It can be easy to forget how many options there are for buying groceries and other household items, with three major grocery store chains seeming to dominate the market. The truth is that between Albertson’s, Von’s and Ralph’s -- or the “Big Three” -- there isn’t much of a difference in terms of products. But as people become more conscious of the socio-economic and ecological issues connected with food -- or simply seek out higher quality goods -- there has also a rise in alternative grocers. Here’s a guide to alternative food shopping in Orange County.
For produce and artisan goods, it would be hard to find a more ecologically sound and community engaged option than a farmer’s market. Not only can you get locally grown produce, there are often fresh baked goods, nuts, cheeses, flowers and even fresh fish. Favorites include the Thursday Farmer’s Market at the O.C. Fair (with a food truck fair to boot!), Sunday at the Great Park, and Saturday at the Laguna Beach Lumberyard parking lot. Visit the O.C. Farm Bureau website for a full listing of Certified Farmers Markets in Orange County.
For those who don’t want to shop at the Big Three grocers and like craft, local or organic options, alternative grocery chains could be the way to go. While Whole Foods is a little on the pricey side, Trader Joe’s and Fresh n’ Easy have made a name for themselves with their high quality private label goods. Sprouts is a good place to go for high quality or organic produce and diary products The benefit of alt chains is that they are often conveniently located, so there’s bound to be one in your neighborhood.
Niche Suppliers and Local Chains
These are the local markets and mom-and-pop stores you can go to get niche goods. With all of our modern conveniences, we’ve lost sight of the concept of simplicity in our grocery shopping. There is nothing like the quality you get when you go to a bakery to get breads and pastries or to a butcher to get fresh cuts of meat. H-Mart in Irvine and Mitsuwa in Costa Mesa are community favorites. For fresh breads and pastries, check out 85° in Irvine or some other local patisserie. For fresh meats and fish, there’s the Beef Palace in Huntington Beach and Zlaket’s Market in Orange. Shopping on a small and local level may not always provide a one-stop-shop experience, but the local suppliers almost always win on quality.
Big Box Retailers
Sometimes it’s not the social issues that drive people to shop somewhere other than the Big Three, it’s just a different necessity. It can be said that the best place to get household cleaning items and toiletries from big box retailers such as Walmart, Target or Big Lots. At Walmart and Big Lots especially, you may find that you can stretch your dollar considerably. And with a one-stop-shop philosophy, most Big Box retailers now carry just about everything from clothes and accessories, to school and office supplies, electronics jewelry and grocery goods as well.
There’s a sort of “cheaper by the dozen” philosophy with warehouse stores such as CostCo, Sam’s Club or Smart & Final. Everything is bought and sold in bulk, so it's especially ideal for big families or shopping for big gatherings. Like many other grocery suppliers, each warehouse store has its own benefits and focus. However, the most obvious economic benefit with this option is in goods such as paper goods and picnic or party supplies. Be careful with impulse buying at these retailers though; buying in bulk means the cost of acting on impulse can wrack up pretty quickly.