The future is takeout. The restaurant industry is reporting grim times, except for a glimmer of prosperity in the to-go business. In difficult times, it seems, people don't want to shell out tips and they don't want to pay restaurants' booze markup, but they're still every bit as time-crunched and cooking-averse as ever. But what if you could stop for dog food and a box of laundry detergent, and get a competent, wholesome dinner to go at the same time? That's the aim of the new Publix GreenWise Market, the third of its kind. In its nearly 40,000 square feet, it devotes 4,500 feet to food stations that compete directly with takeout restaurant food. So, how does the fare stack up? On a couple of recent outings, I wandered the store, assembling a hodgepodge of dishes from the many staffed "action stations" and self-serve buffets. Prices are competitive with most restaurant takeout options, but the quality varies.
The obvious advantage over your neighborhood Chili's or Carrabba's is that when one person wants Chinese and another craves pizza, everyone gets what they want. GreenWise still needs to work out a few kinks. Cashiers aren't always attentive about packaging hot food with hot, cold food with cold, so things can wilt on the trip home. Also, a pager system, designed to let you order food, continue shopping, and circle back when your order is ready, doesn't always seem to work.
Still, there's a ton to recommend. A pan-Asian self-serve section allows you to scoop brown rice, lemongrass pork, sesame garlic eggplant or honey garlic chicken into brown paper boxes, all for $7.99 a pound. I had more than enough for dinner for $4.63, and all of the dishes were comparable in quality to those at my neighborhood Chinese joint.
The most dramatic station is the Mediterranean Oven, from which emerge puffy-crusted pizza and pasta with your choice of sauces (alfredo, pesto, etc.), cheeses (goat, blue) and toppings. For $8.99 we enjoyed an individual-sized pizza topped with mozzarella and goat cheese, bacon and rotisserie chicken. Every bit as tasty as my occasional movie-night pizza delivery.
One long case showcases cold foods meant to be microwaved at home. From this we enjoyed a very sophisticated portion of cedar-planked salmon topped with lemon rounds ($3.36) and a couple of rosy slices of beef tenderloin with a balsamic marinade ($4.25). Enough for two entrees, pair them with a cold chickpea salad ($2.04) and it's a satisfying dinner.
Our only real disappointments came with the hot sandwiches and the pastry counter. The latter is as gorgeous as any froufrou bakery's: tiny fruit-topped custard tarts, individual mousse cakes, cannoli and cupcakes. Alas, the cakes we tried were more sweet than rich, and on both visits pastry boxes ended up packed in our bags sideways, arriving home battle-weary.
Watching the legion of workers at the new store, opened at the beginning of November, it's easy to see that training all these people to prepare food quickly and effectively is a Herculean task. On our visits, workers zipped through custom subs as quickly as at many regular Publix markets, but the more complex hot sandwiches seemed to stymie. One evening's reuben ($7.99) required more than 20 minutes of preparation. The finished product was a decent effort, but the glacial pace of its assembly was hard to reckon.
A store with so many moving parts is bound to need some tweaks, but in general Publix GreenWise Market is a major coup for busy families. Grab a little organic produce, check out the daily recipes at the Apron's Simple Meals cooking kiosk, then let each family member pick his or her own dinner. South Tampa restaurants should be a little nervous about this new neighbor.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.