The way in which people shop for groceries has certainly changed over the years. The days of cramped food-only storefronts and milkman deliveries are long gone. Now, some people opt to have all of their groceries delivered with the touch of a button. A number of markets are also now considered “superstores,” selling everything from furniture to toys in addition to food within huge warehouses. And, consumers have their pick of a wide variety of store types including big box retailers, discount grocers, or local markets.
Another specific type of store that appeals to many everyday shoppers and chefs alike is the specialty grocery store. These shops typically concentrate on one particular category of food—such as international selections or organic cuisine—and carry items from smaller brands which are unique and hard to find elsewhere. For these reasons, specialty stores usually cater to more niche demographics.
To learn a little bit more about these intriguing specialty grocery stores and to find out which are the best of the best, we asked chefs with plenty of experience shopping for both their businesses and their families to give their input. And, as it turns out, specifically New York City appears to be a haven for this type of shopping. But, other good finds can be found sprinkled throughout the country.
Alison Cayne is a cookbook author and founder of Haven’s Kitchen, recipe blog and popular brand of gluten-free and vegan squeezable sauces. Having sold these standout sauces through both national retailers and specialty grocers, she is the perfect chef to weigh in on the topic.
Cayne says that when it comes to specialty grocery stores, she is rather lucky to live in New York City, where she has plenty of options practically at her doorstep. When it comes down to it, however, she says there are three which she regularly visits, starting with Eataly. “From the most beautiful fresh produce you can find to handmade pasta and killer rotisserie chickens, this Italian marketplace has everything you need for an authentic, easy, delicious dinner,” says Cayne. “They have a great cheese selection and you can buy their fresh pizza dough to host DIY pizza parties.”
The Italian-themed chain currently has eight U.S. locations in Chicago, Boston, L.A., Las Vegas, Dallas, Silicon Valley, and two in NYC. Here’s to hoping the tasty pastas and other Italian goodies soon spread to more cities across the country.
According to Cayne, Yamadaya is another New York City gem located smack dab in the middle of Manhattan. “This is a magical Japanese market that sells everything from yuzu face masks to every sort of pickled veggie, to fresh (and delicious!) sushi,” she says. “My kids and I love toodling through the aisles, picking up mochi and toasted sesame seeds along the way.”
She also mentions that the store has a wide variety of sauces and fizzy drinks to try, and judging from the store’s website, it doesn’t stop there. Yamadaya is chock full of other products as well, from housewares and cleaning supplies to beauty items and medicine.
3. H Mart
“Korean groceries are another reason why NYC is the food capital of America!” shares Cayne. Specifically, the Korean store H Mart is unrivaled in her opinion. “While H Mart sells everything you need to stock your kitchen (eggs and milk, not just specialty items) what I really love about them is their prepared foods,” she continues. “They have grab-and-go Onigiri, spicy rice bowls, and spring rolls you can eat on the go, or pop in the oven later at home.”
New York is currently spotted with 12 H Mart locations. But, the good news for non-New Yorkers is that there are also locations in 13 other states across the country, including Hawaii.
4. Duals Natural
Following along with the New York love, Elisa Lyew, owner and chef of NYC’s dedicated gluten-free bakery Elisa’s Love Bites, shared her absolute favorite specialty grocery store: Duals Natural, with two locations in Brooklyn and Manhattan. The latter is Lyew’s shop of choice.
“This East Village gem has every spice and condiment you could imagine, as well as an awesome selection of grains, tea leaves, flours, specialty beverages, and many items that are hard or impossible to find elsewhere,” Lyew says. “They offer an incredible variety of dried spicy peppers from all over the world, and when in season, fresh ghost peppers from India. Over the years, I’ve used their ingredients to create special desserts for my bakery–everything from maca root, powdered fruits, specialty herbs, specialty salts, powdered matcha, gourmet spices, rose water, fresh vanilla beans, black rice, pink rice, bamboo rice–and so much more.”
On top of all this, Lyew says you can also find a wide selection of Indian beauty products, incense, and sage at the store. Plus, doors at the Manhattan location are open until 11:00 p.m.–perfect for last-minute needs or cravings, according to Lyew.
