Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Supermarket Showdown

This title may sound like a hideous new game show combining the theme of Supermarket Sweep with the final round of The Price is Right, but thankfully it isn't. For Mickey and I, meeting our most basic need - feeding ourselves, has been a challenge not because we don't like the food here, but because getting it requires a trip to the sometimes not so super market. It's not that we minded bringing our own grocery bags, weighing and pricing our produce, bagging our purchases and never shopping on Sundays, it was hunting for the items on our shopping list that made every trip an adventure. Sometimes our supermarket simply doesn't have a particular food item we need for a recipe, other times they do carry it but we don't know its German name and we have to pull out Mickey's Blackberry in the baking aisle, search Google translate and find out that yeast is hefe.

There are two major supermarket chains here in Switzerland: Coop (pronounced 'cope') and Migros (pronounced without the 's' sound). Migros supermarkets come in three sizes: M, MM and MMM. As you might have guessed, the single Ms are small (only a slightly bigger than a liquor store, just more crowded) and carry only basic items, double Ms are larger and satisfy most of your shopping needs while triple Ms are suburban monsterplexes with not just food, but clothing, books, toys, linens and everything else under the sun. I've never seen a triple M, but I doubt it's as big as a Super Walmart. I know that bigger isn't always better and I didn't move to Switzerland to shop anywhere that resembles a Super Walmart, but it seemed unfair to compare my local Safeway in San Jose with my neighborhood double M. Until now...

On March 22 of this year, after more than ten years of planning, negotiations and construction, Sihl City opened for business. Sihl City is a shoppertainment plaza not unlike The Block in Orange or Pasadena's El Paseo featuring a movie theater, restaurants, shops, a hotel and, of course, a supermarket. This mall isn't even half the size of either of the aforementioned southern California outdoor shopping meccas, but it is enormous for Swiss standards. As luck would have it, Sihl City is a three minute walk from my door; it's even closer than my double M. Now that my Rivermark Safeway has found a worthy adversary in my brand new Super Coop, let's see how the two stack up in an aisle by aisle showdown.

Wine and Spirits

Here, Super Coop is at a disadvantage because they aren't licensed to sell hard alcohol; they only have wine and beer. However, their wine selection is vast and they stock enough bottles to intoxicate the entire city. So if you wanted mojitos on a whim, Safeway is your one stop shop, but if you want a bottle of wine to impress even French dinner guests, Super Coop has you covered. We'll call it a tie. Safeway: 1; Super Coop: 1.


It is hard to compete with California in this department. I've been spoiled by the salad greens from Salinas, seedless table grapes from the San Joaquin valley and avocados from my own backyard. You'd think that globalization would have made it possible to enjoy all of these fresh treats no matter where you shop, but this isn't the case. Swiss produce is labeled as such at Super Coop and government subsidies make it a lot more affordable than off season strawberries imported from Chile. I'm happy to support local farmers, but they simply don't grow peaches, cilantro or squash. And by Saturday evenings (remember that you can't shop on Sundays), Super Coop has run out of the few fruits and vegetables that they normally stock. Sorry, Super Coop, this is a runaway victory for the California store. Safeway: 2; Super Coop: 1.

Meat and Poultry

Do you like having variety when you shop for your bratwurst? If so, Super Coop is an excellent choice for pork sausage and lamb. If you're looking for anything else, shop at Safeway. I was raised on chicken and good ol' American beef and unfortunately for me, these are some of Super Coop's most expensive meat products. It would be fair to call this one a tie because superiority depends on personal preference, but Safeway's seafood section secures the win. The seafood section (or freezer) at Super Coop is what you'd expect from a landlocked country; need I say more? Safeway: 3; Super Coop: 1.


Perhaps the fact that Safeway's own line of dairy products is called 'Lucerne' (the name of a Swiss town and lake) lends a clue as to which market has the superior dairy products. I imagine that the marketing executives at Safeway branded their dairy products with the 'Lucerne' label to conjure images of rolling green hills and charming cowbells in the minds of shoppers. I don't know how effective this strategy is, but I do know that Super Coop has the real thing. They have milk, of course, with as much or as little fat, vitamins and pasteurization you could dream up. Unsurprisingly, the cheese and yogurt aisles extend half the length of the store. I now stock my fridge with Gruyeres, Emmantaler and fresh mozzarella and have boldly experimented with Camembert and Appenzeller. Likewise, I try to select a new and tasty yogurt with every trip to the market, fooling myself into believing that this sour milk is a healthy choice when it's really a dessert in disguise. Super Coop also carries a fantastic selection of creamy goodies right next to the yogurt which don't pretend to be anything but dessert. You can buy individual servings of chocolate puddings, panna cotta, creme brulee and even flan in a little glass jar. Still, there's a special place in my heart (or is it my thighs?) for Safeway's cheeses: cheddar, Muenster, pepper jack and queso fresco (Mexican cheese). I'll reunite with them when I get home, but for now, I'll live the life of a dairy queen. Safeway: 3; Super Coop: 2.


Back in my Safeway shopping days, I was always a sliced bread girl. It was cheap and it made sense for sandwiches. After living in Switzerland for just four short months, however, I have converted to purchasing fresh, whole loaves and rolls. I enjoy the brown nutty, seedy rolls with lots of butter, but zoft, a gorgeous lumpy white bread is my new favorite. Super Coop's bakery also features fresh croissants, flaky fruit pastries and some kuchen, or cakes. What's missing from this carboholic's paradise, though, are two of my all time favorite foods, cookies and pies. Super Coop sells plenty of what I consider biscuits, the small shortbread cookies that accompany tea or coffee, but they lack as-big-as-my-hand, chunkalicious cookies with chocolate chips and nuts. I rarely allow myself these indulgences at either store, though, so Super Coop with its fresh bread is the clear winner. Safeway: 3; Super Coop: 3.

It seems that the showdown has ended in a tie; Safeway's cornucopia of fresh produce, meat and poultry is a blessing to Atkins dieters while Super Coop's dairy and bakery can turn bread and cheese into a fancy feast. One of the best parts of living in a different country is adding new, local items to your regular shopping list. Sure, it was disappointing to cross fresh salsa and hummus off my list, but replacing these with Swiss chocolates and ready-made pastry dough has been delicious.

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