Wisconsin has grocery stores, too
Econo Foods, Marchant’s, Festival Foods, Woodman’s, and Asian Taste
Hi! Happy Wednesday! I am going to be taking a slightly different approach to this newsletter and talk about a handful of stores instead of just one.
As some of you may know, I spent 10 days in Northeast Wisconsin at the beginning of November hanging out with family. I will be doing a roundup of my most frequented grocery stores in the area. I sometimes call this area “back home” even though I technically didn’t grow up there, I was born and raised in Bangkok. However, growing up, I spent almost every single summer there, so add up 3-4 months every year for 20 years and it turns out to be a long time. On top of that, my Thai dad moved to Wisconsin in 2001 and eventually bought a house six blocks from my American mother’s parents, so the abundance of family is really what makes Sturgeon Bay, WI my US home base. Here is the exact region we’re talking about:
Apologies if you already know this, some people really do ask where exactly is Wisconsin because America is so damn large.
Anyways, here are the grocery stores I go to most when I’m visiting “back home”:
This is your classic American Supermarket™ and also the place I shop at the most when I’m at my dad’s in Sturgeon Bay. Here you’ll find all the wonders of the “middle aisles,” aka all the processed and packaged foods that the United States seems to have pioneered. It’s one of two regional grocery stores in town, the other one being Pick N Save. Let’s just say you’re either a Pick N Save family or an Econo Foods family, rarely do you frequently shop at both. Is there a major difference between the two grocery stores? No, not at all. But it sure helps that my dad is an Econo Foods guy while my grandparents are Pick N Save people so that they can lovingly avoid each other :)
I, too, am an Econo Foods gal by default because of my dad, and it’s helpful for me when he asks me to go pick things up for dinner he can tell me exactly where to find each ingredient. His go-to non-Thai cuisine weeknight meal is steak on the grill with a side salad and potatoes, salad being a pre-chopped variety of lettuces that come in a bag with your choice of Newman’s Own or Hidden Valley dressing, and potatoes being the dehydrated scalloped potatoes that come in a box (God bless the Middle Aisles). In fact this was such a common meal growing up that I almost got sick of steak, crazy right? Didn’t know how lucky I was.
My mom mentioned some have worried that Econo Foods would be in danger of going out of business once the Walmart next door converted into a Super Walmart around 10 years ago, but that never happened because the people of Sturgeon Bay are notoriously unwelcome towards national chains. Even a beautiful piece of commercial real estate down by a marina with a view of the historic steel bridge was thought to be cursed because every business that occupied it closed. Now its current occupants, the locally-owned Sonny’s Pizzeria, is busier than its predecessor Applebee’s ever was, even though the food is of similar quality.
Might seem odd that the Super Walmart can’t out-compete the local chains, but the local chains do a slightly better job at catering to local tastes than the standardized Super Walmart. You can find Kringle and dinner rolls in the bakery section of Econo Foods, tons of local cheeses, and bratwurst. The best Walmart can do is stock Spotted Cow Beer, which is from New Glarus Brewing and famously does not sell any beverages outside the state of Wisconsin. But the existence of Spotted Cow on Walmart’s shelves may be more the doing of the distributor than of Walmart’s own volition.
I’ve also noticed the selection of products at Econo foods has gotten increasingly better over the years. My dad used to not be able to get Persian cucumbers to make Thai Steak Salad, another dish he makes to maintain his steak habit. I just noticed on this past trip that kimchi can now be found near the produce section. The hot foods section of the deli now not only has fried chicken, meat loaf, and mashed potatoes, there’s also a wide selection of grocery store sushi! This is in a town where sushi wasn’t seen until maybe 2010. Although I hesitate to boost grocery store sushi as I think it’s probably better for our oceans if sushi were a designated special occasion food, not an everyday meal.
Marchant’s - Brussels
Brussels is one of those even smaller towns with truly just one Main Street, thus, only one grocery store. It’s south of Sturgeon Bay and the highway used to cut through it until it was expanded from two lanes to four lanes in 2008. My dad still makes the 20 minute drive to Marchant’s because it’s the closest store with an actual butcher counter. Yes it’s true, not sure why both of Sturgeon Bay’s grocery stores don’t have a butcher counter but you can for some reason ask the folks at the deli counter to shave your ham to eight different thicknesses. So this is where my dad goes when he wants some unusual order that doesn’t come in pre-packaged portions like 6 pounds of pork belly, whole and uncut, or 13 pounds of brisket to test out his smoker that comes with an app. That’s it, he comes for the meat, doesn’t even browse the aisles, and leaves.
