an illustration of ingredients like tomatoes, avocados, mushrooms, and balsamic vinegar under a grocery store awning
Illustration by Sarula Bao

How The Fresh Market Brought Culinary Elitism to the Suburbs

The Fresh Market offered baby boomers an upscale alternative to the middle-of-the-road supermarkets of the 80s. Now, it feels like a vintage yuppie paradise.
May 18, 2021, 3:00pm

MUNCHIES State of the Suburbs is an exploration of eating in the American suburbs today. What makes suburban dining great, and as the suburbs shift, how are suburban dining scenes changing? Read more here.

A grocery store that plays classical music around the clock, offers several different varieties of climate-friendly toilet paper, and boasts its own private-label French raclette isn't the first thing you'd expect to see on Greenville Highway in Hendersonville, NC. For one thing, there are already two other supermarkets—including state favorite Harris Teeter—within a stone's throw of its unremarkable brick façade, sandwiched between a PetSmart and a shuttered discount department store. And though picturesque downtown Hendersonville—with its crystal shops, old timey ice cream shop, and dingy biker bar—suggests a degree of ideological diversity, it's hard to imagine gun-loving Republican Congressman Madison Cawthorn, probably the biggest national figure to call this small western North Carolina city home, driving through the mind-numbing labyrinth of strip malls radiating out from the city center and choosing to pull over here.

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The Hendersonville location of The Fresh Market, a decades-old North Carolina-born gourmet supermarket chain, is more modest in size and selection than the gleaming, palatial flagship the company opened a couple years ago in Charlotte. (Reportedly, the grand opening involved a ceremonial cracking of a 95-pound wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano). But it follows the same blueprint you can expect to see at many of The Fresh Market's 159 locations, which are scattered throughout suburban areas and small-to-midsize cities in the South, Mid-Atlantic, and Midwest. Outside on the sidewalk, a meticulously arranged display of spring flowers, or bags of charcoal for grilling, or pumpkins for carving, beckon you toward the sliding doors—always, like many things at The Fresh Market, pointedly in season. 

Stepping past the threshold, it takes a few seconds for your senses to adjust. Before you can take in the wall of gently misted organic produce, the luxurious olive oil selection, the deep bins of bulk nuts and dried fruit, and the improbably generous antipasto and olive bar—before, that is, you realize that the whole thing has been built to resemble a sort of fantasy version of a European open-air market, with all the different stalls brought together under one roof—the first thing your body registers is the light. Warm, soft, and, according to GE Current, the product of energy-saving LED lamps with something called a "high-color rendering index," it's a far cry from the vibrating fluorescents most of us are accustomed to encountering at American supermarkets. Taken together with the smell of fresh-ground coffee and the subtly sedative effect of Chopin or Beethoven, it's enough to make you wonder if you've died and gone to suburban gourmand heaven. 

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I wasn't alone in feeling weirdly seduced by the place. In April, USA Today's Readers Choice Awards voted The Fresh Market as the Best Supermarket in America. Still, its cultural significance seemed to extend beyond its high marks for value, selection, and customer service in the poll. It appeared to be importing a distinctly aspirational culinary sensibility to areas of the United States where you wouldn't necessarily expect it—one that felt strikingly cosmopolitan for the suburbs and the sort of suburban-feeling cities that abound in North Carolina, but also like a time-capsule from some hard-to-pinpoint recent past. 

I ended up at The Fresh Market for the first time—the Hendersonville Fresh Market—a few days after Christmas. I wanted to thank my partner's parents for their hospitality by cooking everyone dinner, and a recipe from a book I’d received as a gift called for cumin seeds. After wandering dazedly past the Grind Your Own Nut Butter station and tracking down a clear plastic bag of the tiny brown crescents on a wooden shelf housing dozens of fragrant, colorful powders, I drove back to the house with a sense of accomplishment, unable to believe that I’d found what I needed in a largely remote, mountainous area of North Carolina. 

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As it turns out, my partner’s mother, a talented home cook, had been making the occasional pilgrimage for decades—mostly around Thanksgiving or Christmas, when she wanted to serve something a little fancier at the dinner table. 

When she started going to The Fresh Market in the early 2000s, she said, there simply weren’t a lot of other places where you could find organic produce—or pick out a piece of salmon you wanted and have a dedicated fishmonger weigh and wrap it up for you. And though she tends to do the bulk of her shopping at all-purpose supermarkets like Harris Teeter, she’d still make the 25-minute trip from time to time prior to the pandemic—almost as a treat to herself. “It just had a different atmosphere,” she said. “I know this sounds strange, but it was more relaxing than going to a regular grocery store.”

