Seen one Kroger, seen them all? Not really, but the differences may not be apparent at first glance. To catch the distinctive essence that lurks behind the familiar façade and chain-store décor of, say, the South Knoxville branch, you need to sneak up behind it.
You can't really get at it by just coming straight down Chapman Highway and walking through the door. Better to start at John Sevier Highway and approach the store from the rear, winding your way up Martin Mill Pike past the little box houses, up over the ridges and through the woods, with glimpses down into kudzu-bedecked hollers that look about as accessible as the upper reaches the of Amazon.
You pass spindly bicyclists on blind curves, come back down into the city limits past Doyle Park, turn right on Young High Pike at the Miracle Baptist Church. ("Winter Is Coming, So Is Jesus," the sign says. "Are You Ready?" You'd better not cry in South Knoxville, you'd better not pout, because Jesus Christ is coming to town. The holidays here aren't a threat, they're a promise.) Run one more block to Southern Wine and Spirits, turn right and you're in the Kroger lot.
This approach gives you the psychic lay of the land. Zipping down Chapman or Alcoa Highway from the north side of the river, it's too easy to dismiss South Knoxville as gristle you have to slice through to get to the Smokies. Take your time climbing up and down the hills, and you're better prepared to understand how the particular difficulties of South Knoxville life affect the shopping experience.
Not that it's a hindrance to look at the South Knox Kroger with northern eyes. In fact, to really comprehend the store, it's as important to notice what's not there as what is, and to do that, you have to know what a Kroger looks like on the other side of the river.
The Bearden Kroger on Dec. 31, for example, is bustling with shoppers of all ages getting ready for the evening's parties. You enter the floor through the store's flower shop, gaily filled with gorgeous blossoms and party balloons.
The whole store is a cornucopia of natural, ethnic, mainstream, kosher, organic, frozen, fresh, raw, barbecued, pickled, and cured foods appealingly displayed—plus marked-down Christmas decorations, DVD rentals, a reading center, bank, and 24-hour pharmacy.
Specialty displays, each one decorated with New Year's party balloons and thoughtfully combining related products from different departments, dot the entire floor. An all-natural snack display, for example, combines fresh blueberries and strawberries from the produce department with Bear Naked Granola and a shelf of organic yoghurts.
The store's overall inescapable impression is one of attractive, happy abundance. In contrast, the South Knox Kroger presents the exact same framework hung with empty space. The signage and departments are the same.
But the South Knoxville location has the feeling of a colonial outpost where all the forms of the homeland are painstakingly preserved on a pinched, limited, and unsatisfying scale. At Bearden you enter through garlands of flowers; at South Knoxville you enter into a collection of large cardboard boxes filled with discounted merchandise.
The store is clean, offers everything you would need, but with much less selection than in Bearden. The Bearden bazaar of specialty displays is all open space in South Knoxville, giving the store a lonely, barren feel. In Bearden you have abundance; in South Knoxville, a sense of dearth as chilling as the coming of winter advertised on the Baptist marquee.
Customers in South Knoxville saved $9.02 on our standard shopping trip compared to the Bearden shoppers, but I still think they're getting the short end of the stick. The South Knoxville shoppers are older, less manicured, less shaven, less spiffy than the Bearden crowd. But people are people. The workers in the store are friendly and helpful, but the management in South Knoxville is dropping the ball. People here deserve more than a price break; they need some holiday balloons.