In the end, it's not the size of the place that impresses us most about Harris Teeter, the nearly 50,000-square-foot, double-decker grocery store that barreled into Ballston from North Carolina earlier this month. Nor is it the well-stocked wine department, the 24/7 operating schedule or the fact that we can scan our own purchases using a self-checkout system if we choose.
No, the real thrill of this local link in a Southern chain is far more modest: the paper towel dispenser that stands guard wherever samples are doled out or freshly spritzed produce beckons. No more sticky fingers as we troll the aisles! Someone was thinking.
Someone was not thinking about what discerning palates-on-the-run might want to see in a carryout, however. How else to explain a salad bar that suggests another era (Look! Green gelatin and marshmallows!) or a display case whose desserts, salads and side dishes have so little personality?
All the usual suspects of a church social have been rounded up in the prepared food case, with inspiration that hails from the home base in North Carolina; unfortunately, most items smack more of punishment than reward.
Baked beans ($3.59 per pound) scream "sweet!" with corn syrup and lack any hint of smoke. Macaroni salad ($1.89 per pound), drowned in mayonnaise, induces sleep. A vegetable medley called a "health salad" ($3.99 per pound) is all crunch, its vegetables leached of flavor. As for the "low country" potato salad ($2.99 per pound), its main ingredient tasted both old and mealy in the mouth when we encountered it one morning. (Odd, considering that the store promotes a policy whereby cooked dishes are not just replenished, but replaced several times daily.) Amid a flock of competitors, lemon pepper-seasoned roast chicken ($5.99 each) garnered polite applause.
You'd expect a Southerner to know its biscuits ($2.19 for eight), but Harris Teeter turns out something so dry and dull and tasting of baking powder that it resembles a failed home ec project. (Don't even ask about the croissants.) And in an area that considers crab cakes ($7 for two) sacred, the starchy, mushy rounds that claim that name in the seafood department merely hint at crab--save for the bits of shell we ran into.
Dessert, anyone? Let's just say that the Sacher Torte ($2.50 per slice) appears to be channeling a Hostess cupcake, the stolid lemon bars ($1.25 each) only hint of citrus and the rice pudding ($2.99 per pound) is Kabuki-white. A pleasant surprise, then, to slice into Key lime pie ($4.59 each), its tangy kick a welcome foil to its sweetness.
Beyond the carryout section, a test-run of this otherwise exceedingly friendly and well-groomed new market turns up some lures. The 2,000-label wine department, for instance, which would have been better had someone actually been on duty to answer our questions one high noon. An abundant produce section where you can find crisp, cool and pleasantly saline sea beans and juicy, slightly tart horned melons along with more common salad fixings. Enough organic and natural products to send Nora Pouillon into a happy frenzy. And private labels of note, including Hunter Farms (Harris Teeter's very own dairy, and the maker of some satisfying ice cream, which sells for $4 per half gallon) and Premier Selection, which offers habit-forming cheese straws ($3.99 per bag). Bet you can't eat just one.
Businessmen, thirtysomething moms with tots in tow, subscribers to Modern Maturity--they're out in full force the day of our expedition and seem happy to have Harris Teeter as a new neighbor. "Any plans for more?" a lady in line wants to know. As a matter of fact, a clerk tells her, the chain, which weighs in with 149 stores in six states, has signed leases for stores in Gaithersburg, Annandale, Fairfax, Pentagon City and Potomac.
"We pride ourselves on full variety and excellent customer service on a one-stop shopping trip," says Terry Hull, a district manager.
Save for Harris Teeter's food to go, we'll buy that.
Harris Teeter is located at 600 N. Glebe Rd., Arlington, Va. Call 703-526-9100.