northwest; lately, their reach has extended all down the west coast to sunny San Diego, as well as further inland.

Winco’s stores, brimming over with affordable store brand goods, have been a lifesaver for cash-strapped shoppers on the West Coast, faced in recent years with an exorbitant rise in the cost of living, and now struggling their way into an economic downturn. Stores tend to be remarkably spacious on a good day; lately, with capacity significantly lowered, they’ve been feeling almost palatial. A true friend in tight times, or anytime.

8. Trader Joe’s

No delivery, not in-house, not third-party, not otherwise, and no curbside pickup, either. So how does a store this stubborn manage to thrive, at a time when everybody else seems so keen on bringing your groceries to you? By being one-of-a-kind, as shoppers who waited in never-ending lines all spring can tell you. One-of-a-kind, and often tremendously accessible, to boot, offering great product, lots of it organic and all-natural, for sometimes drastically less than you’d pay for similar at places like Sprouts, or Whole Foods.

Fanatical fans were somewhat taken aback by the company’s labor and safety scuffles with its employees during the crisis, and the TJ’s response felt as uneven as the country’s, with some stores absolute models of organization and safety, while others felt one jostle away from complete chaos.

On balance, if you could wait patiently, and didn’t mind leaving the house, many stores offered one of the most pleasant shopping experiences to be found, at the peak of the unpleasantness—at least one one Southern California store sent staffers outdoors to ask trivia questions, while customers waited to enter—lucky winners went home with bags of candy.

9. Publix

When loyal shoppers talk to you about this employee-owned Southeast favoriteif you went to Florida and didn’t stop at Publix, were you even there—one of the first things that will come up, invariably, are the subs from the deli counter. Some supermarkets may have eased off on the prepared foods during the pandemic, but Publix charged ahead, knowing full well that for many of its cooking-challenged customers, their famous sandwiches, the Havana Bolds and the Chicken Cordon Bleus, all of which could be ordered in advance through the app for in-store pickup, were damn near essential.

Jeff Greenberg/Getty Images

Publix is so much more than one of the region’s favorite places for a cheap and quality (Boar’s Head) sub, it is also well-loved (like so many on this list) for its rather superb store brand. A robust curbside pickup program grew considerably, as management struggled to find the right balance on in-store safety; one very positive move of late, however: Publix has been quietly purchasing vast supplies of surplus milk and fresh produce, donating them directly to food banks.

10. Costco

Plenty of shoppers may have had trouble seeing the point before, but if there was ever a time where the four-pack of mustard made sense, it was 2020—save big, and bring enough home to last you for weeks? Yes please, said plenty of members, new and old, even though some of the things we loved the most—the free samples, for starters—had to take a temporary back seat. (Reportedly, samples are coming back soon.)

America’s finest warehouse club was already known for being a great place to work, and during the pandemic, it proved to be a safe place to work, too, thanks to measures that included masks required for all members, and a restriction on the number of people admitted along with members. Throughout it all, rather importantly, the food court hot dogged on.