Festival Foods is another regional grocery chain that is a favorite in Green Bay of both my brother and my dad. This place does in fact have a butcher counter, but it’s not a practical place to shop at regularly due to the fact that it’s a 50 minute drive from home. My brother comes here because his university’s dining plan allows students to shop at Festival Foods. My dad comes here specifically for something called spoon roast. Not sure what the name refers to but it’s one of those pre-seasoned cook-at-home things that I recall my dad doing a good job cooking. Sometimes they give out single-use thermometers that have an indicator that pops out when your roast’s internal temperature reaches 135º or something. There are ones for poultry, beef, pork, that pop out at different temperatures, pretty nifty and helpful for those that don’t have a thermometer at home.
My favorite quirk of this store is the Green Bay Packer logo printed on all their deli containers. Is it because they sell the official Green Bay Packers potato salad at this store? Unlikely. Maybe it’s just to remind you where you are and what you’re proud of. Because Green Bay I would argue is so much more Packer country than Los Angeles is Dodger country.
Although this grocery store is so insanely huge that it can feel like a big box store at times, there is something very homely and vaguely granola about Woodman’s. Coolest thing about Woodman’s is that it is employee owned! Can’t explain in concrete terms how that makes a business more cool but it sounds more anti-capitalist? Hell yea.
This store is also just insanely huge. I’ve only been to the Green Bay location of this regional grocery store but I have been told that other locations are equally huge and overwhelming. Possibly 40+ aisles, I kid you not. It’s like this store can’t just pick and choose a select few brands of a product that might satisfy a wide enough customer base, no they have to stock all the brands. When I visited Woodman’s on this past trip, I asked my mom if she needed anything and all she wanted was for me to take a picture of the cheese aisle. “It’s huge, you’d never find a cheese aisle like that in Thailand.”
On a semi-related note, Woodman’s appears to be my mom’s favorite Green Bay store while Festival Foods is my dad’s. Again, in this family we love to ~*lovingly avoid*~.
It’s also got the best “ethnic aisle” out of any American grocery store I’ve seen. It’s actually a full aisle, not just a skinny row of shelves. I can get fish sauce here, yay! And basically any other pantry staple to cook the cuisines of regions such as Japan, India, even the Middle East. In the past I have picked up ghee, tahini, and instant hondashi here. So there is a benefit to the Woodman’s urge to stock literally every single brand on the face of the earth.
Remember me mentioning in the last newsletter driving an hour through rural Wisconsin to get to the closest Asian grocery store? Well this is the store.
When my dad moved to Sturgeon Bay in 2001, although Google did indeed exist, I don’t think it was advanced enough to display relevant results to the search “Asian grocery stores near me.” A family-run store like this may not have even had a listing online. He said he found out about it through a Thai friend who married a man from Green Bay and ran a gift shop up in the touristy part of Door County together.
I truly feel so at home in this store. I believe the family that runs it is Hmong as Northeast Wisconsin has a big pocket of Hmong immigrants. They understand a bit of Thai, too. Over the years Asian Taste has expanded to sell more than just imported jars of curries, they added some tables to an alcove in the back of the store to serve hot bowls of pho to shoppers. They also have a hot foods deli now, offering quick to-go bites of laab or spring rolls or barbecue chicken and always freshly steamed sticky rice.
Now my dad has expanded his shopping spots to include a few other Asian stores in the area, some even as far as Appleton. But I think my family owes a lot to this one store. My dad taught himself to cook all his favorite dishes from scratch out of necessity by watching YouTube tutorials when he moved to the US, there truly wasn’t a single place within 100 miles of him where he could get a plate of chicken rice, or a bowl of soup-less tom yum egg noodles. He sustained my brother and I through our homesick summers with his ambitious cooking projects and we would heat up the leftovers on days he was working. Surprisingly my dad has never actively taught me a single thing about cooking, I learned more on the job after I started my adult life not spending all summer at his place, but I don’t think I would’ve dove into learning such an expansive craft if I didn’t see him teach himself which ingrained in myself that I could do that too. That, and maybe that father-daughter competition inherent in our relationship helps push me to always want to cook a better meal than him.
It’s that time of year when folks are traveling home for the holidays. I would love to hear what your favorite regional grocery stores are and what your favorite items are from those stores. And send me photos!