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ECO FRIENDLY: Entrepreneurs are opening shops to satisfy the growing demand for organic produce delivered fresh from local farms.
VILNIUS - At a time when hypermarkets and supermalls seem to shoot up wherever you turn, opening their doors to Lithuanian consumers on a massive and unprecedented scale, we are sometimes left wondering to ourselves whatever happened to the long-gone local grocery store. This feeling is of a romantic kind, yes, and we might even feel a bit sad. The supermarket offers time-effective convenience and an abundance of products we might or might not need, but lacks the authenticity and spirit that we look for when letting ourselves spend that little extra time and effort to support smaller enterprises.
It’s my personal theory that spending a grey December day shopping for local produce is going to bring real excitement and joy into your life. I visited some interesting small Vilnius groceries and talked to staff and customers, and it made me believe even more in this theory. Let me introduce you to two different places where I’ve shopped.
The Rojaus Sodas (Garden of Eden) is what one could call a ‘concept grocery store,’ situated on Dysnos Street in downtown Vilnius. Behind the project are two young women, Irma and Biruta, who operate with the clear concept that everything they sell in their shop has been organically produced, all products brought directly to the shop door from local farms, and from all over Lithuania. In this way the price on products is kept down, allowing organically produced foods to be sold at an affordable and market competitive price. This small and cozy outlet offers seasonal products of high quality and great taste: bread, dairy products, vegetables, eggs, herbs, pastries, curd, honey, smoked and dried meats, etc. They even sell organic cosmetics. The shop receives new and fresh products from the farmers on a day-to-day basis, so the selection available continuously changes, and this makes the experience of visiting the shop even more exciting.
A blackboard inside informs you of the weekly ‘menu.’ Each product carries its description and from where, exactly, it comes from, plus the name of the individual farmer, and this gives it a very ‘local’ feeling. I visited Rojaus Sodas one casual afternoon and asked co-founder Biruta about where the motivation to start up the place came from. She told me that as a mother she was, and is, concerned about what her children are eating and drinking, and that she felt disappointed about products available in supermarkets. “The thing is, when I shop for organic products at different places, the products are really not always entirely organic. The reason for this is that farmers are sometimes not telling the truth about their production methods,” Biruta says. Eventually she lost trust in the market, questioning whether she was actually buying entirely natural and organic foods, when she thought she was. So she decided to take action, the result being Rojaus Sodas.
In order to guarantee customers that what they are buying is in fact 100 percent organic, the products sold here are all labeled with the so-called ‘Eco Agro’ stamp, an authorized certificate ensuring that an individual product is organic. Impressed as I was, I wondered if Biruta wasn’t worried about starting up her own business during times of financial crisis; perhaps the timing was not the best? She argued that “People were, are, and will still be eating. Maybe during times of crisis they are even more conscious as to what they spend their money on.” Her words sounded logical and convincing, and the fact is that since opening, Rojaus Sodas has been popular with a diverse crowd, and it appears that Irma and Biruta have made a worthwhile effort for anyone looking for simplicity, honesty and quality when shopping everyday groceries.
The variety you find in the shop is great, even if the range of available products on any particular day seems rather limited, which is down to the nature of the day-to-day concept itself. In other words, you’ll find few, but great things to get, and even if you don’t buy anything, just going there simply gives you the sensation of local, country-like coziness that you will find in no supermarket. And the whole idea has already proven itself to be a success, as customers literally flock to the place. You will find inexpensive, healthy and delicious groceries.
I then headed towards the Uzupis district for another experience, remembering how a friend of mine had told me about a place named Uzupio Krautuve, a shop offering Mediterranean delicacies. This place specializes in food and drink from the countries of Italy, Spain, France, Portugal and Greece. Having found the shop, I had a chat with Edita Skripskaite, a native Lithuanian who resided in Greece for a number of years, and who is now running the gourmet along with her partner, who by the way is a devoted fan of Italian cuisine. Their popular shop has been running for a couple of years. Inside, 100 inviting and inspirational square meters of space boast a wide range of Mediterranean food and drink for every taste, with most of the stuff here sold at reasonable prices. The selection changes every week and usually includes bread, all kinds of snacks, a multitude of dried pastas, risotto rice, prosciutto, various cheeses, olives, spiced up with additional specialties such as French foie gras, pate, truffles, exciting chutneys, pestos and Italian pasta sauces. There is a large selection of delicious wines, champagnes, cognacs and other alcoholic beverages. It really feels as if they missed out on nothing.
Every week, Uzupio Krautuve promotes special offers, making it possible even for students to buy and present to their friends an inviting table of ‘tapas.’ Edita said “We opened this shop because we missed these products coming back to Lithuania from Greece, and so we thought, if we miss these products, maybe other people in Lithuania miss them too. And it grew from there into this.” It has proven to be a great and popular concept. Whenever you visit the shop, it is busy and buzzing with conversation between customers and staff. This place is not only a delicacy offering exquisite products at affordable prices; it’s also all about exploring a forum of curiosity and communication.
These two shops are different and great each in their own unique way. What makes Uzupio Krautuve different from Rojaus Sodas is that here you can talk about a real gourmet shop that targets a broad audience with a passion for authentic Mediterranean foods, offering more luxuroius products for connoisseurs who would perhaps have a difficult time finding these items elsewhere in town. Rojaus Sodas, on the other hand, operates with a more basic aim, which is to sell good and affordable Lithuanian products, while at the same time sell a story and the broader philosophy of healthy living, with an aura of nostalgia.
When I reached home later that evening, I found that my wife had prepared a Mediterranean snack table for us and had invited some friends for a small party; it turned out she had visited some delicacy shops that same afternoon, ones which I am not yet familiar with; and so the journey continues. At that moment, I found my day complete.