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Whole Foods is scary.. but in a good way

Published from Addis Ababa in Ethiopia where internet access is… challenging.

Last week I went to Whole Foods Market, the US “natural foods grocer” that opened in London on 6th June. It took over a splendid Art Deco building in Hight Street Kensington, where Barkers department store used to be. The store is spacious and even full of people it is still easy to walk around. The design is effective both in presentation and logistics. The prices are comparable but more importantly the selection consists of products sourced locally as well as internationally.

Whole Foods Market in London

Whole Foods market in London

It was a slice of US retail at its best imported to this country but without crowding out the best of local stuff. I found my favourite British products in varieties I did not even know existed. There are whole sections labelled “Best of British”. Fortunately, Wholefoods also passes on the lesson learnt from decades of gross junk foods in the US and there is a great selection of tortilla and no transfats chips, i.e. junk food with damage limitation. I have not seen the awful Walkers crisps but then I was not looking for them. :-)

There is no question that the contrast between the experience of shopping in Wholefoods and then going to Waitrose or M&S a few yards down the same street will have a profound impact on the supermarkets in the UK. If I were M&S, Waitrose, Holland & Barrett or any other retailer marking up organic, green and sustainably virtuous products, I’d be quaking in my boots. There was a man walking around the entrance to Wholefoods with a board for M&S inviting people to come & taste their food. A bit transparent methinks. He could have just as well have ‘losers’ tattooed on his forehead.

Whole Foods market in London

There is also no question that some green people in the UK will splutter venom at the sight of Whole Foods. Why? Because this is the opposite of what they are trying to achieve. They want us to stop consuming and here is a Texan bigga betta supermarket barging in, taking over one of the London’s splendid and capitalist buildings (the façade has carvings of ships and even a de Havilland jet plane) telling us that spending on their produce will satisfy our consumerist cravings, make them plenty of money and will be better for our bodies and the planet. Aaarrgh! I predict a barrage of attempts to find ‘fraudulently’ green, natural or organic products at Whole Foods as the hair-shirted, sandal wearing hoards comb through the aisles. I also predict that they will end up green with envy. I shall refrain from going into more organic details.

Whole Foods market in London

33 comments to Whole Foods is scary.. but in a good way

  • YogSothoth

    Whole Foods kicks ass. Interestingly enough, although you might think the founder of such a company might be of the leftopian persuasion, you’d be mistaken.

  • By “they”, do you mean WFMI or the hoards?

  • Julian Taylor

    Presumably cost isn’t an issue then for Wholefoods in their nice Hyde Park location, must be rather like shopping at Harrods or Selfridges and then being able to declaim the same M&S or Waitrose for not being up to that standard.

    Have said that I personally wouldn’t even consider trying to compare any UK or USA food store to another country. Every country has its own peculiarities and oddities and I daresay that even in France you could quite easily discover a store as truly awful as J.Sainsbury seems to have descended to in much of the UK. I certainly wouldn’t attack Waitrose, which has a standard for food way above the rest.

  • Eric Blair

    The Whole Foods that I’ve visited in the US didn’t strike me as much different from better locations of local chains, such as Shoprite and Wegmans. Both of those NE US chains have ‘organic’ choices, with prices the same. There is different local “organic” market, called Trader Joe’s, that I would class as more trendy, and catering to singles and couples, with lots of ‘organic’ convience foods (if you can wrap your head around that concept).

    I will find it interesting to see what effect if any, this on UK food retailing.

  • guy herbert

    M&S is in no danger. It addresses the market segment that prefers food not to taste to much of anything. “Creamy” is the only adjective they’ll use.

    Marylebone just got a superupmarket organic grocer too:
    http://www.thenaturalkitchen.com/
    The prices are currently frightening off even our locals, and definitely this poor boy.

    Is this a symptom of the stretching of all markets to accomodate the ballooning of wealth at the upper end of the distribution? (Of which we now have a lot in fancy bits of London. I had to take a hike round a bran-new Maybach to press my nose against the window of the Natural Kitchen yesterday.)

  • Daveon

    I’m not sure that Whole Foods presents much of a threat to Waitrose or M&S.

