Fifteen years ago, as large video stores swallowed up their smaller, local competitors, one could conduct a sort of litmus test to discover whether or not the new, voluminous mega video store you were then walking through would really offer the quality of choice its size seemed to imply.

The rule? Blue Velvet. If you couldn't find it, that generally meant that there were plenty of other videos you wouldn't find, and that your choices were most likely limited, not by the staff or the management, but by marketers tied to desks in faraway cities.

In a way, you can apply a similar litmus test to large grocery stores, too. But instead of looking for what you may or may not find, look for something you'd (probably) rather not—something like Doritos. If you can count at least 10 bags of 10 different flavors of Doritos, you're very likely not going to find something new, unique or local.

And this doesn't apply to just tortilla chips. If you can find lots of Doritos, your choices are likely limited when you're looking for olive oil, rice or something as simple as lettuce.

Smaller grocery stores, by default, don't have the volume of food and household items carried by their larger competitors, because they don't have the space or the deep pockets to do so. But smaller markets can take bigger risks on stocking their shelves with newer items produced by your friends and neighbors or the regional farmers who don't feed their cows corn.

But that's not the only trade-off.

Large markets reward customers who share their personal information (phone number, home and email addresses) with savings. But it walks a weird line. In a way, they know everything about you: what you buy, when your buy it and how often you buy it. But at the same time, as you gather together your purchases and prepare to walk away, they thank you and tell you how much you saved by giving them your business, bidding you adieu with a polite, yet anonymous, "Thank you Mr. or Mrs. Somethingorother."

Small neighborhood markets—like Cherry Sprout Produce in Northeast Portland—are focused on building relationships with their customers.

Walk into your neighborhood corner market, and you'll find it's easier to exchange pleasantries, names, enthusiasm for food and news from your neighborhood.

Small market owners get involved locally. They donate to local charities. They attend municipal meetings and advocate for causes close to home. In a way, small markets are the bulletin boards of the communities they serve, because they offer so much more than just what's for dinner.

Little Green Grocer

In 2006, Nancy Galanty and Scott Lekovish packed up their belongings (and their two kids) and left San Francisco to settle in Portland.

"There was a corner market in our San Francisco neighborhood that we were sometimes in and out of three times a day, popping in for fresh ingredients," explains Galanty. "When we first moved to Portland, we were thrilled with all the bounty of meat, cheese, wine and produce—all local, all delicious."

Inspired to share that enthusiasm with Portland, the couple opened Little Green Grocer in the Pearl District's north end in October of 2008, one month before the block-wide Safeway opened its own doors.

Little Green Grocer in the Pearl District.

"We underestimated Safeway's impact on our business," says LGG's Nancy Galanty. "We also underestimated how difficult it is to change people's shopping patterns. But, we have a loyal base of customers that continues to grow.

One of the largest misconceptions about Little Green Grocer is that its size means it's expensive," she says. "We work hard to stay competitive with other Portland markets. We do regular price comparisons with the other groceries in the neighborhood, and we are on par or less expensive. We do not share many products in common with Safeway, but the ones we do we beat them on price."

In order to stand out, one must do what others don't.

So Little Green Grocer has two customer appreciation promotions. They support environmentally responsible ingenuity: B-Line Urban Delivery delivers their produce by bicycle. And this summer, if you can't make it out to the farmers market, Little Green Grocer will bring the farmers market to you: the folks at Harmony J.A.C.K. Farms will set up an impromptu vending stall in the store, where they'll answer questions about the cows, turkey and goats they raise.

Little Green Grocer takes pride in sourcing local products.

If you can't make it to the market, or even out of the house, Little Green Grocer will bring it to you. In February, they hired Portland Pedal Power to deliver groceries, wine and beer to residents of the Downtown and northwest neighborhoods.

In addition to shopping, there's plenty more happening at Little Green Grocer. There are monthly wine tastings and art shows. The store has participated in and hosted fundraisers for local nonprofits. And last winter, Little Green Grocer provided hot chocolate, egg nog, lots of sweets and a rented karaoke machine to 40 caroling children and their parents who wound their way north from Isobel's Clubhouse spreading holiday cheer.

Staples of Note: Smith Teas, Stumptown and Trailhead coffee, Wingnut Confections, Origami Catering (sushi, fresh and delivered each week day), Cattail Creek Lamb, Petaluma Poultry, Knee Deep Cattle Company (grass-fed beef), and Deck Family Farm, and local produce from Organically Grown Company, Minto Island Growers and Gathering Together Farm.

