There’s a new supermarket in town. Pull up a steaming bowl of ramen, and count your Lucky’s stars.
BY PETER MOORE
I’M QUITE PROMISCUOUS — when it comes to grocery stores, that is. My wife needn’t worry that my eye will wander, but Whole Foods had better watch out. There are so many attractive grocery stores in Fort Collins, and I’m playing the field!
Safeway, at the top of Lemay, is my go-to for staples and national names. Their organic store-brand combines wholesome and toothsome with cheap, and our local outlet won my heart after a checkout lady of a certain age cocked an eye and asked, “Are you over age 55?” I confessed: I’m of a certain age, too! “Today is the first Wednesday of the month,” she continued, “and seniors get a 10 percent discount!” It’s now a recurring date on my Google calendar. And if you shop when their Starbucks closes (7 p.m.), as I often do, there are heaps of free samples. Bakery calories, like loose joints in the 1970s, don’t really count if you don’t pay for them yourself.
There are other great grocers in town, of course. I first discovered Sprouts on a Colorado vacation a few years back, and couldn’t believe the combo of pulsatingly fresh meats and fish, the garden of eatin’ in produce, and minimal wallet damage amid all that sprouted splendor. The store at 2601 S. Lemay is even doing meal kits now. Many times I’ve arrived home a hero, toting sesame salmon, and asparagus for two. I also bought my organic, free-range, humanely raised, college-educated, GMO, lightly killed turkey there last Thanksgiving; everyone at the table (except the bird) was grateful. Bonus points: the carb-tastic Great Harvest Bread Company is footsteps away in the same shopping center. And Great Harvest gives free samples too! (Are you noticing a theme?)
Trader Joe’s (cheap, special, free samples!) and Whole Foods (expensive, special, cheese samples!) are in my rotation as well, because as I said, I shop around. So you can imagine my excitement when I heard the announcement, not long after my wife and I moved here from Pennsylvania, that Lucky’s was coming to town. With the closing of the Mulberry Safeway, our new neighborhood had become something of a food desert. The Statistical Atlas shows that Old Town has the highest population density in the city — nearly 7,000 people per square mile — with only the Mountain Avenue Market in walking distance. I mean, the renovation there is nice, but good luck if you’re craving Oscar Meyer wieners and a jug of SunnyD.
And now: a new Old Town option! I first got Lucky in Boulder. Which is appropriate, because two chefs — Trish and Bo Sharon — founded the chain there in 2003, when they bought a convenience store and began peddling “organic for the 99%.” That slogan — emblazoned on their sign — is new, but the idea is old: Why should only rich people eat well? When I first strolled the aisles of the north Boulder Lucky’s, I felt like I was meeting the love child of Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s: Warm lighting, artisanal food, artsy displays, and prices that make you think, “maybe I should try passion fruit!” Or those double-chocolate-chip-GMO free cookies! Or the house smoked bacon! And drown it with 16 varieties of kombucha!
That North Boulder Lucky’s is nice, but it’s nothing compared to the 25,000-square-foot food palace opening on March 6 at the corner of Mulberry and College. Sports Authority went bankrupt in 2016, so their winged building was permanently grounded by the time I moved here a year later. Meanwhile, Lucky’s took on an infusion of cash from Kroger’s and planned to expand. They announced plans for the renovation in January 2018, and then — nothing, for way too long. When the construction fences finally went up last summer, I began counting the days until opening. Counting makes me impatient — especially when I’m hungry. Which is all the time.
I banged on Lucky’s sliding glass doors in the middle of February, when the place was still in a chaos of construction. It still looked delicious. The store manager, Tania Ellis, welcomed me. If you should never trust a skinny chef, how should you feel about a diminutive grocery-store manager? Ellis is a sprite, with bright eyes and an infectious laugh — the Tinker Bell of the grocery trade. She was a psych major at the University of Missouri, in Columbia, but walked into a natural-foods store near campus soon after graduation. In some sense, she has never left: “I’m just a natural foodie at heart,” she says. Fourteen years ago she opened the Fort Collins Whole Foods, and she landed the Lucky’s job last June. “I’m working my way up College Avenue,” she notes, which might be good news for the north FoCo King Soopers — in about 2033.
She settles into the soon-to-be-packed cafe area, at the front of the new store, and expresses pride in the very cool mid-century modern building. CSU’s placekicker could launch one from the bulk-foods aisle, and there’s high clearance all the way over to the industrial kitchen. Three million dollars will get you some niceties, including the 20-odd new skylights that open up the cavernous space to Colorado skies. “Cloudy or sunny it will always give you a feel of the day,” Ellis notes.
The cafe is nestled between the produce — Lucky’s pride and joy — and The Kitchen, which will be slinging pizzas and sandwiches for CSU kids who wander north from campus. There will be an olive and pickle bar, plus composed salads and the DIY kind as well. On the day of my visit, there wasn’t yet any evidence of the made-to-order ramen bar, but even typing those words makes my mouth water. The savory broth, the fresh vegetables, the slurpable noodles, the steam rising. Gimme an amen to the ramen, brothers and sisters! It might be time to store out-of-season clothes in your stove, Old Towners. Who needs to cook, when the Lucky’s staff will do it for you, plus wash (OK, recycle) the dishes?
The store has staffed up with 125 locals, including Old Town resident Tim Overlie, who’s in charge of stocking locally-produced foods. When I pressed Ellis with the “what’s different about this store?” question, that’s right where she went: “Food is now a social movement. Lucky’s is family owned, and we want to corner the market on local foods, and create a community around it.”
Among the vendors, Overlie has brought in: Turtle Mountain Kombucha, which operates a tasting bar in north Fort Collins, and Sweet Petite, which offers the tantalizing promise that you can eat their “diet” cakes, cupcakes and pies, and still remain as tiny as Tania Ellis. Likewise is Lucky’s filled with healthy stuff: It isn’t all super good for you — they offer Turkish taffy in bulk, after all —but according to Ellis, they carefully vet what they stock, and the ingredient labels are comprehensive. You can read ‘em and weep, or go ahead and eat. Your (informed) choice.
So everything is set for Lucky’s to take its place among my produce paramours, my granola crushes, my meat-market conquests, my supermarket sweeties. Which reminds me — I omitted another particular favorite: Supermarket Liquors, just west on Mulberry. They may be short on staple foods, but by the time you sample their discount wines, you may forget that you haven’t eaten yet.
For all the rest, there’s Lucky’s. And we’re lucky to have it.
Grand Opening on March 6th with samples storewide from local vendors, and a Bacon Cutting Ceremony that starts at 10 am. They will have samples of smoked-in-house bacon and introducing their local nonprofit partners.