    The quality of supermarkets in the UK is already a notch above most of the major US chains or local retail powers (I’m thinking Safeway and Albertons here on the West Coast). Seattle has QFC which still is below the standard of even an average Sainsbury. The closest to a good UK supermarket is Metropolitan Markets, which aren’t bad at all, but not as good as Waitrose.

    The new Whole Foods on the other hand is way above the rest of the supermarkets in the area, however, it is hugely expensive. Where I lived in London, Waitrose was my local supermarket so I was used to paying a premium, but even at $2=£1 I balk at the bill in Whole Foods.

    It will be good to see some more competition in the UK supermarket sector (before Tesco takes over everything else), but I suspect that they’ll stay a niche player and Waitrose and M&S will adapt.

  • Jerry

    We call it ‘Whole Paycheck’ here in the US. I rarely go, except they have the best chocolate cake I have ever had – and I have tasted a lot!

  • Isn’t the guy that runs the company a libertarian?

  • Rusty

    Definitely have heard the “Whole Paycheck” line here as well… and I can’t lie, the Trader Joe’s opening within a couple miles of my house makes my trips to Whole Foods basically nonexistent.

    Though I’m interested in a European P.O.V. on the place. My understanding from my colleagues here is that the price of food in general is much higher in UK and Europe in general versus the US… is this really the case?

  • Anne

    Forget WholeFoods and Trader Joe’s. For my fellow Americans (and Canadians) out there, if you’re lucky, a Super H Mart has opened up near you.

    This mega-store is like nothing you’ve ever experienced. Even though these stores are huge (the one near me is 54,000 sq ft), the place is spotless, the people are friendly and the selection mindboggling. They have everything you could think of and things you’ve never heard of before.

    Meat, produce and fish are fresh. The seafood department is so fresh, customers can pick out their catch from the aquarium-sized pools and the fishmonger will descale and debone it in front of you. Not for the squeamish. The fruits and veggies are so big and amazing-looking, that they don’t look natural.

    Best of all, not only is everything fresh, it’s cheaper than their competitors – really cheaper. Sometimes I’m so amazed at the prices, I become wary of the products. I’m still waiting to hear what the catch is.

    It’s a Korean supermarket chain that’s quickly building a huge following – both Asians and non-Asians. Since there are less than 20 across North America, the bigger chains don’t have much to fear – YET.

    God, I love competition!

  • Kevin B

    As one whose favorite recipe is ‘Remove outer packaging, pierce film lid and place in pre-heated oven on gas mark 5 for 25-30 mins’, I don’t have a dog in this fight, or probably much standing to comment on the ‘virtues’ of various retailers and their organic foods.

    As long as the gubmint don’t interfere with my food choices any more on the specious grounds that I might cost the NHS too much money, I’m all for canny entrepeneurs giving the public what they want, even if the whole organic food kerfuffle is barely as science based as Global Warming

  • Matt

    I live in Austin, TX, home of Whole Foods. The London store sounds a lot like the flagship store here, which would mean it is considerably larger and more impressive than most Whole Foods locations. The regular stores are still good, but not nearly as impressive as these mega-stores. I think these larger stores only exist in a couple cities here in the US.

  • Daveon

    My understanding from my colleagues here is that the price of food in general is much higher in UK and Europe in general versus the US… is this really the case?

    I think its hard to make a real comparison. If you like buying basic, fresh ingrediants and making your meals from scratch, you’ll probably find the UK actually is cheaper than the US. I certainly do. If you prefer to buy bulk products and eat a lot of meat, then the US will be cheaper.

    The other issue is that there is more uniformity of certain pricing in the UK so you can do all your shopping in one place and get similar stuff. In Seattle, if I want reasonably priced Wine I need to go somewhere different to the place I get my normal shopping – it was the same in California when I lived there.

    There’s a lot of stuff that I find strangely expensive in the parts of the US where I live/have lived – including decent cheese (a small piece of craft cheese here is about 5 times what I’d pay for it in the UK), good quality fresh bread, wine (see above), some fruit and veg, certain canned goods.

    On the whole beef is a lot cheaper, as are some veges.

    OTOH – I find some of the fruit to be of a generally lower quality than I was used to buying in Waitrose, especially Apples and Strawberries. Oranges and other citrus are generally better.

    I’ve actually given up making pasta sauces from scratch because the cost of the raw materials makes it a real waste of money, and we bought a bread maker because we were sick and tired of forking out so much money for bread that we were prepared to eat.