This squared. And yet, in the days that followed, I couldn’t stop thinking about The Fresh Market. In some ways, its cornucopia-like atmosphere reminded me of childhood trips to Balducci’s Food Lover’s Market in Manhattan, an Italian-immigrant-owned-fruit-stand-turned-gourmet-speciality-shop-turned-chain in the West Village that became a popular destination among young professionals and bohemians in the 80s and 90s. In addition to crusty baked breads and jars of giant caperberries, I remember the store’s original location on 6th Avenue and West 9th Street, now closed, selling a kind of porcini mushroom ravioli that I still think about to this day. Like a portal to a musty, overgrown forest floor I'd only read about in Fairy Tales, it was probably my first experience of culinary escapism.

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The Fresh Market’s bountiful selection of pungent country cheeses, balsamic vinegar of Modena, and olive oil (always, without fail, extra-virgin) also felt of a piece with a culinary sensibility I’d come to associate with upper-middle-class white New Yorkers growing up—the sort of people you'd imagine sitting in their Brooklyn brownstone, spreading some reblochon over a slice of farmer bread while reading the Sunday Times. My mom, who grew up in Switzerland, always used to scoff at the American obsession with foods from Europe; to her, these were simply foods that reminded her of home, the sort of democratic staples one would eat every day. 

Mostly, I realized, it reminded me of a scene from Frasier, the long-running television show known for its cartoonish but affectionate critique of the inscrutable affectations of upwardly mobile white baby boomers in the 90s. In it, Niles—the titular radio psychologist’s brother, who is also a psychologist—takes his retired cop father Marty to a gourmet speciality shop in search of a kind of hard-to-find Swiss-German prosciutto called Bündnerfleisch. Marty, a proud steak-and-potatoes kind of guy, cannot understand why everything in the store is so expensive. “Come on now, even you got to admit that this whole store is kinda nutty,” he says to Robert, the shop’s peevish, French-accented owner. “Fourteen dollars for a pound of goat cheese? For that price, I oughta be able to get a whole goat!” 

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After Robert kicks him out, Niles feigns outrage: “That man is my father, so obviously I can’t leave here with a bag full of your merchandise,” he says. “Home delivery?” Robert asks. “Thank you,” Niles replies. (Coincidentally, the Fresh Market and Frasier also share a similar relaxing quality.)

As it happens, that misalignment between father and son—between one generation and another—goes a long way to describing the sort of grocery store landscape that husband-and-wife duo Ray and Beverly Berry stepped into in 1982, when they opened The Fresh Market's first location in Greensboro, North Carolina. California natives, the couple came up with the concept after a life-changing sojourn to Europe. In an echo of the story of Williams Sonoma founder Chuck Williams, who opened his first French cookware shop in San Francisco after a two-week trip to Paris, they’d been enchanted by the open-air markets they encountered on the continent, and wanted to find a way to recreate that experience back home. (The Fresh Market declined to make a company spokesperson available for an interview or answer questions for this story).

Ray quit his job at The Southland Co., where he’d been overseeing thousands of 7-Eleven stores. The Berrys relocated to North Carolina, and, according to the company's website, “poured their life savings into their dream: creating a warm and inviting shopping experience filled with the freshest produce, meats hand-trimmed by butchers in-store, fresh-cut flowers, and the finest foods and ingredients from around the world.”

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In 1982, the first location of Whole Foods—in Austin—had already been around for two years. But according to David Gwynn, an associate professor and digitization coordinator for the university libraries at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro who runs the grocery history website Groceteria, the idea for a supermarket that celebrated local produce and purveyors alongside premium imported goods was a far cry from mainstream grocery store culture at the time. 

Though mom and pop gourmet speciality stores were not unheard of, shoppers in small cities like Greensboro and suburbs throughout the U.S., mostly had a choice between a handful of middle-of-the-road supermarkets filled with variations of the same prepackaged, canned, or processed foods. They were stores centered around the values that had dominated the industry since the 1950s and 1960s, like affordability, convenience, and advances in modern food technology.

1980s-born chains like The Fresh Market and Whole Foods, alongside West Coast analogues like Mollie Stone’s and Wild Oats Marketplace, were a conscious reaction to that middle-of-the-road post-War supermarket landscape, Gwynn said; especially since around the time of the 1970s recession, stores had been trending toward greater and greater homogeneity, competing less on inventory and more on price. Whether it was grounded in a countercultural, back-to-the-land ethos (Think: Whole Foods) or a more upscale sensibility like The Fresh Market’s, these stores’ emphasis on fresh and natural foods was “kind of reversing the trend of what was new and modern in the 1960s and 1970s,” he said. 

