New crop of specialty stores gives shoppers more variety

For decades now, Harry's Farmers Market has been the only place to buy organic and gourmet foods and hard-to-find grocery items without driving into downtown Atlanta. By the end of the year, all that will change.

The Fresh Market, a boutique grocery store emphasizing its huge fresh produce and meat selection, opened in Suwanee last month. Organic and natural foods leader Whole Foods is slated to open its first Gwinnett store in early fall in Duluth. And now we're getting the Southeast's first Trader Joe's, a cult favorite known for its wines and prepared foods, in November in Peachtree Corners.

You might not know it yet, but your grocery shopping routine is about to get a lot more exciting. And complicated. We've put together a guide to help you figure out when and why you should check out the county's newest grocery stores.

Fresh Market

Location: 1500 Peachtree Industrial Blvd. Suite 300, Suwanee

Open since: June 28

In a nutshell: You won't find prepackaged meat, seafood, produce, bakery and deli products here. Every item available at this upscale grocery is hand-picked by the store's founder and guaranteed to be the freshest, prettiest and best-tasting product out there.

Ambiance: This tiny grocery has the feel of a European market. Low lighting, classical music and floral aromas set the mood as soon as you walk through the door. The store offers free coffee and lots of samples to encourage shoppers to linger and get to know both the well-versed staff and others in the community.

Famous for: The store is best known for its full-service fresh meat counter, where an experienced butcher is always ready to help you select all-natural chicken, aged Hereford beef and other premium meats.

Fresh Market also offers a large selection of fresh seafood. Its European-style delicatessen sells more than 200 imported and domestic cheeses and also features an extensive selection of deli meats, rotisserie-cooked meats and prepared salads.

Trader Joe's

Location: Peachtree Parkway at the Forum outdoor shopping center in Peachtree Corners

Open since: Scheduled to open in November.

In a nutshell: This eclectic and economical grocery store offers premium products at great prices under its private Trader Joe's label.

Ambiance: The store's cedar plank walls, nautical decor and employees wearing Hawaiian shirts make you feel like you're on a ship, searching the high seas for the best food products.

Famous for: Customers go wild over specialty products such as Sir Strawberry Juice, Triple Ginger Snaps and Trek Mixes and ethnic foods including authentic carne asada and Thai prig khing green beans.

The store's prepared and frozen dinners are very popular and include a frozen chicken teriyaki rice bowl, fully cooked heat-and-eat baby back pork ribs and several varieties of flash-frozen marinated fish. Trader Joe's affordable imported wine selection, most prominent in the Charles Shaw line - you may have heard about the "Two Buck Chuck" furor a few years ago - is also a big draw.

Whole Foods Market

Location: Near the intersection of Medlock Bridge and State Bridge roads in Duluth.

Open since: Scheduled to open in early fall.

In a nutshell: Sure, we already have Harry's. But Whole Foods stores are a little more flashy, offer more samples and have a much larger selection of in-store dining options.

Ambiance: Bright, clean and attractive, these stores are several notches up from a typical grocery store. The stores are almost always bustling, filled with a steady flow of customers and a constantly updated product selection.

Famous for: One of the biggest and best selections of natural and organic foods out there. Folks who used to have to do their shopping in cramped natural food stores can find aisles and aisles of foods with no artificial additives, sweeteners, colorings or preservatives.

Most Whole Foods stores offer several varied salad and pasta bars, as well as multiple lunch counters and an extensive selection of prepared lunches and dinners. The bulk grains, nuts, dried fruits and candies are also popular.

Harry's Farmers Market

Location: 2025 Satellite Pointe, Duluth

Open since: 1987

In a nutshell: Less intimidating than some of the area's international farmers markets, Harry's is a great place to find fresh, local produce and hard-to-find gourmet products.

Ambiance: The store feels like a cavernous warehouse, and a winding, maze-like path leads you through the departments. The store, built in the late '80s, is aging, but its layout works well and it's easy to find what you're looking for.

Famous for: Huge selection, especially of fresh, seasonal produce, and lots of local products. The produce department wraps on for what seems like miles. A large cheese department offers the best selection in town, and usually offers several samples. Since Whole Foods bought Harry's in 2001, the product selection has become similar in both stores, but Harry's typically offers more fresh fruits and vegetables.