Self-contradictory freshness in the Acres

Buzz about the new Fresh Acres store at the intersection of Wilbraham Avenue and Parker Street got me to arrive at the store’s doorstep a day after it opened.

The Springfield Republican primed the pump in an October 18 business-section article just a day before opening, as well as a June 6 article. An article a year ago described the beginnings of Big Y’s effort to establish this cutting-edge, smaller-footprint supermarket that incorporates an open-air produce section and kick-butt meats and cheeses, among many other "specialty items." (Xtra laundry detergent sells there for $3.49, right alongside Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day products, which are hard to find south of Holyoke.)

The open-air aspect translates into a couple of garage-size doors that are meant to remain open until the outside air hits 27 degrees. A column of tepid air blasts you upon entering a high-ceilinged, dramatically-lit room bizarrely festooned with hanging baskets. Carefully-stacked produce is everywhere. Parents of toddlers be warned. I also had several near-collisions with other shoppers, as there wasn’t quite enough room for all of us to wander around the room spacing out at the brilliant lights and bright colors, while children darted about playing hide-and-seek. Still, a festive and cheery atmosphere gets points.

The open-air aspect of the produce section is pleasing, and its total presentation is indeed a beauty to behold, sparkling lights and floating baskets and all. Some of the prices were also impressively competitive. Lettuce was $.99 a head, better than any price I’ve seen all season at the local supermarkets. Apples were likewise very affordable as well as plentiful. And check out the onion prices. Not bad.

The whole store isn’t open-air, though—a set of automatic doors leads you to the rest, where indeed there is a flaming rotisserie, a whole lot of coffee to choose from, many cheeses and olives, a special Big Y brand organic section, and so on.

The Reminder gave it a review, and the Republican followed up with an opening-day review as well. Words on the page don’t quite describe what an interesting experience this store is, though. (Update: Check out CBS3’s video on the place for more visuals.) It’s not quite Trader Joe’s, Wild Harvest (owned by Shaw’s), or Whole Foods, but it does feel a little like a sanitized version—indoors, wide-aisled and wealthier—of bits of Boston’s North End. The meats, seafood and fresh pasta you have to see for yourself: stunning in their freshness and presentation, the folks behind the counter know what they are doing. The place is worth a visit for that alone. If you can get there.

Parking was a real hassle. On this day, a sea of visitors in their cars descended upon Fresh Acres. The lot is rather tight, so getting in was testy, and getting out embarrassingly difficult. If large numbers of people continue to frequent this store, we may need a crosswalk to the Friendly’s so that people can borrow that parking lot as well.

The Republican gave the new store some mini-press in chronicling its successful pursuit of a City Council special permit, and then a Zoning Board variance, for the store’s bright, LED-lit, blinking sign on Wilbraham Avenue. (I wrote about that on August 22, in a post about what an official in the city’s planning department referred to as "visual pollution.")

The new sign is definitely attention-grabbing, as it flashes, blinks and animates itself at you from across the intersection, where drivers may run the risk of becoming mesmerized waiting for the light to change.

On the other hand, the backdrop along Wilbraham Avenue as it winds its way out of Springfield, and into Wilbraham itself—where it thusly becomes Springfield Street; gotta love the sheer logic of that—is mostly greenery, so it’s not like it’s turning into Times Square or anything. Come to think of it, competing LED-lit signs might look better. This one seems lonely.

In all, Fresh Acres is a nice new store that’s trying to do something right in selling locally-grown produce and ready-to-heat, freshly-prepared dinners that won’t kill you with preservatives. You can feel fresh and clean while you shop, except for the exhaust from all the cars driving in and out of the lot, or worse, idling because they couldn’t find a spot, right outside the open-air market.

Author: Heather Brandon

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