By Emily Paster
"I heard you carry Zingerman's here," said the tall young man to the woman behind the counter. "Yes," she replied, "We have their Bakehouse breads and pastries brought in every day." I smiled knowingly. "Big Zingerman's fan?" I asked the young man. "I went to school at Michigan," he said as if no other explanation were necessary. "Me too," I said. Because if you went to Michigan, no other explanation was necessary. And we each hurried off to stock up on bread and cookies.
Until recently, this conversation could have only taken place in the state of Michigan because that was the only place where Zingerman's baked goods were sold — other than the Internet, of course. But thanks to the recent arrival of another great Michigan-based business, Plum Market, Ann Arbor's best bread is now available in Chicago. Plum Market, a natural and organic specialty grocery chain, recently opened its first Illinois store in the Old Town neighborhood of Chicago. Although I don't live anywhere near Old Town, I do teach near there. So after class on day, I drove the mile north to Wells and Division to see what Plum Market was all about.
I have long thought that Chicago needed more specialty grocers. There are many single-item specialty food stores, like butchers or cheese shops, around town and they are wonderful. But if you are looking for more of a one-stop shopping experience and want the best quality produce, meat, pantry items and prepared foods, you don't have many options beyond Whole Foods and the one Fox & Obel store that is underwhelming at best. Plum Market steps into that void with its new store.
Although the produce section at the new Plum Market is small, the fruits and vegetables on display were beautiful and I was pleased to see some local items, including yellow wax beans from a Michigan farm and Illinois-grown plum tomatoes that found their way into my cart. In fact, Plum Market strives to offer a wide selection of locally grown and made items, and even displays little signs showing how far away from the store an item was made or grown. I was particularly drawn to the display of Chicago-made candies, including sweets from local truffle-maker Katherine-Anne Confections.
The Plum Market meat counter was very impressive with products from top-quality producers like Niman Ranch and lots of delicious charcuterie than I couldn't bring home. Darn no-pork rule! I especially loved Plum Market's selection of pantry items, such as spices from local company The Spice House — I replenished my supply of sumac for all my Middle Eastern cooking — shelves of different flours and plentiful gluten-free items. Personally I was blown away by the selection of my favorite De Cecco pasta. My local Whole Foods only carries a few varieties, but Plum Market had all the different shapes and sizes. (I snagged some of the hard-to-find shapes like twisty gemelli.) And then there is that bakery with items from local favorites like Red Hen Bread and doughnut cult Glazed and Infused in addition to the miraculous Zingerman's breads and pastries. Add to that the huge salad bar, prepared foods counter and sushi from local celebrity chef Takashi Yagahashi and you have the equation for happy foodies. By the way, all the prepared foods are made in-house — one of the benefits of having only one store in the area.
But it's not only about the food. I had a chance to speak to the Plum Market store concierge Kayla during my visit and she emphasized that she and her colleagues want to put customer service back in grocery shopping. To that end, the Old Town store offers personal shopping for a flat $10 fee — call in or email your list and they will assemble it for you. Just swing by and pick up your groceries when it's convenient. Or not — they will deliver for an additional fee. The concierges also offer store tours and can help you find items to fit special diets, like Paleo or gluten-free. I can attest that everywhere I went in the store I encountered someone who offered to help me find what I needed.
If I had a Plum Market closer to me, I have no doubt that I would shop there regularly. I would have to build up some resistance to Zingerman's Magic Brownies, Glazed and Infused's chocolate old-fashioned doughnuts and frozen Wow Bao steam buns, but perhaps, with time and repeated exposure, these treats would seem less tempting. In the mean time, I recommend that all Chicago food-lovers give Plum Market a try and see if you agree that it is a worthwhile addition to our city's grocery scene.
Full disclosure time: I was invited to tour Plum Market by its PR representative who treated me to lunch at the store. I have not received any compensation from Plum Market nor was I asked to write about the store. All opinions expressed herein are my own.