When I visited France earlier this summer, I had no intention of eating so many chips.
Before the trip, I imagined croissants, choux à la crème, jambon-beurre sandwiches, let alone dishes I had never heard of and had yet to discover. And boy, did he taste all those flavors. But as I landed at Charles de Gaulle Airport on my way to the US, a bag of Lay’s Poulet Rôti caught my eye on a relay! convenience store, and I couldn’t help but think, why not? What is one more bag? With that, I happily purchased the fried chicken flavored fries and left to wait to board my flight to New York.
Why does this particular appetizer in France (from an American brand, no less) have such an effect on me? It’s a question I asked myself in the checkout line and still ask myself now. I think it’s part nostalgia, part fantasy. When I’m shopping in a French supermarket, I pretend, if only for the moments between browsing the aisles and exiting the automatic doors, that my time there is not temporary. And that’s why whenever I travel, I always visit local supermarkets and some regional chain stores as well.
Do not worry. When I travel, I keep visiting cold the eateries that friends, social media, and, of course, magazines tell me I should experience, but my favorite local grocery stores and chains have truly held my heart.
It all started on a family trip to Philadelphia in high school. I made my parents stop at a Wawa convenience store so I could try the coffee because I had heard about the chain from a Tumblr blogger. Coming from southern California, I had romanticized the idea of such extensive menu offerings (coffee, hot hoagies, milkshakes!) from a place where you could also pump your own gas. At the time, it never occurred to me that my hometown chain, In-N-Out Burger, could be a tourist destination for others.
The list goes on: Tim Horton’s was an absolute must on a trip to Montreal, and Dutch Bros. was a must-stop on an Oregonian road trip a few years ago. It almost doesn’t matter if the food is good, although that certainly helps, but the experience of ordering morning coffee or takeout from a place where thousands of locals do every day is what ultimately makes me feel immersed in a destination. Why should you take time to visit a local establishment while traveling? Let me count the ways.
You will discover delicious foods that can become your best souvenirs.
On my aforementioned trip to France, my boyfriend and I hit a supermarket in Paris late one afternoon, knowing it wouldn’t be dinner time until at least 9pm, looking for some snacks.
The Poulet Rôti chips immediately caught my eye. I remembered buying them almost as a joke with my brother on a previous vacation, but I found them to be really tasty. They don’t actually taste like chicken, but a delicious mix of herbs and lots of salt.
This time around, whenever we passed a Carrefour or Monoprix, we would pop in for a quick stop to grab some chips, often a much-needed snack between meals, strolls and vintage shopping. They became such a staple that on our last night in Paris, we grabbed the Poulet Rôti again, as well as a bottle of wine, and sat along the Canal Saint-Martin, enjoying the unapologetic French food as much as our canal view. .
You will learn about the local culture of a destination in an authentic way.
As we walked the market aisles that first day in Paris, I grabbed the chips without hesitation. However, I saw other shoppers (apparently Parisian) grabbing boxes of cookies, glass bottles of juice, chunks of cheese and fresh produce, imagining what dishes they would whip up once they got home to their chic Parisian apartments. (In this supermarket dream, they always return to elegant Parisian apartments).
They were gathering supplies to make dinner, feed their kids, or make a dessert to bring to a party, just like I do at home. But getting to see, touch and smell their local ingredients offers a glimpse into the lives of locals in a way you can’t experience just by walking the streets or visiting museums.
I asked a few friends if they shared a similar fascination with grocery shopping when they travel, and surprisingly, there was a lot of agreement. A friend mentioned developing a love for Jaffa Cakes and Hob Nobs while living in London, and these foods are deeply connected to her memories of her time there. Another even went so far as to say that growing up, her mother took her to local grocery stores “literally everywhere we traveled.”
You’ll have a reason to come back (and a mission when you get home).
Of course, it didn’t take long for me to find out if I could buy Lay’s Poulet Rôti Fries back in New York. At first I had no luck. I saw Reddit threads and Tweets admiring the snack and more online discourse than you’d expect a simple potato chip to garner. And while they’re possible to order online from a third-party vendor, you’re likely gambling your sanity (and food safety) to do so.
That said, some brands like SnackCrate offer international food subscription boxes, making foreign foods more accessible, both for travelers looking to relive their favorite trips and for those looking for a taste of home if they’ve been away away. But perhaps the elusiveness of these travel-discovered foods is part of their allure—you have to enjoy them while you can, in the hopes that one day you’ll return and taste their salty, vaguely chicken-like goodness again. .
While a grocery or convenience store may not be the first stop on your next trip, I’d suggest squeezing one in between those sightseeing tours, museums, and Michelin-starred restaurants. You’ll get a glimpse of life in another country, whether it’s across the country or the world, and you’ll gain an appreciation for delicacies and ingredients you wouldn’t be able to find at home. You might even find your new favorite potato chip flavor.