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My trip to fresh&easy

When we moved back to Pasadena, I noticed with curiosity that the Wild Oats that used to reside on the corner of Lake Ave and California Blvd had been replaced by a fresh&easy.  Though I’d seen ads in the paper and heard a couple radio ads for this “neighborhood market”, I wasn’t exactly sure what kind of place the store would be.  Was it a Trader Joe’s?  Or a Famima!!?  Or just a new kind of Pavilions?  Well, I’ve had a couple trips there, and this is what I found.

So what is it? If I had to describe the store, I would say it was a cross between a Trader Joe’s and a Pavilions.  It touts its own brand (including a lot of organic and natural choices) like Trader Joe’s does, but it has a lot of standard mass-manufactured brands you’d see at a bigger chain like Pavilions/Vons.  It wasn’t a super high-end specialty store at all, so don’t expect to find a ton of fancy spices or oils that you wouldn’t see at mainstream stores.

Their spin. What makes fresh&easy a little different from the other chains I’ve been to is their emphasis on ready-to-make meals.  Trader Joe’s has a bunch of frozen entrees that are ready to eat — which fresh&easy has as well — but they really feature this rather tempting selection of ready-to-cook packs.  These previously cooked meals are not frozen, but are ready to go into your mouth after heating.  Whole dinners are prepped, as well — rosemary chicken or lasagna or salmon, and all you do is shove the food in the oven and you’ll have your dinner.  They really looked good, too… and what I mean by that is, through the clear wrap, you could *see* the quality of the chicken or fish or rice, and your mouth would water just from how tasty it looked.  This store clearly is trying to market itself as the place to go for busy people who don’t always want to buy their food at restaurants, pick up weird stuff at Famima, or defrost their food on a nightly basis.

Produce. I wasn’t really that impressed with the store’s selection of products, but I was intrigued by everything fresh&easy had their own label on.  Most of the other brands I could get elsewhere, and often at better prices.  But their produce, they market very differently.  Instead of selling items by weight, they sell “packs” or individual items for a flat price.  We couldn’t find a scale in the store to compare to the prices we’d pay at our neighborhood market, but when we got home, we weighed one of their on-sale packs, and it turned out to be comparable to what we would pay at other places, but nothing to swoon over.  For produce, it looks like I’ll stick to my local market, Figueroa Produce.

Essentials. As for milk, juice, and eggs, we picked up one of each.  The OJ was on a decent sale, and the milk was pretty competitively priced.  Their milk apparently comes from cows that haven’t been treated with hormones.  They claim on their website that their eggs are cage-free, but I am a bit uncertain about that.  We got the eggs that were on sale, and there were cartons labeled “organic” and “cage-free” (but not both on any one).  The carton we got just said it came from a particular farm.   If they were cage-free, that’s AWESOME, and I’ll buy my eggs from them from now on, but I fear that that isn’t the case.

Meat. What really impressed me at fresh&easy was their meat. It looked great!  Definitely some higher quality meats than the stuff you’d get at Ralphs!  We got ground beef at a decent sale price, and the sticker on the package says the the cows were corn-fed (instead of the more “natural” alternative of being grass fed).  We picked up some drumsticks on clearance as well, and they really looked quite fine.  We also manged to snag salmon for super cheap in their clearance aisle, but this turned out to be one of those moments where you got what you paid for.  We cooked it up the next night, and instead of devouring salmon like we usually do, both my husband and I seemed to force ourselves to eat it.  (My dog did manage to eat the rest of my fish when I wasn’t looking, so you could say that I cleaned my plate.)  I’m always wary, buying clearance meats/fish, but the quality looked so good that I had to try it.   Lesson learned about the fish.  The chicken was acceptable though nothing blew my mind.  The ground beef, on the other hand, tasted great, and the other red meat we eat — lamb — was pretty decent as well.  I’ve been always disappointed with the quality of lamb in SoCal stores, and I can’t afford to go to Whole Foods all the time.  When I have time to trek down to that side of Pasadena, I try to pick up some of that lamb for curry, god’s gift to me (I don’t care about the rest of mankind).

Self-Checkout. The last really nice thing about the store are the self-checkout lanes. I love self-checkout lanes.  I’ll have a happy dance the day Costco puts a self-checkout lane for customers buying fewer than 50 items.  And when I started to use the self-checkout lane and my items were chugging along the belt, someone came up very quickly to start bagging them for me.  (I asked him to stop, though, because my husband was headed to the car to grab our reusable bags.)

Final story. Other than the disappointing range of selection, I think the thing that bothered me the most was that they didn’t accept coupons.  They’re clearly billing themselves as the place to go for people who don’t have “time” to cut coupons and comparison shop, but do they really think they’re not going to get anyone like that?  Looking at their prices, why would I buy non-f&e branded items?  None of their sale prices for non-store branded items were so good that I couldn’t easily beat it by going to the Pavilions across the street, where they do accept coupons AND double them!

I’ll be definitely be going back to the store on a regular basis for their meat and eggs, but probably not for much else.  That said, I think I need to go back to Trader Joe’s (it’s been a while since I went myself) and see if/how they’ve upped their game in light of this competition.

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