Rare spices, seasonal flowers, and hyperlocal products line the shelves of épiceries, historical specialty grocers that have been revived in major cities
Shortly after noon on a recent Sunday, a 40-something Parisienne bounced into Superfrais, a specialty grocer in the 20th arrondissement, on something of a mission. “Salut les gars! I’m starving. You got any of that pizza left?” she asked excitedly. The pizza in question was a frozen personal-sized pie from Louie Louie, a popular restaurant in the 11th arrondissement owned by Alexis Poirson, who also founded Superfrais. Hortense, one of the staff members, looked up from assembling a vegetarian baguette sandwich and delivered the disappointing news: They had completely sold out midweek. “We can’t keep them in stock! Check in next week. It’ll have your name on it.”
Out the customer went and in came three other regulars — one returning for his second espresso of the day, which he sipped outside on a wooden bench, and another who went straight to the back room to pick up fresh produce for the week and scan a cookbook or two in the bookshop corner. The third clearly had his visit mapped out, beginning at the spice and condiment shelf for vegetable dashi and Maison Martin’s hot sauce, passing by the selection of eco-friendly cleaning products, continuing to the wine and spirits corner for a bottle of Pierre Cotton’s Côte de Brouilly, and then swinging around to the other side of the central counter for a made-to-order 7 euro sandwich stuffed with pistachio mortadella and lemon burrata.
The scene plays like an updated remake of the classic fantasy of French grocery shopping in which locals spend their days toting wicker baskets between purveyors at open-air markets and specialty stores. They devote hours to perusing and socializing because, as the stereotype maintains, they know what’s important in life; things like terroir, provenance, and first-name friendships with the fishmonger who gets the good line-caught dorade (see also: vacation time). Despite the France-does-it-better culinary mythology, the country has actually been moving away from this artisan culture for decades. But the afternoon’s customers at Superfrais played the part, covering all the bases advertised on the shop’s sign out front: cheese, coffee, natural wine, and — crucially — épicerie, a nearly defunct historical breed of gourmet grocers where the shopping fantasy once thrived.
The épicerie can be traced back to the Middle Ages when it defined a small shop specializing in spices sourced from around the world (“épices” means spice). Over time, other foodstuffs were added to the mix, and owners began packaging their own products and slapping their names on them. By the end of the 19th century, there was a network of namesake, family-owned shops across the country. But traditional épiceries declined throughout the 20th century as they were folded into big, multipurpose, self-service hypermarchés like Carrefour, which muscled in with high-volume, low-cost essentials.
Superfrais aims to revive that tradition, helping shoppers return to a slowed-down, more thoughtful connection to their food culture. And it’s just one of a slew of new épiceries popping up in urban centers doing the same like L’Epicerie Idéale in Marseille, Epicerie Sardine in the Basque seaside town of Ciboure, and 21 Paysans in Nice. You can find them in small towns too, like L’Epicerie in the sleepy village of Saoû which doubles as a minimart, but the new épiceries seem — and are meant to be — especially anachronistic in bustling metropoli.
“When I moved into the neighborhood, I wanted to create a food anchor, a place inspired by old village épiceries that not only carried everyday essentials but also occupied the role of a meeting place, a place for social contact,” owner Poirson says.
Historically, the quality of an épicerie often came down to the person running the place, the épicier. They were usually a broker or importer, someone “who had the sourcing acumen and contacts with producers to select rare or specialized goods,” explains Claire Pichon, editor-in-chief of food magazines Fou de Cuisine and Fou de Pâtisserie. “Consumers relied on their expertise and their keen sense for quality. They’d come for that exceptional coffee, the best canned sardines, the most outstanding olive oil, none of which you’d find anywhere else.”
It may be tempting to compare the rebirth of the épicerie with the rise of indie curated corner stores in the U.S. Like épiceries, they sell critical expertise as much as food. But the two stores aren’t born of the same legacy. The American shops largely emerged in or thanks to the digital space, mostly selling direct-to-consumer packaged goods that people can just as easily get online. The épicerie is firmly grounded in brick-and-mortar tradition, gaining customers not through novelty or Instagrammable branding, but by reviving the regional culinary know-how and personal relationships with farmers and customers that empowered épiciers of the past.
That’s true at Provisions, about 500 miles south of Superfrais, in a residential, working-class pocket of Marseille. The épicerie hosts fermentation workshops, book signings, and pop-up events with chefs and restaurateurs, acting as not only an alternative to the supermarket, but also a place to learn and exchange ideas. “We see ourselves as transmitters of culture, connecting producers, based no more than 150 kilometers [about 93 miles] from here, to consumers,” says food writer and author Jill Cousin, who opened the shop less than a year ago with retail vet Saskia Porretta as an extension of their monthly pop-up farmer’s market Hors Champs, which began in 2020.
Their nearly 2,000 products include spices from Shira, a small label of wild, organic, and rare spices sourced directly from producers; dried pastas from Puglia-based Paolo Petrilli; fine teas from Le Parti du Thé, an independent company focused on transparent and ethical sourcing; sustainable, seasonal flowers grown in Arles; canned goods and condiments from regional producers; and some of the country’s best natural wines and ciders. “I fear this digital-first turn in society, but I think if people are presented with an alternative that’s accessible, that doesn’t require traveling out of their way, they will make different choices,” Cousin adds.
