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You bought it where? 3 surprising places to go shopping for food

Anyone can shop at a big-box store or a mall. Fight the crowds, see the same stuff as everyone else, grab a few candy canes at the supermarket.

Been there, bought that.

Lately, though, another kind of food shopping has been popping up on our radar: Hidden shopportunities. That’s when you find something you like – and in my case, that’s always food – being sold in places you wouldn’t expect. Pickled okra on the shelf at a men’s store. A store hidden in the back of a restaurant. Places that have things you don’t expect in places you wouldn’t have looked.

In honor of the holiday shopping season, I went out to shine a light in a few hidden pockets of the food-shopping universe.

Where’s the no-beef?

There so much that’s unexpected about Bean Vegan Cuisine on Independence Boulevard. It’s one of only a few fully vegan restaurants statewide and the first in Charlotte (about darn time, too) and it’s located in a building that looks like a former Pizza Hut.

Recently, though, co-owner Charlie Foesch and his partners have added a new wrinkle by turning a room at the back into a vegan store.

There are shelves lined with Butler Soy Curls from Oregon, Earth Balance chips and canned jackfruit. There’s a refrigerator case with Daiya vegan cheese products and Bean’s own dressings and crackers. The freezer section is so popular, they’re already planning to expand it to make room for more frozen fishless filets.

“Hot diggety vegan dog,” as Foesch likes to say. Besides Charlotte vegans, the store has been a hit with out-of-towners. He’s gotten groups who have traveled together from other towns because there isn’t a 100 percent vegan store anywhere else in the state.

The store also gets a wide variety of local customers, from the health-focused to the animal-rights groups.

“People who want to be vegan can come shop and see what there is, and vegans who don’t want to see the meat ‘aisle of doom’ (at a natural-foods supermarket) can come in,” Foesch says.

Some of the products are things used in the restaurant, while others are products that are hard to find elsewhere. There are also extensions of familiar brands, such as Newman’s Own dried fruit and Annie’s Naturals condiments. You can even get Magic Vegan Bacon Grease, if you’re so inclined.

Tie one on

With his ponytail and humor, Bruce Julian has always put the dash in haberdashery. At his men’s clothing store in the Arboretum, Bruce Julian Clothiers, you can tap in a putt on a putting green and admire his collection of bar-themed vintage wind-up toys while you get measured for a suit.

Now you can pick up the makings for a whole Bloody Mary bar. Julian stocks his Bruce Julian’s Bloody Mary mix in sizes from small to gallon jugs, plus accoutrements like pickled okra, pickled green beans and rimmers for dipping glasses. He also sells a few other local products, including chow-chow and Charlotte-made KW Collards.

The store is in the midst of packing up. It’s moving Dec. 28 to a new location on Selwyn Avenue near Brandywine. But Julian promises that the food (and the toys) will come along in the move.

Is that you, Santa Claus?

The Community Culinary School of Charlotte has always been a hidden gem. In the original location on Distribution Street, near Remount Road, the school shared space with Friendship Trays while it trained hard-to-employ people, many recovering from homelessness or addiction, for jobs in food service.

Now it’s got a whole new space, in the Greylyn Business Park on Monroe Road, and a new mission, with a cafe and bakery to add retail experience to the training program.

“We needed to branch out,” says the executive director, Ron Ahlert. “Customer service experience is needed.” The new cafe lets them serve customers every day.

The large teaching kitchen in back sports new stoves, ovens and high-end cooking equipment like a blast chiller, bought with the help of Electrolux, and more space for class work and job counseling. They’ve also added training for veterans.

In the front, there are bakery cases and daily lunch specials of soups and sandwiches.

The official grand opening will be the week of Valentine’s Day, but the bakery and cafe are already open for the holidays, if you need to pick up a quick lunch or a dozen pastries for your office.

“We’ll always be a training facility” says Ahlert. “But we can grow from this.”

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