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Ironically, the very things that made The Fresh Market stand out as innovative—its service butcher and service fishmonger, its sale of bread that was baked in house and produce that wasn’t wrapped in plastic, even its use of antiques to decorate the store—seemed to signal a return to the past. "[They] tried to present themselves as an old fashion country market," Gwynn said. He noted that after 20 years of "processed food [being] the end-all and be-all," the store's early-80s origins also coincided with a revival of interest in home-cooking. 

Former CEO Larry Appel, who headed up The Fresh Market from 2017 to 2020, likened the shopping experience the company hoped to foster to "a treasure hunt": "You're going to find new things and you're going to expand your eating horizons," he told Business North Carolina. A 2020 company profile from Mashed highlights some of the treasures that a customer might stumble upon while perusing the store, painstakingly selected by the supermarket's own "curators" (yes, that's what The Fresh Market calls members of its merchandising team): purple cauliflower and jackfruit; cherries from Tasmania and "jumbo blueberries" from Peru. On a recent trip to The Fresh Market, I got so distracted by the surprises on every aisle that I quickly gave up trying to buy groceries for the whole week; I did, however, find lion's mane mushrooms, a rare eight-pack of limoncello La Croix, a kind of tapenade made from artichokes and lemon, and a brand of margherita pizza that had been baked in a coal oven in Brooklyn and was being sold in the form of individual frozen slices.

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The "treasure hunt" concept seems to have resonated with a certain kind of consumer from the start: By the 90s, according to investment research firm Value Line, The Fresh Market had expanded to Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, and South Carolina; by the mid-2000s, it had infiltrated Illinois, Ohio, Indiana in the Midwest—followed by NYC bedroom communities in Connecticut and New York, and short-lived stints in California and Texas.

It should be noted, of course, that the company didn't exactly seem to be positioning itself as the next Kroger: Gwynn noted that The Fresh Market opened its first location in Northwest Greensboro, the "more traditionally affluent part of the city." And perhaps owing to the pretty penny one can drop at a place where perishables like produce make up roughly two-thirds of the inventory, according to a 2019 interview with Appel, anecdotal observations from coworkers and family I surveyed tended to foreground an association between The Fresh Market and wealth. 

When I asked my partner's mother what sort of clientele she imagined The Fresh Market in Hendersonville was catering to, she pointed to Western North Carolina's draw as a destination for moneyed retirees, looking to live out their golden years in the breezy, temperate Blue Ridge Mountains and its foothills. My coworker Bettina Makalintal, who grew up on the outskirts of Philadelphia, said that after a Fresh Market opened up in a strip mall in her hometown of Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, she'd noticed some luxury apartments and a Toll Brothers "Active Adult" housing development pop up across the street. 

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When it became a hallmark of good taste among middle and upper-middle-class boomers in the 80s and 90s, however, the culinary shift the Fresh Market was tapping into was probably rooted as much in abundance as it was a feeling of lack. In Discriminating Taste: How Class Anxiety Created the American Food Revolution, Margot Finn, a lecturer at the University of Michigan, explores how economic stagnation and a widening wealth gap in the 1970s gave rise to a new brand of culinary elitism in the 1980s. As income growth slowed for many Americans, food became a means by which middle and upper-middle class people could signal their erudition and worldliness. 

"I think it comes from the status anxieties that really get going in the 1980s because of the bifurcation in class that happens," she said. You've got stagnation for the working and middle classes, and the rich really start to pull away. And I think that what that does is create this culture where the lifestyles of the rich and famous become a fascination, and aspiring to them is something that a certain set starts to do." Hence, she explains, the generational disjunct that shows like Frasier are parodying: "The upper middle class, the educated people, the people that set the cultural norms for much of the country, start to aspire to these kinds of status-seeking foods, instead of what had been popular [in the 1940s through the 1970s]: industrial food, American food, patriotic food. Steak and potatoes. Roast chicken." 

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Serving glasses of sommelier-approved dry French wine, mold-streaked cheeses, and salad drizzled with fruity olive oil at a dinner party wasn't just a way of signaling to your coworkers that you had extra money to throw around. With their nuanced, sometimes bitter or funky aromatics and associations with concepts like terroir, Finn says, these treats were "huge opportunities for knowledge acquisition and differentiation of your own personal taste." And while the particular constellation of affinities comprising this yuppy eating style could seem pretty contradictory at times—How do you reconcile wanting to eat local with obsessing over delicacies from overseas? When did eating rustic, European "peasant" food become a marker of cosmopolitan sophistication?—Finn says that ideological coherence wasn't the priority with this mindset. 

