A juggling unicyclist beside a Market District ice sculpture greeted shoppers this morning at the grand opening of the newly dubbed Pine Market District, which until yesterday was known simply as Giant Eagle.
By 9 a.m. cars filled the parking lot, and shoppers meandered through the tasting stations inside as a full day of festivities began to celebrate the store's new status.
The grand opening festivities will continue through Sunday in the store at 155 Towne Centre Drive in Wexford, which is the fifth Market District in the Giant Eagle chain. The others are in the South Hills, Shadyside, Robinson and Columbus OH.
Celebrity chefs, ice sculptors, a cheese carver, an ice-skating rink in the parking lot, food samples and characters dressed up like an Italian chef, Willy Wonka and the Queen of the Snow Elves are some of the fun things shoppers are seeing today.
A crowd surrounded TLC's Cake Boss Buddy Valastro at a 1 p.m. signing for his latest book, Baking with the Cake Boss: 100 of Buddy's Best Recipes and Decorating Secrets.
The Cake Boss gave his fans hugs, posed for photos and signed books as non-ticket-holders stood nearby, also taking photos. All 250 free tickets were quickly distributed.
At 4 p.m., chef Michael Isabella stood before a stand-room-only crowd. He was the runner-up on Bravo's Top Chef, Season 6. He is the chef/owner of Graffiato in Washington, D.C.
Rob Borella, senior director of marketing and corporate communications for Giant Eagle, was kind enough to give me a personal tour of the store.
After seeing 60 kinds of olives, hundreds of types of cheese, blue crabs and lobsters, gourmet doggie treats, a smoothie bar, chickens on a rotisserie, escargot and the regular grocery-store stuff (such as Coca-Cola), I simply asked:
"Is there anything you don't have?"
With a laugh, he told me that they could not find a gripper (the kind you use on sealed bottle tops) the previous night when they were taking something apart.
But he was certain there was one somewhere. They just had not found it.
The Market District concept is to marry the usual grocery store items with an emphasis on perishables, Borella said.
He then proceeded to give me a tour through the produce section—which looks like a colorful indoor farmers' market with a large selection of fruits and vegetables. Then we wandered past the hot soup bar, the cold food bar and the hot food bar.
Shoppers can get food to take home or sit in the cafe to eat it. You can even get a glass of beer or wine to go with it from the "spirits" section.
"We're one of the first stores offering beer and wine by the glass," Borella said.
There are six types of beer on tap, and eight wines will be seasonally rotated. Borella said that the store will offer a lighter fare in the wines selection in the spring.
Next to the beer and wine section, customers can buy pizzas that are popped into an oven to order. Next to that is a made-to-order sub bar, where you can get 14-inch subs.
Then there are cases filled with ready-made foods that make it easy for customers to pick up dinner on the way home, or they can simply ask to have it warmed up at the store and eat it in the cafe.
"Everything is handmade on-site," Borella said.
Chickens rotate on a rotisserie as a fire blazes beneath them, and Market District's sushi chefs prepare fresh sushi.
The colorful olive bar has 60 varieties. Near it is a section dedicated to hundreds of types of cheese from around the world.
Sarah Kaufmann was carving a scene into a 1,115-pound block of cheddar cheese as we walked by. A nearby employee handed out cheddar samples.
"It makes shopping more fun," Kaufmann told me later as she explained the carving. "Once people taste it, they feel better about buying it."
The bakery has "a plethora of fresh-baked goods," said Borella as he pointed out breads, pastries, cakes, bagels, donuts and muffins. There also are hand-dipped chocolates and fudge.
Borella said his favorite baked good is the cheesecake with chunks of carrot cake on the top. (Mental note: What diet? Must have that cake.)
Market District chefs will do cooking demonstrations daily, said Borella. Celebrity chefs also will make presentations in the store's demonstration area.
Market District's chefs "are folks who have been classically trained in the culinary arts," Borella said. The Pine Market District employs 350 people.
"The last stop on the perishables ring is the meat and seafood cases," said Borella.
The seafood case is where shoppers will find items they usually don't find in the seafood section of a grocery store—escargot, oysters, lobster, blue crab, snow crab, different types of fish were on display today.
"The new Market District certified-Angus beef (in the meat case) is the prime cut of beef," he said. "We have dry-aged beef as well."
Of course, that is not unique enough. The meat cases also hold venison, rabbit and duck.
"There's quite a wide selection," Borella said.
"We think of Market District as a food destination concept," he explained.
Then we moved into the candy and bulk sections.
"We tend to blow out the candy sections and bulk foods," he said, as we moved into an area with bulk coffee, rice, granola, nuts, candies, sugar and more.
The international section has more than 7,000 items in it, with the aisles marked with signs for Italian, British, German, Asian, Hispanic, Mediterranean, Greek, Kosher and Indian foods.
The store also has the "regular" grocery-store items such as Tide, Coke and Oreos.
The health, beauty and wellness center is like a "store within a store," Borella said, pointing out the aromatic fresh-cut soap on display.
"You can find things here you don't usually find in a grocery store," he said.
Next to the pharmacy is a consultation room where a customer can meet with a dietitian to discuss nutrition needs.
The dietitian "can help you choose the right kinds of foods around the store," said Borella.
When the weather warms up, he said the store will do outside events such as grilling.
"We try to make shopping an experience," he said.
Considering I spent the day wandering around the store, taking photos, talking to folks, sampling food and drink, I guess you could say it was an experience.
Chow for now! (I know the Italian spelling is "ciao," but "chow" seemed more appropriate today.)