Psst... We're working on the next generation of Chowhound! View >
HOME > Chowhound > Philadelphia >
Mar 10, 2013 09:41 AM

Bulk food/hippie grocery stores in Philadelphia

Hi Philadelphia board!

I'm moving to Philly in June from SF and am looking to get a lay of the land. More specifically, I'd like to find one or two good grocery stores that sell bulk goods -- grains, beans, spices, flours, etc. -- and are *not* Whole Foods.

(The two analogues that come to mind out here are Rainbow and Berkeley Bowl, if that helps.)

Got any good grocery/food shopping advice to share? I am all ears.

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. What's the problem with WF? Honestly, excluding spices, I think they have the freshest product and best prices for grain and beans (given the quality) but Essene on 4th St is ok too, it's an indie vegetarian-only grocery store. Their prepared food is good (all vegan), I like it better than WF, but the grocery is very expensive and their produce is just sad. Bulk prices seem reasonable but I haven't done much comparison as I usually use WF.

    For spices I really like Spice Corner on 9th St (Italian Market). Great selection, fresh product, amazing prices. In Chestnut Hill Penzy's is really good too (yes a chain). If you buy the bulk packaging the prices are very reasonable -- the price on spice in jars is obscene.

    For nuts, Nuts To You has several locations and their product is fresh, good quality, and reasonably priced. A little more expensive than TJ's but the product is fresher and they carry some better stuff.

    I'm not familiar with the Berkeley options so maybe they are a whole other level I don't understand.

    13 Replies
    1. re: barryg

      Thanks for these selections!!! Esp. the spice recs. I don't mind Penzy's; it's nice to know that there's a retail location nearby. And I'm excited to explore Philly's many markets.

      The deal is that I know about WF already -- they are a major chain that's permeated virtually every city in the US! I want to know about the other places -- smaller and/or local shops. I imagine that these shops have the potential for better prices & greater diversity than WF.

      I don't expect to find replicas of Berkeley Bowl (Berkeley) or Rainbow (SF) in Philly... I just want to be able to fill the gap when they're gone. WF by itself does not fill that gap.

      Also, I'm most curious about dry goods, not produce...

      1. re: insectazoids

        The biggest problem IMO with the smaller places is lack of turnover on bulk items, and most cannot compete with WF on price -- bulk is one thing that WF does not charge obscene prices on (they are very competitive on seasonal produce and some staples like dairy as well). WF does volume so I trust the freshness. Not totally sure how much bulk business Essene does. The other places I mentioned have good turnover.

        There are probably places I don't know that have good bulk as well... there are well-established coops like Weavers Way and Mariposa that may be good, I'm sure others will have opinions.

        1. re: barryg

          OK. Well, perhaps I will just have to make do with WF then! Here, WF bulk is comparatively expensive and not particularly wide-ranging in terms of what it offers. I understand that turnover is important. I'll add Weavers Way & Mariposa to my list and check 'em all out.

          How about Middle Eastern, Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese, Latinoamerican markets? I am curious if Philly has markets that support non-Western communities.

          1. re: insectazoids

            Do you know where in Philly you will be living? There are many Asian and (mainly) Mexican shops around town and some Middle Eastern. Where you live will depend on your access to them.

            1. re: Philly Ray

              Not yet, though I anticipate living in Center City/University City/Art Museum areas... I think. I'm pretty mobile, though, with bike and car.

              I'll be visiting for a week in early April to look for apts. and will likely check out any promising looking grocery places then as well!!

              1. re: insectazoids

                In those areas, you will be fine. You won't be far from most of the ethnic markets you mentioned. Most of the time, you could walk or bike, but the car will be handy if you buy a lot of stuff.

                1. re: Philly Ray

                  Philly Ray, I know Chinatown is not too far from City Hall. Do you know where I would find a good Middle Eastern market or a good Indian market?

                  1. re: insectazoids

                    For Indian in the downtown area there is in West Philadelphia, International Food and Spices at 42 and Walnut. Good Samosas. There is also an Indian Pakistani grocery at 42 and Chestnut.
                    Bitars in South Philly used to have middle eastern groceries and make their own pita bread. I havent been there in a while.