    In other general weirdness, I’ve not yet had American store milk go off in the fridge – which is pretty freaky when you come back from a 2 week business trip and find the milk is still ok – then again, in the UK I wouldn’t have to buy milk by the gallon.

  • Ava

    I wanted to thank you for posting the outside picture of the store. I went to an American university just around the corner from there and remember taking a shortcut through that Barkers. And I remember longing for a big grocery store nearby (I settled for Waitrose at the other end of the street- and I liked it a great deal).

    With Urban Outfitters just across the street (and the ubiquitous GAP store), High Street Ken is fast becoming a haven of American imports. I think Banana Republic will be there soon.

    It is also very interesting to me that the building just beyond NatWest is STILL under construction. I graduated two years ago- anyone know what is taking so long?

  • William

    The assertion that Whole Foods is hugely expensive is completely wrong. Open your eyes and do the actual price comparison instead of just reiterating what you’ve heard. On a like-for-like basis, Whole Foods offers the lowest prices in the market. You will also not find better product quality or a company more committed to its customers, the environment, and employees.

  • guy herbert

    Gosh isn’t the world a bigsmall place?

    Ava, I used to live opposite that university. I haven’t been to High Street Ken regularly recently though, so I couldn’t answer the building beyond NatWest question.

    William, Are you and Whole Foods by any chance related? Your comment reads rather like a corporate line.

    Most Samizdatistas and most of our visistors would concur that value for money is a subjective judgment for the consumer to make. Hence my remark about M&S being in no danger.

    For MY taste, M&S is more expensive than Whole Foods. I like its food offering less than any supermarket above Aldi in the pecking order, but parallel (rather than like-for-like which is meaningless) products are usually more expensive than Waitrose. But it has a very loyal customer-base.

    My parents couldn’t afford to shop there, but they were in most respects in its target market and utterly convinced that M&S food was excellent, the sort of thing eaten by the upper middle classes. I have two friends, one wealthy enough to shop anywhere, one who needs intensive treatment from Alvin Hall, both of whom scarcely go anywhere else. But neither of them would touch the same store’s clothes, despite its irresitible cheapness in commodity underwear, socks, t-shirts and so forth.

    De gustibus non est disputandum? Well maybe. Like a lot of sayings, it is the wrong way round if you think about it. In matters of taste there is endless dispute, but there’s never a single right answer.

    Cf. Sting’s “Cocaine is God’s way of telling you you can have too much money.” Actually, it is just one sign that however much money you have, you can find a way of getting rid of it. Which is the point of Whole Foods, The Natural Kitchen, et. al.

  • Sunfish

    William:

    I’ll concede this: Whole Foods has better sushi than one should ever expect from a supermarket.

    That being said, their prices above anything that Albertsons or Kroger can do for comparable goods in my corner of the western US, and are even slightly above Safeway.To say nothing of the prices of nonperishables at Costco. (Or Sam’s Club, if you don’t share my utter hatred and contempt for every work of the Walton family…)

    Actually, come to think of it, they run more or less even with Wild Oats here, aside from Wild Oats’ liberal-guilt-assauaging “fair trade” coffee being a little better IMHO. (Green Mountain Roasters Guatemalan Gold is da caffeinated bomb, yo.)

  • llamas

    Sunfish wrote:

    ‘I’ll concede this: Whole Foods has better sushi than one should ever expect from a supermarket.’

    Funny – my local Kroger supermarket has a sushi bar, where sushi is made-to-order while-you-wait, and it beats the pants off the sushi on offer at the Whole Foods in Ann Arbor.

    Regarding US vs Europe food prices, the simple rule-of-thumb is – for good, basic food, the US is way ahead. I would venture to say that, on average, the US food bill is half that in Europe. When we take European visitors to a Costco or a WalMart and they see the prices, and the quality, of staple foods, they often have to sit down and be ‘revived with ices at Buols.’

    For extremely-fancy food, the US is probably twice as expensive as Europe. If you just must have real prosciutto di Parma or le vrai Reblochon, you’re going to pay for it. A lot.

