Elroy’s Fine Foods, which bills itself as “The Uncommon Market,” is a grocery store in the sense that, yes, you can walk in and buy groceries.
Immediately to the left of the front door, you can find bucket after bucket of fresh floral bouquets, none of them terribly spendy, with flowers grown by Laughin’ Gal Floral in Aromas. At the right is a curated produce section – a metal tub loaded with brilliant red San Marzano tomatoes and stacks of baskets filled with heirloom cherry tomatoes, their provenance attributed to local favorite farmer Jamie Collins of Serendipity Farm and her fields in Carmel. In a multi-tiered cold case, baskets of golden raspberries, perfect and plump, are shelved underneath three-packs of mixed berries (all from JSM Farm) and above Serendipity strawberries. Get to the pepper section and you can choose from baskets of shishitos, or Sugar Rush peach peppers, which lure you in with their gentle blush hue at the first bite and then nail you with smoky heat on the back end. Further in, taking the whole of the store’s back right corner, is the bulk section, which, pandemic or not, strives to be fully zero waste, with either glass or metal or fully compostable single-use containers. Get your almond butter on, zero guilt.
We haven’t even gotten to the meat and cheese counter: The former features fresh fish, Niman Ranch beef and the porky goodness of Baker’s Bacon, the latter is as well curated as any cheese counter in the region. Then there’s the prepared food case, where on this day Chef Eden Calibri is serving butternut squash soup, thick and perfectly brown latkes, a variety of grain salads and sandwiches. We haven’t made it to the bar, where you can drink anything from a cup of coffee to a cup of bone broth, or snag a smoothie – or smoothie bowl, with toppings that range from chia and hemp seeds to nut butters and fresh fruit. I’m dizzy by the time I make it to the bakery case, loaded with perfect mini tarts. I want one of everything. I hate myself for wanting one of everything. I have been seduced by Elroy’s and now I understand the hype.
What I don’t understand is what co-owner Jay Dolata tries to explain: What kind of maniac opens a food business – especially a grocery business (a low-margin, high-competition endeavor) during a pandemic?
The former is easier to answer than the latter. Dolata and his wife, Chloe, who for 10 years ran the Carmel casual dining spot Carmel Belle, had their eyes on opening a market since early 2019, before Covid-19 arrived in North America. They took inspiration from their time in Detroit, where they both worked in advertising and gravitated to a grocery store called Papa Joe’s.
“You wanted to try everything and everything was impeccably displayed and it was an experience when you went in. It was more than a grocery store,” Dolata says. “Erewhon Market in L.A. was also a huge inspiration. There was a focus on prepared foods, and there’s a higher margin there, and we knew that after owning a restaurant for 10 years we could pull it off.”
But given that Elroy’s is 0.4 miles away from prepared foods king Whole Foods, who is Elroy’s for? Aren’t they seeking the same customers?
Not exactly. Dolata says Elroy’s is for people like him and Chloe, people “who love food and community.
“We’re anti-Whole Foods. We’re going in the opposite direction,” Dolata says. “In developing this, it started when we hired contractors who said, ‘We’ve never done a grocery store,’ and I said, ‘Perfect, because we don’t want to have one.’ It was our goal to be uncommon and different.”
They’re different in sourcing and eco cred if not in pricing; a bouquet of mixed flowers, $8, goes for roughly the same price as at Whole Foods.
So far, it’s working. There are about 40 employees in all, and while the Dolatas aren’t currently taking a salary, they are breaking even.
Post-pandemic (assuming we get there), Elroy’s will look even more different than it does now, with classes, demonstrations and pop-up dinners.
“We still consider ourselves to be in soft opening,” Dolata says, two months in. “It was a weird soft opening, but now we’re ready to show off.”
ELROY’S FINE FOODS 15 Soledad Drive, Monterey. 373-3737, elroysfinefoods.com