A few months ago, I bypassed the corner store in Mount Pleasant where about once a month for seven years I had resorted to buying last-minute, uninspiring staples. I headed two blocks northwest for my first visit to Each Peach Market, which opened in August.
There were no sticks of Kirkland brand butter or blocks of Kraft cheddar cheese there. Instead, I found items that roused my creative juices, such as Cured DC charcuterie, Pequa Valley whole-milk yogurt, vibrant leeks, grass-fed strip steaks and good olive oil.
In the center of the room, a farm table was graced with bunches of fresh herbs standing in jars, like small floral arrangements. And then I saw Frenchie’s croissants, the best in town, and a basket of fresh everything bagels. A perfect Sunday was in the works.
“Do you have smoked salmon?” I asked the young lady behind the counter.
“We do,” she said. “But we also cure our own. Would you like to try some?”
If there is any doubt that a food movement is gaining traction in Washington, step into some of the small markets that have opened in the past few years. They aren’t the typical corner stores to duck into just for milk, eggs and mayonnaise. They are micro-grocers that carry squid-ink pasta, vegan faux gras, duck confit, fresh kale, farro and bloomy rind cheese from West Virginia. The eggs are most likely from free-range chickens, the milk is organic and the mayo might be flavored with rosemary or white truffle.
Their owners prefer to source locally. They curate the offerings based, in part, on their own tastes and are likely to have bona fide cooking credentials; many of them are chefs who realized their customers were cooking at home more, but in a different way.
“They are 50-50 cooks,” says Tracy Stannard, who co-owns Broad Branch Market in Chevy Chase D.C. “They’ll cook half a meal and round it out with prepared foods.”
I visited many of these markets with the idea of putting together a meal as a busy cook on the way home from work might, the 50-50 way. The best strategy is to let each place guide your menu.
Smucker Farms of Lancaster County, which opened in the trendy 14th Street corridor in late 2011, focuses on Amish and Mennonite products. When I noticed an array of Stachowski sausages and Stoltzfus peppered bacon, a main course of choucroute came to mind. The store sold sauerkraut, of course, a Pennsylvania Dutch staple. To round out the menu in my head, I picked up Soupergirl roasted carrot soup for the first course and Little Barn preserved peaches, Trickling Springs ice cream and Christina Maser raspberry jalapeño jam for a Melba-type dessert.
At Stachowski’s Market in Georgetown, where the chef and maker of those sausages and his son work, I zeroed in on duck confit (quite popular at these new markets) and duck eggs. I crisped the former and poached the latter to perch atop a main-course salad with spinach, farro and shiitake mushrooms.
A can of Urbani cream-and-black-truffle sauce struck my fancy the moment I entered P&C Market, a tiny basement-level store in Lincoln Park that is crammed with delicacies. It was a no-brainer to match that luxuriant sauce with Pastifico d’Apuzzo fettuccine for a main course. For the rest of the menu: charcuterie, cheese and olives to start; Dolci Gelati tiramisu gelato for a sweet finish.
From the Little Red Fox market in Forest Hills, I bought beautifully marbled, thick-cut Berkshire pork chops (sourced from a farm cooperative in the Ozarks) and stuffed them with a mix of brightly veined rainbow chard, freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, French bread from St. Michel Bakery (in Rockville) and piquant, smoky andouille sausage.
The andouille is made by the market’s chef, Anne Alfano, 33, a Culinary Institute of America graduate and whole-animal butchery specialist. Little Red Fox’s 29-year-old owner, Matt Carr, left behind a nascent journalism career for his true passion, food, and wound up in Portland, Ore., where he attended the Western Culinary Institute.
“We were the only people in our circle with culinary pursuits, so we teamed up,” says Alfano. “I wanted a restaurant, but Matt wanted a market, so we combined the two ideas. We like the idea of a space with lots of rotating parts: a bar, a coffee shop, a butcher, a market. We think it’s more interesting.”
Asked how she would describe the market’s point of view, Alfano doesn’t hesitate: “Brooklyn! Little cheese boards, Momofuku magazine, a window into the kitchen so people can see what the cooks are doing.”
Many of these new markets have onsite kitchens — not surprising, given that many are chef-driven. (Smucker Farms and P&C Market do not.) Cathal Armstrong’s Society Fair in Alexandria has a large production kitchen in its adjoining cafe. A kitchen takes up about half of the space at Stachowski’s.
Each Peach has a prep kitchen in the basement and a made-to-order sandwich station at the back of the market. Owners Emily Friedberg, 35, and Jeanlouise Conaway, 36, met in 2002 while working on USAID contract projects in Africa. Conaway trained as a pastry chef at the Cordon Bleu; what the two friends have in common is a love for what they call “the DIY culinary spirit,” meaning they want to get people back into the kitchen by supplying them with inspirational, high-quality ingredients, like the luscious cured salmon that Conway makes.
If customers aren’t moved to cook, though, they might be induced to imbibe. All of the markets sell beer and wine, with the latter hitting a reasonable price range of $15 to $20.
A common perception about these markets is that prices are high. One customer who lives across the street from Each Peach and did not wish to be identified told me she found the market obscenely expensive, so she could not do all her shopping there.
“But when I’m in a bind or lazy, it’s great,” she said. “We ran out of coffee, so I came here for it and wound up getting carrot ginger soup, too.” The Swing’s coffee cost $12.75 for a 12-ounce bag; the soup, made by Sisu Kind Food, a District producer of vegan prepared foods, is $6.50 per pint.
Alfano acknowledges that pricing can be troublesome. “We try to keep the prices at Little Red Fox as low as possible. But buying from local, small-scale vendors is expensive, and we haven’t yet figured out the magic number for our food cost.”
“People remember the most expensive items, like olive oil,” says Frederik De Pue, chef-owner of Menu/MBK, a market and bistro in Penn Quarter. “There is a mix of products and prices. Some people look for the high-end items, some for the more affordable. You have to know how to shop.” As he sees it, price reflects the quality of the product.
A pint (one or two servings) of orecchiette with pork ragu costs $11. Butternut squash soup goes for $6.50 per pint, a whole bird from the rotisserie oven within view, $12. The aroma of those rotating birds fills the space, acting like a drug to erode resistance.
Penn Quarter resident Carole Lee Mills had no problem with the prices at Menu/MBK when she was shopping there last month.
“To have this quality food is just amazing,” she says. “This area is like a wasteland. I’ve lived in this neighborhood for five years, and we are obsessed about being able to find decent food. There was no place to buy eggs.”
In her basket: half a rotisserie chicken and some broccoli soup, the latter produced in Menu’s upstairs restaurant kitchen. “Just what I need for my persistent January cold,” Mills said.
There are those who decry these new neighborhood stores as nothing more than hipster bodegas. Nonetheless, business has been brisk, the owners say, which indicates that the niche markets are answering consumers’ needs.
James Hulbert, 33, who lives in Mount Pleasant, is a repeat customer at Each Peach who says he believes in supporting small neighborhood businesses. “I like that they have organic food and that it’s part of the local community,” he says. “I feel more connected to the food when it’s a local store. How can you not? They have bunches of kale in a bucket of water when you walk in the door.”
Hagedorn is co-author with chef Cathal Armstrong of “My Irish Table: Recipes From the Homeland and Restaurant Eve” (Ten Speed Press, March 2014). He’ll join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.