    Whole Foods is already seeing a backlash in the US, for not being sufficiently ideologically pure. They discourage unions, they don’t kowtow to the FairTrade nonsense, they enthusiatically sell meat, and so forth. That’s the trouble with catering to an audience with more than its fair share of lefties and ‘progressives’ – their lives revolve around the idea of ‘holier than thou’ and they’ll turn on you very quickly. In Ann Arbor, many folks sneer at Whole Foods as the place where middle-class housewives with more money than sense shop for what they think is really good food – the poor suckers. We, of course, the anointed few, have already moved on to an even-more-ideologically pure place to buy OUR food. At this level, food becomes a statement of fashion and politics as much as a matter of nutrition.

    llater,

    llamas

  • Millie Woods

    I live on the Canadian side of the Niagara River and we regularly go to the Wegman’s in Niagara Falls, NY. You have to understand that Niagara Falls, Ny is not sophistication central being definitely a downmarket sort of place. Still the Wegman’s is fabulous in layout, presentation and variety to say nothing of the cheery helpful staff. The closest thing to Wegman’s on the Canadian side is Sobey’s a Stellarton (depressed Nova Scotian coal mining town) based company which has recently moved into upper Canada giving the Weston family’s supermarkets some real competition. As for prices in the UK and EU – I often wonder how people can afford to eat there. Right now in my area it’s asparagus and strawberry time with the former selling at much less than a pound per pound!

  • William

    Herbert — just a loyal customer. I have read a lot about the company and its mission.

    Sunfish — for comparable organic products, Whole Foods pricing is at worst equal to and in many cases lower than Alberstons or Kroger. The WF 365 product line will almost always be cheaper. A lot of the confusion stems from the fact that within a given product category WF will often offer a wide range of products with a correspondingly wide range in prices.

    Llamas — you sure do like to stereotype people. WF strives to make a positive impact on society and I suspect that on average that attribute is the primary common thread among its customers. You may prefer to shop at Kroger but in terms of commitment to customers, environment, employees, product quality and philanthropy for that matter, Kroger does not match WF.

  • Sam

    For comparable things, Whole Foods is usually competitive, though… Organic Valley 1% Lactose Free Milk: $4.29/half gallon at Whole Foods, $3.69/half gallon at Giant.

  • Daveon

    When we take European visitors to a Costco or a WalMart and they see the prices, and the quality, of staple foods, they often have to sit down and be ‘revived with ices at Buols.

    It depends what you’re defining at “staples”. You certainly can’t expect to buy the same things around the US. I had friends from the NW of the UK who moved to South LA and found it impossible to buy good quality food *like* they’d buy in Preston. The reality is they needed to adjust their diet accordingly.

    But I’ll admit I’m frequently highly disappointed with the quality of the food in my local Supermarkets, and while there is the occasional bargin in CostCo (Beecher’s Cheese at $10 a kg) a lot of their stuff isn’t all that good. Their eggs are cheap but pretty dreadful when you try to eat them, likewise I’ve bought pounds of apples and strawberries there and thrown them away as tasteless.

    I think it depends on what you buy and your typical diet. If you want a month’s supply of “quick” meals and basic meat, then the US is probably half the price of the UK; if you want something more then you’ll pay through the nose. I do.

    OTOH – the other difference is, you tend to eat at home a lot less living in the US than if you live in Europe.

  • llamas

    William chastised me, thusly:

    ‘Llamas — you sure do like to stereotype people. WF strives to make a positive impact on society and I suspect that on average that attribute is the primary common thread among its customers. You may prefer to shop at Kroger but in terms of commitment to customers, environment, employees, product quality and philanthropy for that matter, Kroger does not match WF. ‘

    I guess my feeble attempt at irony and/or projection fell flat. My comments were not meant to be in the first person, but rather to ridicule the soi-disant elitists of Ann Arbor who think this way. I apologize if I was not clear. FTR, however, yes, I do like to stereotype people, since streoetypes, while often flawed and incomplete, are suprisingly-often quite accurate.

    Regarding Costco and the like – I can see where we are all going to be forver stumbling over definitions. A lot of the comments about Costco and US supermarkets seem to be complaining about the fact that they don’t sell, what stores in Europe or elsewhere sell. Well, guess what – Costco, and WalMart, and all the rest, sell what local consumers want to buy – not what consumers 5,000 miles away want to buy. So your Brit expats couldn’t buy food *like* they used to buy in Preston in a SoCal Costco? I’ll bet that an expat from SoCal might have the same sort of problems in Preston . . . . .