5. Mitsuwa Marketplace
Pastry chef Norah Clark has her own rolodex of favorite spots when it comes to specialty groceries. First on the list is the Japanese supermarket chain Mitsuwa Marketplace. The brand has a small footprint with just 12 stores in existence mostly in California, but also in Illinois, Texas, Hawaii, and New Jersey. But, according to the veteran of several luxury hotel restaurants, it makes a big impact. Clark loves it specifically for its “various authentic Japanese ingredients, from fresh sushi-grade fish to premium sake and unique snacks.”
6. The Fresh Market
The Fresh Market–not to be confused with Fresh Market with a presence in Utah or Fresh Thyme Market which covers the Midwest–is rumored to carry a wide range of specialty items from all over the world which you’re not likely to see anywhere else. Clark not only confirms that these suspicions are in fact true, but also says the Fresh Market is one of the best in the specialty grocery game.
She emphasizes that the European-style market, with locations primarily in the Southeast, focuses only on fresh, high-quality ingredients. She also mentions that the Fresh Market’s imported cheeses, artisanal bread, and gourmet chocolates are must buys.
6. Bristol Farms
Down in sunny southern California, Bristol Farms has also caught the pastry chef’s attention. “Bristol Farms offers an upscale shopping experience with a strong emphasis on quality and exceptional customer service,” she says. The store, which got its start in 1981, also brands itself as both “gourmet” and “natural,” with a mission to “to offer [its] guests the freshest, tastiest foods available.”
For Clark, the store’s gourmet deli items, fine wines, and fresh produce stand out. But, each of the store’s 14 locations also come complete with a bakery, top-notch deli and meat counter, hot bar, sushi trays, and some even offer catering, custom cakes, and custom floral arrangements.
Clark describes Zabar’s gourmet grocery store as a “New York City institution,” and this certainly isn’t an isolated opinion. The store’s website itself even calls a trip to the iconic market a “one of a kind adventure” and something that “has to be experienced, in person, to truly be understood.”
Clark tacks on that it’s “a must-visit destination for food lovers seeking high-quality, hard-to-find ingredients with a touch of Old World charm.” And, she also adds that a few of the store’s most famous specialty items include smoked fish, fine cheeses, and its freshly baked bread, which includes heavenly fresh-made croissants.
8. New Seasons Market
Lastly, a regional chain based in the Pacific Northwest received an honorable mention from Clark. She says, “New Seasons Market offers a carefully curated assortment of local, organic, and sustainable products, making it a favorite among eco-conscious shoppers and food enthusiasts.”
Chef and barbecue expert Shawn Hill, aka The Grilling Dad, also spotlighted New Seasons Market–noting it is one that sticks out among the countless other specialty grocery stores he’s visited nationwide. And, his reasoning mirrors Clark’s. “Their commitment to community involvement and support for local producers is admirable, and their selection of high-quality, sustainable, and locally sourced products reflects this,” he says.
Hill additionally expressed major love for the Northeast grocery chain Wegmans. He says it’s “truly a one-stop shop for all your culinary needs” with an “expansive selection of high-quality ingredients, unique global flavors, and knowledgeable staff”.
And, most importantly, he highlights how it can help when you have picky eaters on your hands—an at-home chef’s worst nightmare. “Just last summer, during a family cookout, I found myself in a pinch when my youngest daughter declared her newfound love for exotic fruits,” he shares. “Determined to impress her, I headed to our local Wegmans and discovered an astonishing array of unique fruits from around the globe.” With help from employees, he explains that he was able to create a tropical fruit platter that was certainly a hit. He adds that specialty grocery stores like this “have become an invaluable resource for [him] as a pitmaster, a chef, and, most importantly, as a dad.”
10. Central Market
“Central Market is a hidden gem for those seeking exotic and hard-to-find ingredients,” says Hill. Although it’s called Central Market, this chain is found solely in Texas, and it is owned by regional grocer H-E-B. Hill explains that the store’s “extensive range of products from around the world” makes it “a paradise for adventurous cooks looking to experiment with new flavors.”
The store also boasts an impressive lineup of chef-prepared foods from sandwiches and sushi to casseroles and quiche. Plus, cooking classes are even available at each location to help customers sharpen up their kitchen techniques, discover perfect food pairings, and generally expand their cooking repertoire.