                    1. re: thehungrything

                      Bitar's is still kicking. Small but they have some good stuff and good prices. Not a fan of their pita but it's really cheap. It's Lebanese. Makkah Market in West Philly, 43rd & Walnut, also has middle eastern groceries. Bigger selection than Bitar's. All the West Philly places are easy to get to from Center City, bikeable or short subway ride.

                      1. re: barryg

                        Not sure when you were last in Bitar's to shop but the grocery offerings are now only about a third of what they were year or two ago - they sacrificed retail space for seating.
                        The Queen Village Market (or whatever it's called) at 4th/Bainbridge is Turkish but has just about everything Bitar's ever sold and then some. Good dairy, fun and impressive selection of phylo/brik-like doughs, spices, beans, rice.

                2. re: insectazoids

                  All good neighborhoods but the best neighborhoods near Center City for markets are Bella Vista/Hawthorne/Passyunk Square/East Passyunk. That puts you in walking or biking distance of a dozen Mexican groceries, a few Southeast Asian supermarkets, and the Italian Market for produce, meats, and cheeses. And also the South Street Whole Foods. Reading Terminal Market and Chinatown are just a little farther, biking distance or an easy transit ride.

                  Art Museum/Fairmount neighborhoods put you close to Whole Foods and biking/transit distance from Chinatown and Reading Terminal Market, but ethnic shopping is pretty limited unless you want to get in the car. BTW you should look into Philly Car Share and ZipCar, unless you need your car to commute to work in the suburbs it's cheaper and much less hassle to do car sharing.

                  1. re: barryg

                    The Middle Eastern stand in Reading Terminal, Kamal's, sells dry goods, spices, cheese, and olives. Not a full-scale substitute for a grocer's but it serves me OK when I want to shop in Center City.

      2. In the Reading Terminal Market there is The Head Nut, which carries nuts, spices and some bulk goods (rices, other grains, etc). Also in the RTM is Fair food Farms, a not for profit that sells all local products. They carry several kinds of beans, grains and flours that are great because they are from here and very fresh. Not technically bulk, but probably fits the "hippie" category. I think Essene's bulk turns over pretty regularly.

        3 Replies
        1. re: Bigley9

          Avoid the Head Nut unless you don't mind cumin in your cinnamon.

          1. re: Mawrter

            Really? I've never had a problem.

            1. re: Bigley9

              I didn't either, for a good run... until I did. They wouldn't admit their mistake. Avoid.

        2. The ultimate bulk food section in Philadelphia is at Weavers Way food coop. The entire upstairs of the Mount Airy store is a huge bulk food section. The store in Chestnut Hill has a little more selection in fresh foods. The prices are the same or better than whole foods. They have a great selection if local organic produce, some of it from their own farm and they specialize in carrying locally made products and gourmet items. And they are hippies.

          6 Replies
            1. re: insectazoids

              I lived in Berkeley for a few years (96-98, 2002), and I live near the Weaver's Way coop now.
              It's good to have, and the bulk section in Mt. Airy is quite good. It's no Berkeley Bowl, though. It's a small place, and can be quite expensive. If it was in Berkeley, it would be up by the Cheese Board, not down by the Bowl. I go there for bulk stuff, spices, and small purchases since it's nearby, but for my main shopping it's too expensive and the selection is too limited.

              1. re: thehungrything

                I was also going to mention Weaver's Way. Also, the new Creekside Co-op in Elkins Park also has a good bulk selection--grains, nuts, flours, etc. It isn't too convenient to Center City, though.

                1. re: thehungrything

                  True, they have a good selection of dry bulk foods.

                  But WW is now more yuppy than hippy.. Just yesterday another "old" member and I were commenting on how far they have digressed from from being the coop they once were to now being a variation on Whole Foods with about the same prices --and sometimes even higher prices!.

                  1. re: thehungrything

                    When I saw the post title, Weaver's Way was my first thought. Also, for bulk nuts, fresh ground nut butters, bulk chocolates, retro candy (Mary Janes, Necco Wafers, Clark bars, etc.), coffee, and a gazillion other things, you'd love Edwards-Freeman in Conshy. Not far from Chestnut Hill and definitely worth checking out this old brick warehouse with its creaky wooden floors and amazing aromas.