    Costco (my Costco, anyway) sells excellent meat and fish at silly-low prices. Staples like sugar, salt, flour, rice ASF, same way – six varieties of Basmati rice, both Indian and Texan – what the hell more do you want? They sell a full line of imported, President-brand dairy products – this is the average, budget-economy brand of France. Plenty of imported specialty items, including one speciality confection from my native land which they sell for exactly 25% of what Whole Foods in Ann Arbor charges for the identical item.

    The thing is – Costco and WalMart and all the rest of them don’t hold themselves out to be anything special when it comes to food – unlike Whole Foods and their ilk, who sell food as a lifestyle choice as well as mere nutrition.

    In a nutshell – for food as fuel, the US is far cheaper than anyplace in Europe – as much as 50% cheaper. For food as lifestyle choice, the US is about-the-same to far-more-expensive.

    llater,

    llamas

  • Dave

    Llamas,

    what the hell more do you want?

    That’s a good question, which I’ve had to think hard about.

    I think the issue for me is range of goods. It might be the North West, but thinking about I’ve actually found the range of goods to be disappointing. They have the basics, they have a selection, but the selections are themselves more limited than I’d got used to in the UK.

    There are things I really miss that they don’t sell here. Good quality pre-cooked ready meals for one, at least beyond the hot range they have at the deli counter. I find the range of potatoes to be limited, cheese, decent bread etc…

    I also find the meat choices (apart from Beef) to be really poor. I like fresh roast chicken, not one of my easy reach supermarkets sells whole chickens – I have to go down to the local market. Likewise pork and lamb options are much more limited. But there’s an almost incomphrehensible range of beef options. Again, as you say, it might be what the local market buys.

    In a nutshell – for food as fuel, the US is far cheaper than anyplace in Europe – as much as 50% cheaper. For food as lifestyle choice, the US is about-the-same to far-more-expensive.

    I can’t disagree with that. But I would like to think that one of the benefits of earning lots of money is I don’t have to think of food purely as fuel anymore, and in that regard I have found the move over here to be disappointing.

  • llamas

    Dave – in large part – I agree. As an expat myself, I have made some of the same observations.

    Good-quality lamb is virtually impossible to find -anywhere. I’ve had to learn to live with the fact that Americans just don’t eat lamb, and leave it at that.

    Pork selections vary widely. In the South and Southwest, the range of pork products will blow you away.

    Fresh roast chicken? Easy! Costco! They will sell you a freshly-roasted chicken, still fire-hot, for $5. And these are not anaemic, shrivelled little capons, but big, fat strutting chickens. They taste great, and make great soup too. You can’t grow a chicken for $5 – but they can grow one, slaughter it, dress it, ship it, roast it and have it ready for you 16 hours a day – and turn a profit doing it. It stuns me, it really does.

    There’s a simple reason that good pre-cooked meals for one are so hard to find – it’s because supermarkets can’t compete with the dazzling array of carry-out options. When there’s a Chinese restaurant, an Indian restaurant, a Szechaun restaurant, a Thai restaurant, three Italian restaurants, an Irish pub, a dozen Applebees/TGIF/Perkins/clone places, as well as wall-to-wall fast food – how you gonna compete with that? No one market can offer even a tenth of the selection that’s to be had along any main street – and make it pay.

    What does all this mean? Well, I could be wrong, but my observation is that many people take advantage of the US way of food, as follows –

    Staples and basics come from Constco and WalMart and Albertsons and King Supers, where these things are dirt-cheap and the fierce competition keeps them that way.

    The money saved on things where you can’t taste or tell the difference then gets spent on buying the things where you can. I buy sugar at Costco. I buy bread at the artisan bakery on Main Street.

    This is interesting.

    llater,

    llamas

  • Daveon

    Fair point about the takeout. As recent visitors said, if the restaurants were that cheap at home, they’d never cook. The problem is, I actually am getting tired of the restaurant options – or at least the conventional ones. It doesn’t help that I spend 2-3 months of the year on the road eating out every night.

    We’ve a number of fine dining resturants which are amazing but will set you back $60-$100 plus a head, no real saving over the UK.

    But the menus in the conventional bars and lower end resturants (as listed above plus others) are all very very similar; wings, ribs, burgers, skins, same sandwich range, a steak option, a couple of chicken options, perhaps some pizzas.

