Whole Foods' crowded world
Free-range chickens come home to roost
by Sally Mitani
What new trick does Whole Foods Market have up its sleeve for its new store scheduled to open in late September at Cranbrook Village in the old Mervyns? A bakery? A deli? Those are child's play: Kroger has been doing them for years. Sushi? A smokehouse? Wood-fired pizza ovens? All now obligatory. A create-your-own-artisanal-cheese-named-after-you counter? Surprisingly, even Whole Foods isn't doing that one yet.
But the new store does have a big innovation. And it isn't a food offering-it's what you can drink with that food. This Whole Foods holds a Class C liquor license, so you'll be able to order your sushi / thin-crust pizza / smoked brisket, buy a bottle of wine, and enjoy them together in the cafe. Thursday from 5 to 7 p.m. is happy hour, with wine tastings and light appetizers. Sake will be available at the sushi bar. Once again, a high-end grocery store has found a place to go where no other store has gone-in this case, stepping right onto the toes of the city's sit-down restaurants.
The liquor license is the big ta-da, but Kate Klotz, Whole Foods' Midwest spokesperson, ticks off a number of other attractions: increased wine and cheese selections, a baby department (food, clothes, and care items all pulled together in one section), smokehouseside seating.
The question on everyone's mind is whether the west side of Ann Arbor can handle another high-end grocery store. These Whole Foods stores are big ships to turn around: the company applied for the Class C liquor license four years ago, says Klotz. The small craft-Fresh Seasons and the original Arbor Farms-got to the west side first, followed by the progressively larger and even more tricked-out new Arbor Farms and Plum Market. Whole Foods arrives like the Queen Mary 2 docking in a busy harbor. Good Lord, isn't our little marina full yet?
The problem not just here but all over the country is that the supply of fancy grocery stores may have outstripped
the demand. Whole Foods Market in particular has taken some very big hits lately. The company started in Austin, Texas, in 1980 and grew to around 300 stores-thanks, first, to its genius in identifying a surprisingly large, well-heeled demographic sector who were willing to pay much higher prices for high-quality food than anyone had previously realized. But then-bonus!-Whole Foods discovered that, paradoxically, those same people really weren't all that excited about cooking. After putting the expensive artisanal free-range raw food in the cart, they'd head to the other end of the store and buy the same stuff already cooked at even steeper prices.
Whole Foods' stock took a dive last year from $53 to around (as of this writing) $18 a share. Food prices are up, paychecks down. America's ambivalence over its perhaps out-of-control demand for luxury foods was beautifully played out in the national media this summer when Whole Foods was oddly entangled in a voluntary beef recall that backfired. When Whole Foods discovered that one of its minor suppliers, Coleman Natural Beef, was associated with questionable slaughterhouses and E. coli infections (in ground beef destined for Kroger meat counters), it voluntarily recalled all its Coleman beef. Though no tainted beef had ever passed through Whole Foods (which, Klotz points out, grinds its own hamburger, and therefore was never remotely associated with the scandal), and though Whole Foods had acted quickly and responsibly to distance itself from a problematic supplier, customers read the story differently. The revelation that Whole Foods and Kroger used any of the same suppliers at all, ever, shocked some Whole Foods customers. As Klotz says, "Well, that was a bad week around here."
Klotz says gamely that Whole Foods is ultimately energized by the local competition. "It really gives us a larger customer base," she says. "We are proud of what we do." She says Whole Foods is responding to concerns about rising food prices by "value messaging, by calling out items with excellent price points-like our 365 private label, which you'll see a lot more of at this new store."
Whole Foods Market, 990 West Eisenhower Parkway (Cranbrook Village), 997-7500. Daily 8 a.m.-10 p.m. wholefoodsmarket.com
[Originally published in October, 2008.]