                  2. I've been to Rainbow and Berkeley Bowl (I just moved from Seattle myself) and I'm sorry to say you are not going to find that kind of bulk food variety here. I agree with your feeling about Whole Foods--the additional issue here is that the WF locations in Center City are MUCH SMALLER than in the West Coast and their bulk food selection is in my opinion limited (though much more than any other CC location for bulk--I've checked out Essenes, RTM). So far, the best selection I've found is at the Weaver's Way Coop in Mt. Airy (though not close). WF and Weaver's Way will get you the basics on beans and pretty good selection of non-wheat flours but nothing will come close to Berkeley Bowl, alas (I actually found Anson Mill's cornmeal there, which was amazing!). Also, the produce selection is much less varied than on West Coast, but you'll find excellent quality at Iovine's at RTM and Whole Foods. Example, you'll usually find green, red and dino kale but no more than those types. Lettuce is green or red leaf, romaine, bibb and once in a while escarole. Sorry to seem like "Oh, the West Coast groceries are so much better", but everything is grown there, and there is a much bigger market for those different varieties there, it seems. With regard to farmer's markets--Headhouse Square is probably the best, with more selection than the others, but again, much less variety. Nonetheless, Phillly is an extremely fun, reasonable restaurant town, especially for italian food.

                    7 Replies
                    1. re: Jeanhea

                      Green Aisle Grocery on E Passyunk carries Anson Mills, but they are prepackaged.

                      Also there are plans for the Whole Foods in Fairmount to be replaced by a really big one but that is a few years away.

                      1. re: Jeanhea

                        Jeanhea, I don't know where you have been in the RTM, or when, but Iovines always has escarole. They also always have spring mix, dandelion greens, arugula, and chicories for salads. Fair Food Farms, which only carries what is grown/produced within a 100 miles, has an array of lettuces and greens, albeit seasonally - last week I got miner's lettuce for example. I am not going to suggest that we have the all year round variety of produce one can get in California, but to suggest that we can "once in a while" get escarole is just not true.

                        1. re: Bigley9

                          I'm pretty sure ShopRite has escarole all the time too.

                          1. re: barryg

                            and the Italian Market, I'm thinkin' ; )

                            1. re: Bigley9

                              With the amount of Italian Wedding.. aka escarole soup that is made around here I would be very surprised if it isn't available year round.

                              I know places like Blue Moon Acres up by me in Bucks County are able to grow greens year round in greenhouses... I would suspect that escarole is able to be cultivated this way...

                        2. re: Jeanhea

                          Thanks for this. (And apologies for the late reply.) Like I said in my original post, I certainly don't expect to find anything as "good" (exhaustive/bountiful/specific) as BB or Rainbow... but I still want to find enough places to fill my grocery needs. I agree with you -- the truth is that the quotidian food culture of the west coast is just very different from the east, and I accept that.

                          I'm looking forward to exploring Philadelphia's restaurant scene and some of its more unique caf├ęs.

                          Thanks also for the Headhouse Square FM tip. I will look it up.

                          1. re: insectazoids

                            "the truth is that the quotidian food culture of the west coast is just very different from the east, and I accept that."

                            True dat - and good that you're coming into it with that attitude.
                            I'm a philly kid who didn't like living in the Bay Area that much, but there were exceptions, and I *loved* being able to get good, cheap burritos everywhere. In Philly, that's just not the case.

                        3. Well, West Philly will probably get you more old-fashioned hippies. I haven't been to the newly expanded Mariposa Co-op yet, but there's also a year-round Saturday farmer's market in Clark Park and numbers of ethnic groceries, as detailed in posts below.

                          I think the Passyunk neighborhood is more hipster-y than hippie... That neighborhood is currently fundraising and seeking members to open a South Philly coop, though. Could be a way to get in on the ground and have some say in what is offered.

                          Although not for bulk foods, I do recommend the farmer's markets. Headhouse starts in May. I think it compares favorably to the markets I used to go to in San Francisco, but that is some 25 years ago, before the Ferry Market opened.

                          And really, you will want to check out Reading Terminal, which is a mish-mash. I like the Fair Food Project, esp. for meats (pasture raised etc.) and esp. in the winter when there are fewer farmer's markets open.

                          Rainbow brings back memories...