In 2007, the Thibodaux-based grocery retailer Rouses purchased the Southern division of the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company (more commonly known as A&P). The 17 stores, mostly in the New Orleans area, almost doubled the size of the company, and ensured that many neighborhoods would continue to have access to a full-service grocery store. I had the opportunity to work with some of the Rouses folks, as I had been representing A&P in premises liability cases before they sold the division. I found the employees, both those who came over from A&P and the folks that Rouses brought in, to be dedicated and helpful. I also noticed that most of the stores received an immediate makeover, and that Rouses was clearly making an effort to sell local products when and where they were available.

Emphasizing local products is good marketing, to be sure, but I don't think that's the only reason Rouses has taken this route. I have gotten the impression that buying local matters to the family-owned local grocery chain. Over time, and in addition to the initial makeovers, Rouses has made some pretty dramatic improvements in their stores. They've added more organic and gourmet products, and several of the stores have extensive wine, deli and prepared food sections. The store at Tchoupitoulas Street and Napoleon Avenue has an amazing demonstration kitchen and wine-bar. But none of this is as significant as what happened on November 15, when Rouses opened a new store in the Central Business District.

Located at 701 Baronne St. in a former auto dealership, it's easily the most modern and impressive grocery to open in New Orleans in years. The market boasts 33,000 square feet of retail space, and there is parking both above the building and in a lot at the corner of O'Keefe Avenue and Girod Street. There's no trace of the structure's former purpose; the store is sleek, shiny and full of distinct display areas with wide varieties of prepared foods, cheeses, salads, soups, deli meats and much more. There's a pastry station near the entrance that also serves coffee and espresso-based drinks. A second, larger bakery is located in the rear of the store, which in addition to goods baked in-house, offers selections from Sucré and Maple Street Patisserie. The seafood department is among the best in the city, and the butcher department stocks Wagyu beef and Berkshire pork.

The middle of the store features a “health and wellness” section that could be mistaken for the same area in Whole Foods. In my wanderings around the interior aisles I saw a lot of specialty goods that aren't typically stocked in local supermarkets. There are Ramen and other quick-cooking Asian noodle soups that normally require a trip to a specialty shop like the Hong Kong Market, and lots of uncommon ingredients for use in Latin cooking as well.

The opening has a lot of people downtown excited. Over the last decade many buildings have been converted to condominiums, and folks living in the area had to travel quite a distance to buy groceries. Further, people who work in the CBD now have a place to shop on the way home from the office, or to grab a quick lunch. Rouses definitely wanted this store to be a showcase, and the grand opening event this past Tuesday was attended by local politicians, chefs, and restaurateurs. Mayor Landrieu noted the importance of having a grocery to the further residential development of downtown, and chefs from nearby restaurants talked about how convenient it's going to be to have a quality grocery in the area. It was a pretty swank event for a bunch of people standing in front of a grocery in typically humid November weather in New Orleans. Which is to say that it went a little long for my taste, but once I got inside, and saw what I've related above, I was pretty excited too. My office is five blocks away, you see.

In other news about local grocers, Langenstein's is in the process of rolling out a system to help shoppers buy healthier food. It's called the Guiding Stars system, and here's what a press release I received this week had to say about it:

With Guiding Stars, every food item throughout the grocery store is rated for its nutritional value and receives a zero-to-three star rating. Guiding Stars offers busy shoppers a simple, at-a-glance tool that helps them quickly identify foods that offer the most nutrition for the calories.

Guiding Stars was recently awarded patent protection for its nutrition rating algorithm, which is grounded in evidence-based science and the most current dietary guidelines and recommendations of leading national and international health organizations, such as the FDA and USDA. The system credits all edible foods based on the presence of vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber and whole grains, and debits for the presence of trans fat, saturated fats, cholesterol, added sugars and added sodium. Food items are then awarded zero, one, two or three stars – one star means good nutritional value; two stars, better nutritional value; and three stars, the best nutritional value.

The system doesn't rate things like spices or other products that don't have nutritional value. I was disappointed, for example, to find no rating on my delicious oatmeal soap. But apart from that, the system seems pretty helpful. Sure a lot of the ratings are common sense. Fresh vegetables tend to get higher ratings, while processed foods score lower, but as a simplified way to choose between a couple of different cereals, or baked goods, I can see the benefit. There's still no way to figure out whether oatmeal soap is better for you than the aloe-based stuff, but this is the United States of America, and I am confident that the science will catch up to (my) demand.

Langenstein's, like Rouses, is locally owned, though with only two locations they're not going to be competing on the same scale any time soon. It's one of the better-run and better-stocked groceries in town, with outstanding meat, seafood, and produce departments. Like Rouses, Langenstein's has also been stocking more local products over the last few years, and they take an effort to point out the local provenance where appropriate.

But if local is what's really driving you, you should probably go check out the New Orleans Food Co-op in the New Orleans Healing Center at St. Claude and St. Roch, which had its own grand opening this past weekend. I wrote about the Co-op not long ago, but that was before they'd completely finished stocking the shelves, and there were a number of kinks to be worked out with the registers. If you live in the area, or just want another source for regionally produced and generally organic food, the NOFC is right up your alley. Call 656-6632 for more information.