New Whole Foods Seeks 21st Amendment

Whole Foods’ whopping 71,000-square-foot new supermarket opened last week on the Bowery at Houston Street, boasting perhaps the most extensive selection of groceries in Manhattan—though not a drop of alcohol.

No organic Oregonian red wines. No earthy Vermont microbrews. Not even any gluten-free sorghum beers.

An aisle marked “LAGER, PILSNER, ALE, LIGHT, PORTER, STOUT” seemed a rather cruel April Fool’s prank on brewhounds, as it was stocked with mere bottled water and sports drinks.

Not content to get by on Voss and S. Pellegrino sales alone, however, the national natural-foods chain is vying, yet again, to turn that water into wine—er, at least beer.

Undaunted by the vehement community opposition that earlier derailed plans for a reported 5,000-square-foot wine component to the store, Whole Foods’ management is gearing up for another attempt at winning over the State Liquor Authority.

“We are in pursuit of a beer license,” said Whole Foods spokesman Fred Shank, speaking to Counter Espionage this week. “Food and wine and beer, they all go hand in hand, and we want to better serve our shoppers.”

A sometimes-trivial pursuit, applying to shill suds can be particularly troublesome for retailers located along the already densely liquor-licensed Lower East Side.

Even a purportedly community-minded organization like Whole Foods isn’t immune to neighborhood resistance amid the current booze-wary climate, as the Austin, Tex.–based grocery giant has surely learned from nearly two years of tangling with local Community Board 3.

For all its banter about combating further alcohol sprawl, Board 3 is rather ironically concerned about losing existing booze peddlers in the area if Whole Foods is granted a license.

Citing the “possibly fatal effects” that a fully liquor-licensed behemoth like Whole Foods could have on smaller, locally owned alcohol sellers in the vicinity, Board 3 voted 33 to 0 in June 2005 to protest the organic grocer’s wine application—a stance from which it hasn’t budged since.

Siding with Board 3, the S.L.A. ultimately rejected Whole Foods’ latest request for a wine license this past February.

Will narrowing its intoxicant aspirations now to beer only—thus showing mercy to the nearby wine merchants—better appease Whole Foods’ neighbors?

“I don’t know,” said Susan Stetzer, district manager for Board 3. “The opposition was not because [the board] is opposed to sale of alcohol; it was to protect the small mom-and-pop wine stores. This would have to come before the board, and members would have to vote on a position with input from the community.”

Bo Terrero, a clerk at La Cocina Deli Grocery on the corner of Houston and Mott streets—perhaps the closest take-out beer seller to Whole Foods—isn’t worried about the potential competition.

“I don’t think it’s really gonna mess us up too much,” he said on Monday.

To the contrary, Mr. Terrero theorized that any loss in beer sales would be offset by the increase in Spanish-food sales to Whole Foods’ Latino workers.

“I think we’re gonna make more money,” he said.

“DO YOU HAVE ANY MORE BALLS?” ASKED A GUY in a pink Polo wielding a purple paddle. “We killed this one.”

Inspecting the cracked plastic orb, Jeff Castleman, the so-called “club pro” on duty Sunday afternoon at Pong, the Lower East Side’s brand-spankin’-new Ping-Pong parlor, was nonplussed: “We’re down to our lowest-quality balls—our last two one-star balls.”

Barely one and a half weeks into existence, the tiny table-tennis club on Norfolk Street—which features only one Ping-Pong table—was already experiencing supply problems.

Not that the owners’ livelihood depends on it. “We’re not looking, obviously, to get rich off this,” said 26-year-old proprietor Ben Smyth, who owns the roughly 350-square-foot storefront with his elder brother, 39-year-old Hall Smyth.

In fact, Pong is basically just a front for the Smyth brothers’ real business, a design firm called Grand Opening Public Projects, which specializes in developing museum exhibits, including a traveling Holocaust show soon to be making the rounds of New York City public schools.

In the back of the store, behind a homemade two-level bleacher-style seating area and beyond a ball-blocking mesh curtain, is a small office with two chairs and two computer terminals.

“While Pong is going on, all of the madness of work is taking place normally,” said Ben Smyth.

Pong is also only temporary—just one of the design-minded duo’s upcoming storefront themes. “Every three months, we’ll have a new store moving in,” Ben Smyth said.

A month ago, the brothers were exhibiting salvaged barn beams in the space, as a sort of promotional display for Hall’s reclamation company, Lumberland Post and Beam.

For the next three months, the space will cater to membership-paying Ping-Pong aficionados seeking to compete for the title of club champ, as well as more casual players willing to pay the $3 minimum to pick up a paddle.

After that, who knows? “We’ve thought about things like a movie theater; we’ve thought about mini-putt; we’ve thought about an auction house—different things like that,” said Ben Smyth.

For some retail-space holders, moving into a New York City storefront is about marketing—furthering brand identity through signage, window displays and a vanity address.

Mr. Smyth insisted this wasn’t their primary motivation for purchasing and renovating the abandoned barbershop at 139 Norfolk Street in 2006, after their landlord raised the rent on their former office in Chelsea.

Norfolk Street, after all, is no Fifth Avenue.

But it’s beginning to have the same effect. “From the start, we looked at the space as an opportunity to have some fun for ourselves, but then also to have some fun with the community,” Ben Smyth said. “Now that we’re getting into it more, it does appear to have some marketing potential for the company. Some people just recently approached us about displaying something in the store.”

With all the, um, racket going on presently, the Smyths may start looking forward to the next theme change—just to get some work done.

“Since we’ve only been open for a week, I probably haven’t gotten the full experience yet—but we’ll see by month three,” Mr. Smyth said. “I don’t know if we could be a Ping-Pong venue forever. That would be kind of frightening.”

New Whole Foods Seeks 21st Amendment