The only thing that mattered, she said, was "the idea that you're discerning—that your choices are superior because you've got some reason. It doesn't matter what the reason is, doesn't matter if the reason's good. But you are discerning, unlike those other people who just eat whatever." 

According to Gwynn, by around the year 2000, gourmet markets catering to this sensibility could be found pretty much everywhere in America where there was enough of a demand for it—a trend he largely credits The Fresh Market, and Whole Foods, with pioneering. But taste is fickle, industries pivot, and the supermarket world is a notoriously cut-throat business. In 2016, less than six years after going public, The Fresh Market announced that it had been acquired by a private equity company called Global Apollo Management, for roughly $1.36 billion. Reuters reported that same-store sales were down, with the chain "struggling to keep up with Whole Foods Market Inc at the high end of the market while being squeezed by Wal-Mart Stores Inc on the cheaper end." It didn't help, Reuters noted, that organic produce and imported speciality items had become increasingly commonplace at mid-range supermarkets, too.

Under its new leadership, The Fresh Market spent the next few years trying to staunch the bleedingslashing prices; remodeling spaces to feature more product-dense, vertical grocery aisles; swapping out the antiques for colorful food photos; and introducing thousands of new products to its inventory, including household items, baby products, and even all-American favorites like Oreo cookies and Special K cereal. By all appearances, the company seemed to have set its sights on becoming a mass-market grocery chain. For the first time in The Fresh Market's 34-year-history, a journalist in Winston-Salem, NC observed, shoppers could finally buy toilet paper there. The store, he wrote, had even switched its all-classical soundtrack to jazz. 

The gambit was short-lived: Following the sudden departure of a CEO and the arrival of Larry Appel, The Fresh Market announced in 2018 that it would be returning to its "specialty roots"—ramping up its selection of curated seasonal items and product assortments, re-emphasizing idiosyncratic features like bulk candy and nuts, and doubling down on its selection of house-prepared ready-to-cook meals. The pivot, which coincided with the chain closing about 15 of its stores, seems to be working: In March, the company revealed that it had begun the process of preparing for a second public offering, and though it filed its S-1 confidentially, Moody's Investors Service estimates that its same-store sales rose by around 20 percent in 2020.

Still, Gwynn says the Fresh Market is no longer a chain he'd consider to be an "industry leader." That designation, he says, probably applies more to supermarkets like Wegman's—palatial superstores combining organic and local produce and gourmet speciality products with a more budget-friendly ethos and a seemingly endless selection of convenience foods. Not unlike the smaller-sized Trader Joe's, they're stores that seem perfectly suited to a new generation of young professionals with curious palettes: Millennials who have the internet to thank for their unprecedented access to information on the latest food trends, but who are on pace to accrue only a fraction of the wealth that their parents did at their age. They're places, in other words, where you can find some decent brie to serve at a dinner party, but also ready-to-eat meals for nights when you don't have time to cook, or a basket of rice, beans, and salsa to tide you over until your next paycheck.

Maybe that's why, for weeks after Christmas, I couldn't stop ruminating about The Fresh Market: Even in the suburbs, you don't need to go on a literal treasure hunt these days, much less possess any rarefied knowledge, to find the sorts of items that Frasier Crane might use to impress a date. And the idea that worldliness and sophistication is something that can be sought out and bought—if you have the means to do so—feels almost quaint at a time when we're bombarded with information, and aspirational Internet ads, on all sides. 

Still, driving through Charlotte to pay a visit to The Fresh Market's flagship store last month—past what felt like miles and miles of manicured gardens and sprawling single-family homes, many of them with the sort of white-paint-on-brick exterior I'd come to associate with wealthier areas in North Carolina—I mostly just felt a yawning sensation of lack. None of this, I knew, was ever going to be mine. 

But when we pulled into the parking lot of The Fresh Market, I found myself looking forward to the future. Inside, I imagined, I was going to find the biggest collection of olive oil the world had ever seen—maybe discover a new kind of snack in the bulk bins to take on the drive, encounter a vegetable I had never seen before. Inside, the architecture of the place would give me permission to lie to myself. Brushing past the display of white orchids by the sliding doors, the first thing I noticed was a slogan on the far wall: "Curated Delights. Endless Possibilities."

Follow Emilie Friedlander on Twitter.