La Grande Epicerie and Fauchon in Paris, The Organic Café in Dubai, Harrods Food Hall and Fortnum & Mason in London, Dean & DeLuca in New York. Besides having the commonality of world-class cities, these food emporiums have another common element – they’re all geared for the executive eater who is conscious of organic produce, variety and daily freshness. In these stores vegetables sparkle, uniformed staff are friendly and knowledgeable, hot meals are made from delectable recipes and shopping becomes a bucolic experience of one-stop gourmet browsing, even for those who hate trudging up and down food aisles.

    Cape Town-based chef and food critic Justine Drake says, “Food emporiums are indicative of a more discerning market. People care more about where the food is from, they’re not as easily accepting of goods and they like to see the providence of things. Food is much sexier than it has ever been and people, more than ever, are careful of what they put into their bodies, not just for weight loss but also for health.”

    Gwynne Conlyn, author and cookbook publisher, remembers the days when her mother used to tell her to stop playing with her food. “Today, with the abundance of cookbooks and foodie magazines, we’re encouraged to play with our food. More people are getting into the kitchen, people are fascinated with food, and food emporiums have made it easier to source good ingredients.”

    This international trend in food appreciation and food emporiums has seen the humble fruit shop, the corner cafe and speciality deli evolving into one, conveniently located, store. Think Woolworths Food or the Mediterranean Fish Centre in Fourways and on a grander scale, the Fruit & Veg City Food Lover’s Market in Gauteng and the Western Cape.

    When Mike and Brian Coppin, the founders of Fruit & Veg City, contemplated the lack of executive food markets in South Africa, they decided to go to London to do some research. They headed straight for Harrods Food Hall. They then flew to California where they were significantly impressed by the fresh food produce and ready-made meals available at Wholefoods, where fruits and vegetables are fresh daily and those that aren’t sold in a day are discarded. Hot meals are prepared to a set menu designed by a chef and fresh fish is flown in every morning.

    The Coppin brothers decided to introduce this concept to the South African market and called it the Food Lover’s Market. The first store was opened in November 2005 in Hillfox, Roodepoort and a second opened in Tygervalley, Western Cape last year. A third store was recently launched in Benoni, Gauteng. The East Rand suburb is an affluent one and with the closure of its Fruit & Veg City a few years ago, it seemed like an obvious choice in location.

    “The store exudes cleanliness and refinement with the green and yellow of regular Fruit & Veg City stores replaced with black and cherrywood,” says Sam Zeelie, general manager of the Benoni store. “The concept offers a state-of-the-art food shopping experience on an international scale and yet is equipped to make South Africans feel at ease with prices that are not out of reach for the average consumer. We’ve made sure that certain items are 30 percent cheaper than in other food chains.

    “Our aim is to bring exotic food, fresh produce and a variety of imported goods to the market in a clean, cultured and pleasurable atmosphere. We want to make it a mind-blowing experience that sets the bar for others to follow,” says Sam. “We took a chance with the sushi and oyster bar and it has proved to be a great drawcard.”

    In addition to the sushi bar, managed by a Japanese chef, a bakery, water bar, chocolaterie, fresh fish counter and a Gourmet to Go section, there is also a fresh pasta counter. Giuliana Thieme brought the concept with her from Italy, together with her grandmother’s secret recipes, which she uses in the preparation of pastas and sauces. She loves to demonstrate how a plate of fresh pasta can be cooked in just over two minutes, including the topping.

    Regular pasta is made on the premises with organic flour and eggs. Wheat and gluten-free pasta is also available. We like to do different things like wasabi tagliatelle served with tiger prawns, salmon ravioli and fresh gnocchi,” explains Giuliana. “We can prepare the pasta to be eaten here in our outdoor café, to be taken away or to be prepared at home.” In food emporiums such as these, food shopping can easily turn into a half-day affair.

    Apart from the laid-back outdoor café, the Food Lover’s Market has a coffee shop tucked between the fresh fruit and vegetable section and the chocolaterie, which offers freshly ground coffee and healthy nibbles. Staff at the Short Cuts counter in the fruit and vegetable section promise to chop while you shop and the butchery has BBC Food playing on the plasma screen in case customers are short of ideas. The cheese counter is decked with large wheels of Parmareggio Parmesan and Gouda and offers 248 other varieties. From Fontina Aosta and Grana Padano to Cantal jeune and Cantal entre-deux, the selection is abundant.

    “In South Africa we are right up there with everybody else. The world has become our oyster,” says Adrian Jacobs, chef patron of the Scarlet Feather Restaurant in Heidelberg. Adrian is obsessed with organic produce and is used to shopping all over for the best goods. He adds, “Our borders are open and we are now exposed to all sorts of cultures and ingredients. People are on the lookout for more specialised shops where they can get the best quality food. The old-style butcher shop, bakery and chocolatier are back in demand and each individual culinary field is coming to the fore. We’re building our own culinary identity, which goes beyond braais and bredies. Food emporiums are part of this revolution.”

    “What customers won’t see in the store are tinned products (except for peeled tomatoes and olive oils), cold drinks and cigarettes,” says Sam as he sips on a banana and honey smoothie from the Fresh Stop. “This is just the start. The plan is to expand into the Australian market, but for now it’s comforting to know that we’re heading the trend in South Africa.”

    • Benoni Food Lover’s Market, corner Pretoria Road and Rickard Street, Rynfield, Benoni. Call 011-849-9096.
    • Hillfox Food Lover’s Market, Hillfox Trade Centre, Hendrik Potgieter Road, Weltevreden Park. Call 011-675-4160/1/2.
    • Tygervalley Food Lover’s Market, Willowbridge North Shopping Centre, Carl Cronje Drive, Bellville. Call 021-914-8011