Thursday, April 11, 2013

Two Seattle Specialty Food Stores: Ultra Modern vs. Old World Flavor

Have you ever been frustrated that you just can't find that extra special or unusual ingredient at your local grocery store? For me last week it was black beluga lentils, which I've yet to find at a grocery story, even fancy stores like Whole Foods or organic bulk food destination PCC Natural Markets.

So I made a trip to one of my absolute favorite food stores ever, where I stock up on the unusual, exotic, and just plain good:  Big John's PFI, tucked in the lower floor of an old brick warehouse south of downtown Seattle. Up until last week, they were the only store I knew of in Seattle that sold the tiny caviar-resembling lentils. (I don't count Trader Joe's pre-cooked and vacuum-packed belugas.)

On my way home, I stopped by the new Marx Foods retail store, which I'd heard and read about recently, situated on the edge of Lower Queen Anne.  And discovered that they, too, carry beluga lentils, among many unusual and gourmet items.

But wow, what a difference in presentation and style.  While Marx Foods is sleek, modern, spare, and high-tech, PFI is uneven floors, wooden beams, crammed full of goods, and rustic in a Euro-charming sort of way (which is part of what I love about the place). Both very different, but both wonderful places.

Granted, these two wholesalers with retail locations overlap in some areas and not others.  They both carry things like these:

Imported Italian pasta, Marx Foods
Imported French escargots, PFI
And these:

Hand-harvested sea salt, Marx Foods
Unusual-flavored vinegars, PFI
But whereas PFI has personal hand-written signs and labels like this:

Marx Foods has coded labels like this, thoroughly 21st century:

Friendly and enthusiastic proprietor Justin Marx demonstrates for me that, with the appropriate app loaded to your smart phone, you can scan the QR code on this label and up pops recipes using this product, which you can email to yourself or view on the strategically placed e-tablets and recipe browsers throughout the store.  Recipes, by the way, which are developed by local chefs right onsite here at Marx Foods in their test kitchen. 

Justin Marx next to an e-tablet with recipes at Marx Foods retail store.

 "We want to be your culinary concierge," says Marx Food's in-house food writer Matthew Johnson. And to demystify those exotic ingredients for us home cooks while they're at it.  While their wholesale and retail business is still 80 percent online, Justin has ambitions to open more such retail outlets around the US.

Back at PFI, when I ask clerk Chris whether they consider Marx Foods a competitor, he nonchalantly dismisses that idea.  "We're more like Remo Borrachini's place (long-time Italian Borrachini Bakery in Rainier Valley) or DeLaurenti's (in the Pike Place Market). But really, all of us local food wholesalers want each other to do well."

He does admit, though, that their initial primary demographic of shoppers, which were first- and second-generation immigrants, are passing away, and the owners (the Croce family) are considering ways to boost business with new and younger customers at their retail store.

Personally, I find PFI enchanting and have blogged about them before. All those imported specialties (mostly Mediterranean and European, but with local and regional goods, too) packed tightly together on the shelves make me envision romantic faraway places where grandmas whip up Old World delicacies and families gather around big wooden tables for hearty feasts.  And there's no competition with their famous long case full of exquisite cheeses, salamis, and a few other treats.

Imported and domestic cheese and olive selection extraordinaire at PFI. 

I'm just happy to have two such great places in Seattle, among several others, for cooking inspiration and high-quality, unique foods.

Primroses planted in old bulk olive cans decorate the handrail outside the entrance to PFI.

I'm really curious:  Do you ever shop online for specialty foods? Do you prefer an older store with character or a more modern store?  What's your favorite specialty food store? Would love to hear your comments on this topic below.

Bon Appetit! 


Janis Olson said...

Bob used to date the Croce daughter in the early 80's

Mary Lou said...

Jill, thank you for a post about the fabulous people at PFI - been going there for years. Love it even more since our friends at Delaurenti’s lost their soul, going back to the days when they were in the lower levels of the Pike Place Market and things we sold in bulk, even pasta. Great place but gone, gone, gone into terminal yuppiness. PFI still has that vib and the cheese case is the absolute best in the city. And they generally have the best deal on olive oil and we buy gallons of it. Yes I have checked Costco but more choices and you can get a better deal. In generally, I like buying quality not glitz and there is the difference – bet the price spread is amazing – just guessing. And OK, busted; I am an aging hippy, raised up on PCC (speaking of losing your soul) and the Olympia Food COOP.

JT said...

I STILL have never been to PFI. It’s a crime, really. I like the fact that both options are available. I also am fairly certain that if it weren’t for your blog I would never, ever have heard of Marx’. It sounds great! But I don’t have time to seek things like this out. (I guess that’s the point of on-line, but I’m slow to find ‘new’ things).

Jill said...

Small world Janis! Must have been right before he fell for you.

Anonymous said...

Excellent Jill! I want to check out both places! MaryM

Lesley said...

Two new places for me... when I happen to do grocery shopping in Seattle. Thanks for sharing. Any "black pudding" at PFI???

jill said...

Lesley, not sure about the black pudding, never looked for it but will check! Their focus is Mediterranean foods, but they do carry a wider range, including Dutch stroop waffle cookies, Scottish oat cakes, and British marmalades.