Provisions occupies what was once a multilingual bookshop that operated from the 1950s until Cousin and Poretta found the space for rent in 2021. The women preserved as much of the original space as they could, including the floor-to-ceiling wooden shelves and drawers, rolling library ladder, and retro floor tiles. That it looks like a rustic cabinet of curiosities is precisely the point. In order to draw in locals of all ages and budgets, including the sizable group of retirees with modest pensions who have lived most of their lives in the neighborhood, the space needed visually familiar and reassuring design codes; the old world aesthetics seem especially inviting in contrast to the contemporary, Scandi-style fit-outs that appear in many trendy stores meant solely for younger customers.
And while they carry some higher-ticket items, such as smoked fish, soy sauce made in Touraine, and cookbooks that may reach 30 to 40 euros, inclusive pricing was central to their vision. “There’s a woman who comes every week to buy one single flower because she can’t afford much more, but after we talked about how 80 percent of flowers sold in France are sourced from far away, she knows that it’s a better choice no matter how many she buys,” says Poretta.
Today, the superstores that killed the original épiceries are in sharp decline. Philippe Moati, co-founder of the Observatoire Société et Consommation, argues this is a reaction to what he calls the dehumanization of commerce. “Those stores are associated with overconsumption and excess, which society at large is rejecting more and more due to broad awareness of its environmental implications,” he says in the documentary Hypermarchés: la Chute de L’Empire (Hypermarkets: Fall of the Empire). Whether you chalk it up as a backlash against mass consumption and big box stores, a gradual realization that our ways of shopping as a society have distanced us from the sources of our food, or a response to the glaring sameness of contemporary shopping, the reaction has helped foster the épicerie’s revival.
“I think there’s definitely a bit of nostalgia for rural life wrapped up in this [resurgence],” says Mathieu Magnaudeix, an author and journalist for Mediapart. “That idea of proximity, of reconnecting with a community as if in a small village even if you live in the big city.”
Citydwellers may be trading Carrefour for corner stores, but that’s cold comfort to the residents of small towns who have lost the very shops that inspired new urban counterparts. Magnaudeix has vivid childhood memories of the regulars who would frequent his grandparent’s lively épicerie, which they ran across from the Périgueux train station in the Dordogne from the late 1950s until their retirement in 1992. Today, most of the businesses in that town of 30,000 residents have either shuttered entirely or struggle to stay afloat. Somewhere along the line Magnaudeix’s grandparents’ épicerie became a Hertz car rental office.
The 2008 global financial crisis hollowed out much of the rural economy and left many main streets deserted. Instead of shoring up small businesses, local leaders invested in one-stop shops and modernist shopping centers on the outskirts of town. Whatever specialty shops that survived in the years following the economic nosedive were miraculous exceptions, and access to quality produce and ingredients remains limited in many areas.
Small and medium sized towns need an épicerie revival as much as major cities — and paradoxically they’ve gotten a taste of that since the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced the closure of many other small businesses. Over the last few years, the government classified some traditional food shops as essential and permitted them to stay open during prolonged lockdowns, giving residents a chance to rediscover their utility and value.
Still, there are other threats to the burgeoning épicerie movement, supermarket chains like Monoprix and Franprix have taken note of the trend, shifting their own strategies to add locally made and small-batch products to shelves, from craft beer to mustards, and install cafe-style counter seats for shoppers to eat ready-made meals. Pichon also warns that some stores posturing as épiceries actually source their goods from Rungis, the world’s largest food market wholesaler on the outskirts of the capital. “If you don’t do your research and waltz into any old épicerie in Paris, Strasbourg, or Metz, you’ll find the same olive oil, the same tea, the same canned fish,” she says. France also isn’t immune to digital commerce. While the rate of online food shopping remains marginal compared to the U.S., hovering at 8.9 percent of food retail sales, it is growing. According to the data analytics firm Kantar, that figure could exceed 10 percent by 2023.
As much as the épicerie resurgence is about rejecting modern shopping habits and preserving the past, it’s also about creating a new future, part of a larger recalibration across French culture in the last decade. A generation of creative entrepreneurs has confronted unprecedented instability and the decline of heritage trades.They’ve realized that big corporations are not going to be the drivers of change as they claimed to be, can’t protect French manufacturing, and won’t curb excess consumption and waste for the sake of the planet. Those frustrations have fostered a massive wave of career shifts in fashion, design, and food, as people drop off the corporate ladder to become cheesemongers and farm-to-table chefs — often looking backward to look forward. Reviving these shops is a way of acknowledging the écpierie’s historical function in the French food landscape and suggesting they can once again serve as a vital piece of small town and urban social life — one frozen artisanal pizza or flower at a time.
Lindsey Tramuta is a Paris-based culture and travel journalist and the author of The New Paris and The New Parisienne: The Women & Ideas Shaping Paris.