    There are other restaurants, but I still find that the food comes a poor second, in all but one case, to the restaurants I’d frequent in London. That’s probably a bad comparison, but I think after all this, I’ll head off and cook my own dinner tonight. I have a hankering for a chillie….

  • I usually shop at Waitrose in London and Whole Foods in NYC (every month). I have always found WF far better… and cheaper for the quality. Waitrose is rather expensive, which is something you notice when you pop into Tesco’s, which I don’t do too often.

    We are comparing WF to Waitrose and M&S, two higher-end food markets in the UK. Both are good, for sure, but my point was that WF beats them by a wide margin. In my opinion it will be hard for people to go back to Waitrose and M&S after the WF experience without noticing how badly laid-out and highly priced their produce is…

    Btw, Guy, have you actually shopped at WF? The food is wonderful and not at all what you describe as ‘creamy’ (although not sure what that is supposed to mean).

  • Dave

    At the current exchange rates WF is generally cheaper (although still not for everything – canned tomatoes are still bizarely expensive in the US) – when I lived in the Bay Area in 2001 it was $1.4=£1 and at that exchange rate I was far worse off then when I’d shopped in my Waitrose in Surbiton. To be honest at $1.4 the US stops being particuarly cheap for visiting Brits and starts looking pretty pricey.

  • Dave: Wasn’t talking about the price really but other factors – quality, layout, choice, availability, service etc. All these things strike me as better at WF… especially the layout, as I point out in the article. If comparisons came down to price, people would never shop at Waitrose or M&S or Patriges or Harrods Food Hall and flock to Asda, Morrisons and Tesco’s… or Lidl.

  • William

    Very true Adriana. And WF doesn’t necessarily strive to offer the cheapest food. I suspect the company strives to offer the best value proposition as measured by the relationship between quality/price but also incorporating the factors you cite. The net result is the highest quality food at a given price as well as the best shopping experience in the market.

  • non-conformist #962912

    I’ve been dissatisfied with the selection at all of my local supermarkets. After reading through all the praise heaped on Whole Foods here, and having never been in one, I decided to give it a try today.

    I went in with an open mind, thinking that, while yes they cater to a certain lifestyle that I do not subscribe to, that perhaps they still have a good selection of quality ingredients. Well, I was not impressed. I would say that for most categories their selection was 1/3 of that available at a normal supermarket. Of that, much was imitation products meant for vegans or vegetarians, which I am not. Their bread and fruits/veritable sections were above average, as was the cheese section, but not by all that much. That is, the size of the selection was about equal but the quality seemed a bit higher. The frozen pizzas were all small and 90% of them looked vegetarian. I didn’t linger, but when I walked past the napkin/paper towel section all I saw were the brown recycled kind.

    So, while I was hoping to find a new option that put more focus on the quality of the foods, what I think I found is a place where the vast majority of the products are selected primarily for “religious” reasons (organic / vegan / vegetarian / non-artificial / free-range / herbal / local / fair-trade, etc..) rather than for just taste or quality. I saw a hemp-based breakfast cereal. That’s not to say that they don’t have above-average fresh meats and produce, but for me it’s not so good as to be worth an additional trip.

    I should note, however, that they did stock Newman’s Own vodka sauce, in both normal-sized and (which I had never seen before) mini bottles. For some reason I have not been able to get this at any other local markets for the last 2+ years.

  • Non-conformist, have you actually tried any of those products chosen on ‘religious’ basis? I never buy organic in other supermarkets and wouldn’t buy just because they are organic even in WF… but they have a much better selection and quality. And it’s not its novelty in London that makes me say that as I have been shopping at WF in NYC for more than a year now.

  • non-conformist #962912

    I assume the Whole Foods you go to in NYC or elsewhere is larger (as it appears in the photos) than the one around here. As I said, I found the meat/produce fine, but the middle isles were like a waste land of health food with a few generic “365” brand “normal” items and some specialties spread throughout.

    I came in looking specifically for milk, mayonnaise, and bagels. After walking through every isle I left with milk, mayonnaise, bagels, and a drink because I was thirsty, nothing else really caught my eye.

    Someone mentioned Super H Mart above, we have one about 30 min away that I have never been to. Hmm.