The Captain Finally Goes Grocery Shopping Downtown

After living in downtown for about a year and a half now I can FINALLY grocery shop!!!

Ever since Meg and I moved back to St. Louis we’ve heard the same rumor about a grocery store that was due to open soon.   When I was touring lofts back in February 2008, several of the real estate agents told me that a local grocery chain, Schnucks, was building a store downtown that would be opening in the near future.

This rumor has been repeated by virtually everyone I’ve spoken to since we moved back.  Several people in our building have repeated this rumor.  They’ve mentioned it several times on NewsChannel 51.  Many of my friends out in the ‘burbs have heard about this store for so long that they’ve assumed it’s already been open for awhile and ask me what it’s like inside.  Perhaps the most persistent rumor was that this store would definitely be open by the All Star Game.

Yet in the meantime, Megs and I drive 25 minutes every week to shop at the nearest2 grocery store in Brentwood.  Besides the closure of Interstate 64, this is biggest hassle of living downtown.  A normal request like “Honey, would you run to the store and pick up some more butter” is actually an hour+ ordeal.  We’ve become paranoid of forgetting something while shopping.  It’s extremely inconvenient; I think you get the point.

This past Tuesday, the retail black hole that is downtown St. Louis was finally given it’s first ray of light.  The oft promised grocery store FINALLY opened.  And despite my complaints, I was actually quite excited for both of us and for St. Louis as a whole.  The last downtown grocery store closed in 1985.  That’s almost 25 years with no grocery in the city!  This opening goes a long way towards legitimizing the residential revival occurring downtown over the past five years.

Since I am downtown’s unofficial ambassador to all of my family and friends I have already had numerous people ask me about the various details of this store.  In order to avoid repeatedly rehashing these details, I have decided to save myself some time and write a full review right here at the Captains Quarters.

Culinaria by Schnucks: A Photo Blog

We had planned on attending the Grand Opening on Tuesday, but we saw on the news that the crowd was spilling out of the front doors.  Instead, Meg went shopping on Friday, and I went back with her on Saturday to snap some pictures.

The first thing noticeable when heading to the store is how new everything looks.  Culinaria is right in the middle of a newly redeveloped area by the old post office.  My favorite new park, the Old Post Office Plaza, is right across the street.  The square block around the building doesn’t have that old time feeling like most of downtown.

The building has a parking garage, but according to Megan it was extremely crowded and rather cramped on Friday.  Luckily we found street parking on Saturday and didn’t have to deal with it.  The entrance is rather small and non-descript.

But it opens up to probably the most impressive part of the store, the massive pre-made food section.  There’s a small coffee bar that leads to the pre-made sandwich section and salad bar

And a gigantic order-up counter with meats, pastas, soups, breads,

Downtown typically has a large lunch crowd during the week, and the owners decided to dedicate the front section of the store to this foot traffic.  It was absolutely packed with customers while we were in the store.

The rest of the main level is packed with narrow aisles full of typical grocery items.  The produce section is adequate, which in itself is pretty remarkable for downtown.

As is the frozen section and the canned foods aisle.

Megan said she the layout of the main grocery section is very confusing, and I believe her since she is much better at shopping than me.  The only section where I feel I have any expertise was the beer aisle.

While smaller than the typical grocery store beer aisle, the selection was still pretty impressive given the space limitations.  Of course the selection was tilted towards AB products, but the import selection was better than I expected.  But I did have to dock it some points for not carrying my favorite, Carlsberg.

The other big addition that Culinaria brings to downtown is a pharmacy.  Now there’s finally a place to buy legal drugs downtown!

This is another big deal convenience-wise as we both currently fill our prescriptions out in the County.

The only thing I haven’t mentioned on the main floor is the check-out area, because there is not much to say about it.

Behind the registers are the stairs to the super cool upper level.  The upstairs includes a nice little seating area and a surprisingly large wine selection.

They even have a wine tasting area, which is sure to be quite popular with downtown’s numerous winos.  In addition, the upstairs has decent liquor section and a fantastic view of the whole store3.

Based on looks and aesthetic alone, I would give Culinaria A+.  But the more important question is how functional is Culinaria for me as a downtown resident?  More like a B-.

Our first problem is that Culinaria isn’t all that accessible to us.  We don’t really live walking distance to the store; fourteen blocks is a bit too far to walk with bags of perishable goods.  And it’s not necessarily easy for us to drive there either.  Street parking is sometimes available on weekends, but extremely difficult to find on weekdays.  While there is free parking validation in the ninth street garage, it leaves something to be desired.  The garage is usually packed and the spots are rather narrow.

The biggest problem with the garage is trying to bring groceries from the store to the car.  Megan’s walk on Friday was not really reasonable for a full cart of groceries.  We noticed on Saturday that they have cart attendants that will wait with your groceries out front while you pull the car around.

While the service is a nice touch, it forces the driver to block traffic which isn’t very practical or legal.

Besides the parking problem, Culinaria also lost a few points for its selection.  While they had a good selection for the casual shopper, they were lacking a few specialty ingredients.  Meg does quite a bit of cooking during the week, and would probably have to make a trip to a store out in the county to get everything she needs.  Also, the prices on staples were a little higher than the prices we would expect at a typical Schnucks.  I’m sure that has to do with the cost of transporting good to this location, but I still wanted to mention it.

Those complaints aside, I still think Culinaria is a great addition to St. Louis.  This store is ideal for downtown residents that live within walking distance and with few specialty needs, i.e. not me.  Once again, another reason that Meg and I are moving to the County in 2½ months.

So overall, I give Culinaria a B+.  I think the store will be a boon for downtown St. Louis.  I’ve already noticed a couple of shops have sprung up around Culinaria, which is a great sign.  This opening looks to be a big step in the overall transformation of downtown St. Louis back to the vibrant community it was fifty years ago.  It has the official Captain Quarters seal of approval.

Ciao,

The Captain

1  Where the news comes first, but apparently persistent rumors are a close second!

2  Well, the second nearest.  The closest grocery store is actually the Schnucks by SLU, which we have dubbed Ghetto Grocery.  Besides not having many of the normal things you would find in a grocery store, it’s rather dangerous.  We stopped going after my buddy Timmy’s wife got hit by a car while walking in the parking lot.

3  And if there’s one thing I’m a big fan of, it’s booze with a nice view.

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