If you’re looking for ground antelope or elk meat, look no further than the freezer case at the new Sprouts Farmers Market in Oakland. But if you’re looking for an artisanal cheese made close to home? Not so much.
Located on Auto Row at the intersection of 30th Street and Broadway, the new market had a soft opening on Tuesday Jan. 12, and opened to the public the next morning. It was packed by 9 a.m.
Founded in Arizona in 2002, the Sprouts chain has over 200 stores nationwide in 13 states, going as far east as Tennessee. With an emphasis on organic and healthy products, the chain aims to be a grocery store with a farmers market feel and low prices.
On a recent tour of the new store, I found it to be a great new resource in the neighborhood; it fills a niche that’s different than the other stores nearby. Grocery Outlet is within a few blocks, Whole Foods a bit further, and Piedmont Grocery also quite close. Unlike Trader Joe’s, it has a bakery, butcher counter, and fish counter.
But when it comes to one-stop shopping for absolutely everything one could want from one store, this isn’t the store for me.
Of course we are incredibly spoiled living where we do. A store like Sprouts, with its large organic, gluten-free and bulk sections and large selection of natural cleaners and personal care products, could be revolutionary in other parts of the country. Here, we already take all that for granted.
Before we go any further, gluten-free readers should know: Sprouts has perhaps the largest gluten-free selection I’ve seen in any store, and all gluten-free items are clearly labeled with their own colored tag on the shelf. But one should know that not all gluten-free items are in the same place. When looking for gluten-free oats, I couldn’t find them at first, but that was because I was just in the gluten-free cracker and pasta section. Over on the cereal aisle, there was another gluten-free section that included oats, cereals and bars. There’s a third section as well, with gluten-free breads and wraps, dominating a refrigerator case.
Sprouts is large enough of a chain to have its own label, and its own branded products are the cheapest in the store. A can of organic beans was $1.29, and a 14 ounce can of organic diced tomatoes only $1.49, for example. Most of its brand of organic spices were around $3.00, much cheaper than typical name brands. They also have spices in bulk, though most aren’t organic.
All organic and grass-fed meat is found outside of the butcher case in a refrigerated case. Cuts of beef and pork and lamb are individually wrapped. Right now, grass-fed beef comes from a number of different suppliers in Oregon and lamb comes from New Zealand.
While the butcher counter has a wide-array of house-made sausages and kabobs, I was told that none of these are made with the higher quality meat as it would make these items too expensive.
The freezer case is where the really exotic meat lies, though, with the aforementioned antelope and elk and quail, as well as things like pre-formed boxed goat patties. I also saw a tube of kosher Empire ground turkey, for kosher readers.
The fish counter had all kinds of fresh and frozen fish and seafood, both farmed and wild, as well as a small sushi section.
Sprouts is proud of its bulk section, but Berkeley Bowl shoppers won’t find it all that impressive. Much of it isn’t organic; however, the organic products are separated out into one aisle, and additional organic items are also available in pre-packaged bags or clamshells.
One negative I noticed was the cheese selection. While the deli case has a standard selection of organic sliced cheeses, and the cheese case has both organic and conventional basic block cheeses, the smaller, artisanal cheeses that I have come to love are absent. Of course you can find your goat, your brie, your Boursin, if that’s what you’re looking for, but you won’t find more artisanal local cheeses like Cowgirl Creamery or Cypress Hill. I also was surprised to find such a lack of Straus dairy products; while they had gallon bottles of milk and one kind of Straus yogurt, they didn’t have the kind I usually buy.
This also held true for the milk selection — what I wanted was a quart of 1% organic milk, and they didn’t have it. Most Sprouts customers seem to buy gallons, it seems, and conventional milk far outnumbered organic. While there were plenty of non-fat and lactose-free options as well as goat and all kinds of other milks, it seemed strange to me that I couldn’t get a quart of 1% organic milk.
These challenges also took place in the produce department. Sprouts is definitely going after more of a Whole Foods aesthetic than Berkeley Bowl here, and the trays of okra and habanero peppers were particularly artfully arranged. However, it was a bit challenging to get exactly what I wanted, and I had to make some compromises.
For example, organic lemons and limes were only sold in bags of 10 or so; if you wanted just one or two, you had to buy conventional. The only organic squash they had were acorn and spaghetti; if you wanted butternut you had to go conventional, and they certainly don’t carry more obscure varieties like carnival or my favorite, kabocha. In the kale department, they had organic curly but not lacinato. For that, you had to go conventional. Someone needs to tell Sprouts headquarters that not having organic lacinato kale in Berkeley or Oakland will not win you any followers.
Most of the organic produce came from Lakeside Organic Gardens, one of the largest suppliers of organic produce in the country that is also be found at the Berkeley Bowl and Whole Foods. While there’s not anything wrong with using a larger distributor, I was bothered by the fact that Sprouts uses the words “farmers market” in its name without stocking familiar Bay Area farms or smaller local niche products.
There are certain things about Sprouts that certainly will appeal to many. Number one is the prices — I didn’t do a side-by-side comparison, but they seem competitive. It also opens early, at 7 a.m. And the employees are incredibly friendly. Granted, they were likely on their best behavior for opening day, but I had several of them greeting me and asking if I needed help finding anything. So I have little doubt that with its low prices, lovely looking produce and friendly staff, Sprouts will find its audience.
Subscribe to the free NOSH Weekly email for all your East Bay food news. It lands in your inbox fresh every Thursday morning!