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5 things about Midwest grocery stores foreigners find surprising

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Higginbotham tells girlfriend Peyton Lausch (center) and Forum reporter Tracy Briggs how shocked he is to see breakfast on a stick at Hornbachers in south Moorhead. Photo: Chris Flynn / The Forum2 / 3
Australian Will Higginbotham was shocked by the number of cereals available in American grocery stores. Chris Flynn / The Forum3 / 3

MOORHEAD, Minn. — The supermarket: an everyday convenience that Americans sometimes take for granted. To us, the "super" in supermarket is often overlooked. We're accustomed to our fully-stocked produce sections, wide aisles and plethora of choices.

But if you're not from here — if you're a new American or simply a tourist from another part of the world — then you might find American supermarkets a little out of the ordinary, overwhelming or just plain odd.

What are the biggest surprises for international shoppers and what are the reasons behind these differences?

We tagged along at Hornbacher's in south Moorhead as Will Higginbotham, a visitor from Melbourne, Australia, shopped with his girlfriend, Peyton Lausch, Fargo.

1. Everything's bigger in America

From the size of the stores themselves to the fruit in the produce section, in 'Merica bigger seems to mean better. Supermarkets really are "super," often including banks, pharmacies, post offices and much more under one roof. Higginbotham mentioned that back home they usually can't even find greeting cards at their markets. If you need a number of different items, you might have to visit several stores.

Hornbacher's President Matthew Leiseth says size is one of biggest differences between U.S. and international markets. He says Americans with hectic lifestyles want one-stop shopping experiences where they can stock up with everything they need under one roof.

"We love our cars here and that allows us to buy more (per shopping trip) as opposed to European countries who walk or use public transportation," he says.

Higginbotham also took note of the sheer size of the fruit and vegetables themselves.

"All of the apples are so big," he said. "We'll have the occasional big piece of fruit, but all of it here seems to be the same size — big."

2. Variety, variety, variety

Americans don't give a second thought to the sheer number of choices they have walking up and down the aisles. But for some foreign shoppers, it's overwhelming. Higginbotham says he was shocked to find cereals taking up an entire aisle.

"It's really unbelievable," he says. "We'll have corn flakes and some muesli, but I know we don't have this," he says with a laugh, picking up a box of Sprinkled Donut Captain Crunch.

He also found the number of choices in snack foods, deli items and produce astounding.

"World-class distribution networks allow U.S. retailers to carry produce, meats, cheeses, etc., from around the world — 365 days a year," Leiseth says. "There is very little seasonality left in America. Strawberries are available all year and customers expect it."

3. More "convenience" foods

Whether you think of it as a smart way to save time or an excuse to be lazy, non-American consumers find it unusual that many items in U.S. supermarkets are prepared for you. Higginbotham was surprised at the amount of pre-cut fruits and vegetables in the produce section.

"Wouldn't it be cheaper and almost as easy to buy the peppers and cut them up yourself?" he asks, pointing to a package of diced green, red and yellow peppers. The same could be said about the abundance of frozen food choices where all that's required is a few seconds in the microwave.

"I've never seen pre-made frozen, scrambled eggs before," Higginbotham says.

4. A processed food bonanza

What's more American than Kraft macaroni and cheese or Cherry Pop Tarts? Wheaties might be the "breakfast of champions" but these American staples have fed generations of us.

In fact, when foreigners think of American food, these are the types of items they put on the shelves of the "American food" sections of their grocery stores, according to

"What exactly is this?" Higginbotham says, picking up a jar of Cheez Whiz. He was even more surprised when we showed him spray cheese. His Aussie mind was blown.

"Where exactly are you supposed to spray it?" Higginbotham asks.

5. Regional specialities

International visitors and new Americans are shocked at just how large of a country this is; few international travelers can visit all of the tourist spots from coast to coast on a typical vacation. Because of the size of the country, grocery stores tend to carry a greater variety of regional specialities.

Leiseth says the background and history of a store's customers dictates what stores carry.

"Even though our area continues to diversify, the Scandinavian and German influences can still be seen throughout, with items like cookie salad, lefse, rosettes and all of the hot dishes that come with it," he says.

Higginbotham was excited to learn more about lefse and kuchen in the frozen food section, but a little leary of a cold and squishy plastic bag full of lutefisk in the meat aisle.

"It looks like one of those packs you'd put on a sore ankle," he says.

Higginbotham also learned a new definition of salad as he peered at selection after selection of non-green lettuce salads including pasta salads, potato salads and even that cookie salad Leiseth mentioned.

Higginbotham says he would classify his American shopping trip as a success. He even managed to try the cookie salad and went from turning up his nose to a complete convert.

"This is actually really good. Do they make it every day?" he says.

Tracy Briggs

Tracy Briggs is a former TV anchor/radio host currently working as a features writer and video host for Forum Communications.

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