Cherry Sprout Produce

The folks at Cherry Sprout Produce recognize that in order to distinguish themselves from their competitors, they must stand out, too.

"We compensate by being friendly, animated, real people," explains Cherry Sprout co-owner Brie Bergdahl. "As a cashier, I talk to everyone who comes through my line—if they want to talk. I know their kids—many of them i've known since they were babies because i've been in the neighborhood so long. I ask them about work. We check in about what was going on the last time I saw them."

Bergdahl, Amanda Wiles and Lana Spilsbury took Cherry Sprout's reigns from Big City Produce in October 2007 and continue to steer it down the same path by practicing the simple strategy of continuing to give their customers what they want.

Cherry Sprout Produce in Humboldt.

"We've tried to honor the clientele we've inherited" Bergdahl says, providing staple items like yams, greens and okra at prices comparable or cheaper than the same items sold by Fred Meyer or Safeway.

"We employee people from the community, and we keep prices down to keep people fed," she says. "Our store's products reflect our customers' wants."

Cherry Sprout also offers no-minimum-order discounts to local business owners, and discounts to local teachers, as well. When Halloween rolls around, teachers can opt to buy fruit at a discount—rather than candy—for their students.

Of course, corporate competitors offer discounts, too, but for many, there's something about the amalgamation of florescent lights, controlled temperatures and carefully chosen store soundtracks that makes one want to dart in and out of such places as quickly as possible.

In contrast, Cherry Sprout has a spontaneity, a je ne sais quoi, a certain something it's competitors don't.

"We play records while people shop," Bergdahl says. Real 78s that need flipping every 20 minutes or so, in genres of all stripes—flamenco, Congolese rumba—and by artists of varying disciplines (Paul Simon, James Brown, Oingo Boingo, The Temptations).

Some shoppers even bring their own records, which Cherry Sprout spins for them, while others borrow Cherry Sprout's records for parties they plan on throwing the same way one would borrow records from a neighbor.

Bergdahl says Cherry Sprout also holds events one would normally look for on the flyers posted in independent coffee houses. There's occasional live music—there's a piano on site—and all-ages "happenings," which include gallery shows and zine readings. And they recently secured an OLCC permit, meaning they can pour wine for wine tastings and other events.

In a way, people can pop into Cherry Sprout for what they need, and realize by stopping in they'll get something they didn't even know they wanted. Maybe not a home away from home, but comfortable, and something like it.

Staples of Note: Nature Bake muffins, The Higher Taste wraps, Dave's Killer Bread!!! and a cornucopia of locally farmed collard greens, mustard and flat-leaf mustards greens, turnips, yams, onions, apples, mushrooms, watermelons and squash.

Food Front Cooperative Grocery

The folks at Food Front Cooperative Grocery have learned a thing or two over the past few decades, having been around the block almost as long as they've been on it. Started in 1972, this co-op now has more than 6,000 members and has outgrown its Northwest Thurman location (they've been operating a store in Hillsdale since 2008).

"[With Food Front] being a neighborhood market, we see the same people day after day, so people get to know each others," explains Tom Mattox, Food Front's director of community outreach and marketing.

Food Front in Northwest District.

A native Minnesotan, Mattox moved to Portland in 2005. With a background in community education and community journalism, Mattox took a job with Food Front, which he describes as a "natural fit."

"The people here are amazing and the city is so vibrant," says Mattox, and says Portland's love affair with quality food "makes it great place for businesses like Food Front to thrive."

Mattox takes special pride in the role neighborhood markets play in the neighborhoods they serve. "it's great to see our neighboring business owners come into the store and we can compare notes about what we are up to. it's a big deal to know your neighbors care about you and you care about them," he says.

"Our customer service is genuine, not corporate. Friendliness is not a strategy, but a real thing."

Food Front also offers monthly food events at their Thurman Street Store on second Saturdays, featuring food themes that highlight their collections of tea, chocolate, berries or peaches. And they hold events at their Hillsdale store on Sundays whenever the Hillsdale Farmers Market is happening.

But it's Food Front's unique role as a cooperative, and not a mere grocery store, that makes it stand out.

"You don't have to be a member-owner to shop, but becoming an owner and buying a share is what makes the store possible," says Mattox. "It's rare in this modern economy when people can make a difference in this way."

Staples of Note: Fressen Artisan Bread, Dave's Killer Bread!!!, Stirs the Soul organic chocolate, Zbeanz specialty roasted coffee beans and Angel Apiary honey.

View the slideshow for more images of corner markets or visit our Flickr gallery:

Photos © 2010 Kenneth Aaron, Neighborhood Notes