Like any community of 35,000, Carbondale has more than it’s share of grocery stores. There’s the big names, like Kroger and Schnucks and Wal-Mart, of course, but the best places to shop for groceries in Carbondale are a little more obscure.
Depending on what you are after and how much you want to spend, Arnold’s Market is the top grocery store in Carbondale. Arnold’s is a little country market, just south of the university off old U.S. Highway 51. It’s off the beaten path and a little higher priced than the chain stores, but the quality and service make it worth the drive and the money.
Arnold’s always has locally-grown produce, especially fruit and corn, available right up front as you enter the store. And, in the back, the meat department is more like a good old-fashioned butcher shop than a pre-packaged nightmare like some of the chain stores.
The store has a more limited selection of items than the big chains, but the quality is always good. For example, instead of Coca Cola or Pepsi that you can get anywhere, Arnold’s sell Jones Soda in individual bottles near the check out. Jones has flavored sodas ranging from green apple to cream soda and is reminiscent of decades gone by.
The staff at Arnold’s is also friendly and chatty, not in the fake friendly way required by national chains. They can give you directions to the Cedar Lake beach or to the best restaurants in town without batting an eye or asking someone for help. Mostly though, it is the butcher shop that draws people to Arnold’s. The butcher will still cut meat to specifications for the customer and the store offers meat packages, say a side of beef, for better per pound prices than anywhere else in town. When I can’t get to Arnold’s to shop, my second choice is Aldi’s, a chain discount grocer, where I have to bag my own groceries. Aldi’s is everything Arnold’s is not and I go there not for the service, but for the price.
Not too long ago, I refused to shop at Aldi’s. I had been to one in a neighboring community and it was dirty and the food was mediocre, but in the last year, Aldi’s has cleaned up there act and become a much more health conscious place to shop. I can buy soy milk there for half what the local health food store wants for it and there’s new fit and lean product line offers reduced fat, reduced calorie items for a fraction of what I would pay at Kroger or Schnucks. I especially like the caramel rice snack cakes. They are low calorie and taste like dessert, for about $1.50 a bag.
The store is always clean and brightly lit and has a security guard on duty in the evenings, since it is in a rather lonely neighborhood. In addition, within the last six months, they have added a fresh meat counter that has very good cuts of meat, especially cube steak.
The only real drawback to Aldi’s is the staffing. Usually, there is just one checker on duty and the lines are long, especially near the beginning of the month when social security checks and food stamps are first available. Some people also object to bagging their own groceries, but I have found that I am happier with the results when I do it myself. I don’t end up with bags that are too heavy or food products in the same bag as industrial cleaners. My eggs don’t get broken and the bread isn’t smashed.
The only other problem is that Aldi’s “special buys”, name brand products selling at reduced prices, don’t last long and you can’t predict week to week what will be in stock. However, with the increase in quality in Aldi’s brands, this has become less of an issue.
Last year, another discount grocer opened in Carbondale, but I have to say, even though it is closer to home, I don’t like Save-A-Lot. The premise is the same as Aldi’s, but the execution is just not as good. Where Aldi’s brand foods are as good or in some cases better than name brands, the Save-A-Lot brands are often full of fillers like salt and onions. It is clear they try to make up the price difference by using inferior ingredients and it shows in the taste.
The meat I have purchased there has always been of poorer quality than anywhere else in town and the service is non-existent. It means a little longer drive, but I skip Save-A-Lot. In Carbondale, the top grocery store really is Arnold’s Market, but when I need things inexpensively, Aldi’s is a great second choice.