Exploring the Twin Cities’ newest cult favorite grocery chain

Hy-Vee: Stores within stores at enticing prices

Hy-Vee: Stores within stores at enticing prices GRF

How often have you wished you could mash up the best parts of your local grocery stores and leave the not-so-nice parts in the dust?

Whole Foods is shiny and healthy, but each time you go, your receipt backs up the store’s “Whole Paycheck” sobriquet.

You like Cub for the prices, but shopping in a room the size of a Home Depot can leave you cold.

The co-op is great for veg and organic meat, but sometimes you just need something simple, and they don’t carry your brand of potato chips.

A grocery store chain new to the Twin Cities may hold the key for you.

Hy-Vee is an employee-owned chain that aims to get you anything (well, almost anything) you want out of a grocery store, but for about 20 percent less than you would pay at a higher-end outfit. No more running to one store for the inexpensive stuff, the other for the organic stuff, and the other for that hard-to-find brand of tahini.

Find your next steak and seafood dinner waiting for you here.

Find your next steak and seafood dinner waiting for you here. GRF

The first Hy-Vee store was founded in 1930 in Beaconsfield, Iowa, and became employee-owned, with a profit-sharing plan and company stock for eligible employees, in 1960. Since its inception, the chain has grown to more than 240 supermarkets throughout the Midwest. The first store in the Twin Cities region opened in Oakdale in late 2015 and ever since, I’ve been hearing this refrain: “I love Hy-Vee!”

Indeed, the store has garnered something of a cult following. As the Twin Cities is poised to become its largest market, we went in for a closer look.

The first thing you may notice is that Hy-Vee has a restaurant, the Hy-Vee Market Grille. The grocery-store restaurant was once the exclusive domain of high-end stores like Byerly’s, and even then, there was no alcohol. But at Hy-Vee Market Grille, you’ll dine on the full gamut of casual American favorites (from Cobb salad to sushi to pizza) plus a glass of beer or wine if you please. Kids eat free on Tuesdays. The casual, affordable cafe is one way the grocery store seems to be asking and answering what’s missing from grocery shopping. Judging by the many gentlemen bellied up to the bar on a recent Saturday afternoon at the Oakdale location, the answer is beer.

After deciding whether you’d like a fine beverage before grabbing your cart (there’s also a quick-service coffee counter if you’d rather fuel your experience with caffeine), you begin your shopping at Hy-Vee in the typical manner — in the produce section.

But at the periphery of that produce section, sushi, Chinese takeout, and fresh pasta counters also compete for your attention. Sushi proved to be fresh-smelling and -tasting, avoiding any off-aroma reminiscent of the seal exhibit at Como Zoo.

Fresh linguine cooked up at home nicely al dente, and the counterperson pointed to the fully in-view pasta machine for proof that it’s made on-site. We managed to bypass the Chinese family meals, but a dinner with four pints each of entree, two pints of rice, eight appetizer servings, and four fortune cookies goes for $30.

Back at the produce section, a pound of green beans landed in the cart for $1.99, and a pound of yellow potatoes for $1.28. The Oakdale Hy-Vee store stocked 125 organic produce items and 35 local ones in their first season.

Next: a cheese department to rival the one at your high-end grocer, where a cheesemonger knows the nuances of her Dutch goudas, and a separate charcuterie counter where a salumiere (yes, they have a salumiere) can guide you on the subtleties of Prosciutto di Parma, Prosciutto di San Daniele, and Prosciutto Toscano. Hy-Vee is currently selling Jambon de Bayonne, a French cured ham unavailable stateside until very recently.

Fancy ham not your jam? Push on, Hy-Vee shopper. They’ve got Hormel 81 Classic Boneless, too, and a dozen other labels, including their own proprietary brand.

The bakery department is comprehensive. Loaves of bread in any variety from whole grain to cheesy jalapeño are also available by the half loaf, and can be sliced in customizable widths. Unicorn cakes and one with a puppy dog on its haunches await graduation-season frenzy, and monster cookies the size of your face await whatever occasion those do. Also find bread bowls for soup, Cheesecake Factory desserts by the slice, and waffle cone bowls, because don’t you need those?

Scan the meat and seafood counter for substantial, red rib-eye steaks, live lobsters in the tank, king crab legs, sides of salmon, cherrystone clams, cod, and catfish. Organic and pasture-raised chickens are here, as well as commodity ones if you want them.

By this time, you’ll feel as though you’ve been shopping in a store at once luxe yet within reach. The floors are not carpeted and the fixtures are not more regal than those in your own house, but if you need an Iberico ham from a hog finished on acorns, it can be yours, along with all of your General Mills favorites, on sale at five boxes for $10.

So far, so good.

But are these things enough to make Hy-Vee the talk of the grocery town? Just wait.

Round the bend and in the middle of the store you’ll find what amounts to a miniaturized imports store, with shelves devoted to countries from Germany to Korea. Does it replace the need to shop the Asian grocer if you’re cooking Vietnamese five nights weekly? Probably not. But if you’re trying something new out of the cookbook, they’ll have you covered here. Find rice bags the size of a mattress, and some fancy malted vinegar potato chips imported from Britain might make it into the cart, too — to heck with your normal brand.

At the far corner of the store, a dairy section competes with Walmart for price and variety. They must stock a hundred brands of yogurt and all the commodity cheese, eggs, and milk a large family with small children demands.

Beyond that, browse an entire natural foods store within the store, including a full department of gluten-free groceries and a separate section of organic meat and dairy. Local eggs from St. Croix Valley Community Farms are available in the commodity section, too. This is not a segregation system; Hy-Vee seems to aim for a grocery store experience to suit every type of shopper.

If you’re a big-box person, the entire center of the store is there to please you. Right next to the pet store is a bulk candy section that stocks every flavor of Jelly Belly, and the toy section where you can pick up a pack of faux soul patches if you need them. You need them. Well, I needed them. Now I have them. 

The final bill, including five high-end cheeses and two imported meats, two fresh pastas and a jar of premium marinara, three clamshells of sushi, one kombucha, two produce items, and multiple other items equaling groceries for the week, barely exceeded $100. Hy-Vee handily beats competitors, price-wise, in all departments including soul patches.

Do you have a whole day to spend at Hy-Vee? Then check out the florist, the liquor store, the clinic, the pharmacy, the dietitians, the culinary classroom (classroom fees are returned in store credit after class is taken), the dry cleaner, the postal service counter, and the mother’s room if you happen to need a break.

Overwhelmed? Get a complimentary store tour.

And last but not least, head back to where you began at the Market Grille and join the dudes at the bar for a beer. Groceries thusly gathered, you’ve earned it.

multiple locations in Minnesota