- Grocery stores can spark joy, and those that do are often rewarded with customer loyalty.
- Gelson’s Markets, a southern California chain, was the first grocery chain to sell the Impossible Burger and was also voted “Best in the West” in a 2019 Consumer Reports poll.
- I visited a Gelson’s store in Los Angeles to see what all the fuss was about, but my experience was disappointing rather than joyful. Here’s why.
- Sign up for Business Insider’s retail newsletter, The Drive-Thru, to get more stories like this in your inbox.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
There are certain grocery stores, like objects, that spark joy.
Wegmans’ devoted following inspired me to journey to Brooklyn Navy Yard to check out its first New York City location. I was an instant convert. Others eschew the wonder of Wegmans for Southern grocery chain Publix. Some people even get married at Costco or smuggle Trader Joe’s products across international borders.
Gelson’s Markets, a regional chain based in southern California, was rated “Best in the West” by Consumer Reports this year and ranked fourth in the nation among 96 grocery store chains. Impossible Foods also chose Gelson’s to be the first grocery store to sell its plant-based burger.
In order to see what made Gelson’s so special, I paid a visit to a store location in Hollywood, California.
I arrived at Gelson’s on a Monday evening to a largely full parking lot.
Near the entrance, there was a sign advertising the Impossible Burger.
The first thing to greet me as I entered was a shelf of LaCroix.
The interior was shiny and pretty, and the interior was full of that laid-back Los Angeles charm.
Near the entrance, there was a small cafe area with books, magazines, and a bakery.
The bakery is semi-separate from the grocery store and has its own name, Victor Benés.
It was full of gorgeous cookies, pastries, and cakes.
Just outside the bakery was a display showcasing products from a preserves and nut butters brand, Stonewall Kitchen.
Its creamy peanut butter cost $US8 for a jar.
Despite the full parking lot, I was surprised to find the store relatively empty.
Next, I took a look at the meat section.
On the shelves were packages of Gelson’s brand meat. At $US15 a pound, this New York strip steak was on the pricey side, but it looked pretty high-quality.
Of course Gelson’s has a poké bar. What self-respecting high-end West Coast grocery store doesn’t?
I briefly considered getting poké for dinner, but once I looked at the ingredients and price — $US18 a pound — I decided against it.
Moreover, the raw seafood didn’t look too fresh. It was late in the day, though.
There was also a fresh sushi section that was mostly empty.
The fish in the case was not nearly as impressive as the colourful, shiny fish in Wegmans’ sushi case.
Next, I headed over to the pickled foods, vegetarian options, and desserts fridges.
These tiny glass pots of vanilla pudding cost $US3.50 each.
Overall, there weren’t that many Gelson’s brand products. But most brands were local or organic, or some combination of the two.
There was a large variety of plant-based meat alternatives.
Sure, there wasn’t a whole lot of Impossible on the shelf. But it was still there, and it was there first.
Next, I dipped into the wine, spirits, and beer section. There were a few restock carts sitting in the aisle.
Most of the offerings were on the pricier side. Gelson’s brand wine was sold next to Francis Ford Coppola’s wine brand.
However, I also found an incredible deal on apple pie-flavored moonshine. As a “Justified” lover and Margo Martindale fan, I had to try this.
Mags Bennett, Martindale’s character on “Justified,” is known for her signature moonshine, which tastes like apple pie.
Like Wegmans, Gelson’s had a kombucha fridge. However, all these pre-bottled kombuchas were outside brands.
When I looked up I noticed that the walls were lined with star-studded moments from Hollywood’s history.
But the store didn’t feel quite as glamorous as it could have, despite a wood-paneled display fridge for fresh-cut cheeses.
It was the first time I’d seen a wooden fridge, but this party platter inside looked less than festive.
Overall, though, the fresh cheeses section seemed like a splurge that would be worth it.
But the average shopper can’t live on splurges, and it was clear that even everyday products from normal grocery brands had some pretty significant markups. These Knorr chicken bouillon cubes cost $US2.79 a box at Gelson’s, but cost only $US0.98 on Amazon Fresh.
Source: Amazon Fresh
$US9 for a rotisserie chicken wasn’t atrocious, but it was definitely on the high end of what I’d expect to pay.
Next, I moved onto the dairy and eggs aisle.
All the eggs on the shelf were pasture-raised, organic, free-range … you get the idea. A Gelson’s dozen cost $US4.50.
At first, I balked at paying $US5 for discounted butter. But it was hand-rolled. Maybe it was worth the premium over the regular stuff.
And honestly, most things at Gelson’s took me on the same buyer’s journey: this is too expensive, but wow, it’s really nice, maybe it’s worth the extra money.
I feared my wallet might not make it out unscathed before I left the store.
There was a fresh flowers and balloons section that sold everything from holiday wreaths to orchids.
The produce section felt almost unbelievably overpriced. I could never justify paying $US7 for a mango, even if it was from Australia.
However expensive it was, I had to admit that the produce section was fresh, colourful, and full of variety.
Finally, I moved into the prepared foods section.
There was a soup and salad bar separate from the hot foods section.
There were also some prepackaged portions of deli foods and soups for a quick grab-and go.
Here’s where Gelson’s really one-ups Wegmans. It not only has its own house brand of kombucha, but it also has its house brand kombucha on tap with reusable glass growlers.
It was late and I hadn’t yet eaten, so I was looking forward to the hot and prepared foods section.
There was a Wolfgang Puck Express with pizza and salads.
Wolfgang Puck Express is a gourmet fast-casual and foodservice brand, but the food left in the case wasn’t too appetizing.
The employees behind the counter were friendly and helpful. They offered me samples, and eventually I went with a superfood salad with Brussels sprouts and lemon vinaigrette.
But that was partially because the hot food selection looked just kind of like mush.
I left Gelson’s feeling disappointed. My visit didn’t spark the joy I had hoped, and I just didn’t understand how the chain had won the “Best in the West” award. I’ve been to other grocery stores on the West Coast that were far more impressive.
Even though Gelson’s had high-quality products, I didn’t feel like most of them justified their even higher prices.