Fri. Apr 19th, 2024

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I don’t have to tell you that groceries are expensive. Every trip to the supermarket brings fresh sticker shock.

My favourite rye crackers are the latest shocker. Pre-pandemic, they cost about $3.50 a box at my local supermarket; now they’re almost double that.

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And it ain’t over yet as prices are forecast to keep rising in 2024 – an additional $700 per year for an average family of four, according to Canada’s Food Price Report.

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If, like me, you’re feeling beaten up at the supermarket checkout, consider this: you can often find great deals by shopping at the small grocery stores that are filling a niche in communities across our city.

These retailers offer a well-curated or specialized selection of goods in a smaller footprint and they typically sell basics like eggs, bread, produce and proteins. Many are related to a specific nationality or ethnic background. The experience is fast in, fast out, less stressful and far more fun than dragging yourself and an unwieldy cart through a cavernous supermarket.

They’re nimble operations, better attuned to the needs of their communities and able to pass on savings when they can. They deserve our patronage.

Most of Canada’s supermarket chains do not. Honestly, I’m sick of the stranglehold they have over the grocery market. Even though we’re often told these companies aren’t profiteering, using data from Statistics Canada’s Centre for Future Work showed otherwise. It reported in December that “food retail profits have more than doubled since pre-pandemic norms, and profits continue to grow.”

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Riiight. Like many folks these days, I now have zero loyalty to any supermarket and bargain-hunt far more widely than ever. Our family’s strategy is to stock up on staples at a warehouse store twice a month and augment that with goods from smaller grocers. Several friends also tell me they’re doing the same, including my pal Pam, who first turned me onto the charms of the Italian Centre Shop and suggested I round up some of the small local shops for this column.

I recognize that some people don’t have the time, mobility or inclination to shop around. It’s also possible to expend too much effort and gas money chasing the lowest prices. But if you do have grocery alternatives near you or can work them into your regular trips, it pays to support them. Sign up for their newsletters or hit their websites to see the weekly deals.

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A customer looks over the cheese choices at Bridgeland Market. Photo by Lorraine Hjalte Lorraine Hjalte /Calgary Herald

Explore your own neighbourhood, but here are seven places I like (heavy on the Italian), with a few of the items I’ve scored in the past month:

A-mart (1324 10th Ave. S.W.): This small market specializes in Korean and Japanese foods with uber-fresh, high-quality produce, rice, meats and fish at very reasonable prices. There are five locations, one of which is a warehouse, but I’ve only been to the bustling downtown location. SCORE: a tray of five fat jalapeno peppers for 90 cents; premium quality ground pork for $5.99 a pound.

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Bridgeland Market (1104 1st Ave. N.E.): The neighbourhood of Bridgeland has boomed but it still lacks some basic services. Fortunately, it has this well-provisioned little grocery store that competes with supermarkets pricewise. Like the community, it skews upscale with a good cheese counter and pricey olive oils. SCORE: a dozen gorgeous extra-large, dark-yoke eggs from Springvale Colony for $6.49; a bag of three romaine hearts for $2.49.

Daily Fresh Produce (#280 2525 36th St. N.E.): This Indo-Canadian fruit and veggie emporium, located in Sunridge Mall, is vast and serves the multicultural community of northeast Calgary. I didn’t see any fresh meat, poultry or fish, but you can stretch your food dollars here with the heaps of rice, lentils, fresh veggies and fruit on offer. SCORE: asparagus at $1.99 a pound (!); three cantaloupes for $5.

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Store manager Gino Marghella holds speciality cheese and olive oil at the Italian Centre in Calgary. Gavin Young/Postmedia Gavin Young/Postmedia

Italian Centre Shop (9919 Fairmont Dr. S.E.): Started as a tiny confectionary in Edmonton’s Little Italy in the 1950s, this small chain has five stores in Alberta; the Willow Park shop opened in Calgary in 2015. Don’t dismiss it as some chi-chi food fantasy – its excellent selection of meats, breads and produce is very competitively priced. SCORE: a 10-pound bag of yellow potatoes for $3.98; Gala apples for $1.29 a pound.

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The Italian Store (5140 Skyline Way N.E.): Another Alberta success story, begun in 1958, The Italian Store is the retail arm of Great West Italian Importers, a company best known for its import business, Scarpone’s Quality Italian Foods. The store is chockful of local and imported meats and cheeses, with aisles of pasta, and canned and pickled goods. There’s a small produce section focused on Italian items like escarole, and it sells juice and supplies for winemaking and kitchen gear. SCORE: a case of 24, 28-ounce cans of Scarpone’s whole tomatoes for $1.66 per tin; 14-ounce cans of chickpeas, cannellini, lentils, etc. for 99 cents a tin.

The Italian Supermarket (265 20th Avenue N.E.): This modest grocery store/pizzeria/deli has retained its mama/papa vibe. Established in 1963 by the DiGaeta family, which moved to this location in 1983, there’s now a third generation running the shop. Fans come for its olive oils, pasta and deli items (gelato, too). SCORE: Canned Fioretti organic cannellini beans at 99 cents for a 398-mL tin; large limes for 49 cents each.

Shaganappi Mediterranean Market (3919 17th Ave. S.W., and a newer second location at #6, 9950 Macleod Tr. S.E.) This compact grocery store carries an array of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern products, halal meats and poultry, great produce, deli items and specialty items at competitive prices. SCORE: a three-pound bag of tomatoes for $2.68 or two bags for $3; a 454-gram bag of Meyer lemons for $1.68 or two bags for $3.

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