Stepping off of an escalator recently, I found myself in a refulgent summer garden-snapdragons, carnations, dahlias, daffodils and enough varieties of roses to furnish a sizable senior prom. It’s a lovely touch, especially for a supermarket. Then again, this is not your conventional urban supermarket.
Now that Whole Foods Market, the country’s largest organic food store, has thrown roots on the lower level of the spanking new Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle-all 59,000 square feet of shopping turf-I decided to make a little walkabout to take the pulse of the place.
Being a New Yorker, I was struck first by the profligate width of the aisles and walkways: Some are as much as 12 feet wide. I was tempted to scamper down the cereal section performing figure “S’s” with my cart. At my woebegone local grocery, where the aisles are roughly the width of a size-11 shoe, encountering another shopper coming your way can be so confrontational that I retain a lawyer just for this purpose.
The cynosure of the Whole Foods store is the magnificent organic-produce section. Frequently, at farmers’ markets and health-food stores, organic produce is spotted, smudged and irregularly shaped, which has nothing to do with flavor. From grapefruits to deep red tomatoes, the produce at Whole Foods are runway models, all flatteringly illuminated by overhead track lighting. Most impressive perhaps is a chest-high wall of verdant vegetables-carrots, kale, leeks, lettuces-each arranged in tight, woven overlapping patterns, as if some freelance beavers had been brought in to help out. As for prices, I have not conducted a survey, but considering the quality, they seemed reasonable: organic broccoli at $1.98 a pound, a five-pound bag of organic carrots for $3.98 a pound, conventional hothouse tomatoes for $2.98.
From the produce section, I ambled over to a deli counter which, while attractive, holds little that you could not find at other quality shops around town like Fairway and Dean and DeLuca. The seafood department, however, is first-rate, with everything firmly packed on ice; whole fish, a good benchmark for freshness, are glistening, not dry, and with clear, bright eyes.
There is a sizable olive-oil selection, not all of them organic. Aside from the familiar brands of extra virgin oil like Colavita ($6.99 for 17 ounces) and Badia a Coltibuono ($12.49 for 8.45 ounces), there’s a house brand for $3.99. It was recommended to me by an avid cook as similar to the pricier ones. (All house brands carry the logo “365.”)
It takes some 400 employees to keep this place humming, and there is no shortage of “team members” on the sales floor. For such a classy operation, though, I was surprised that many of the young employees looked as if they had just arrived from a softball game, wearing loose jeans, pullover shirts, sneakers, even construction boots. If it weren’t for the aprons, you’d never guess they worked there. I chatted with a half-dozen well-mannered twentysomethings who were patrolling the aisles. Only two had grocery experience-Whole Foods has its own week-long training program-and all appeared to be upbeat about their jobs, which, given my experience, is reason enough to shop there. Whole Foods Market repeatedly shows up in Fortune magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For,” which is based on employee ratings of their own company.
About 50 to 75 percent of the store’s produce is certified organic-meaning no harmful chemicals, a sustainable method of soil conservation and official designation as an organic product.
Little of the store’s meat and poultry are organic. For one, organic meat and poultry are very expensive to produce; moreover, a spokesman for the store said, Americans are not yet familiar with it. Instead, all meats and poultry in the market are “naturally raised,” which, as Whole Foods defines the term, means “humanely raised and slaughtered, and with no hormones, antibiotics, or animal byproducts,” a culprit in mad-cow disease. (To brush up on this terminology, you can consult http://www.wholefoods.com.)
There is no question that eating organic fruits and vegetables is safer, more nutritious and better-tasting; and while most naturally raised meats and poultry are leaner and less fatty, flavors can be more pronounced as well. Will the average New Yorker care? And hand over 10 to 20 percent or more for a clean conscience? Whole Foods preaches to a choir that considers grocery shopping an act of self-affirmation and sustenance in equal measure. This is commonplace in other American cities. Curiously, it took Whole Foods to bring it here.
As in most “green” efforts, there are amusing excesses. I wasn’t tempted to pick up a bottle of “earth friendly” furniture polish (with olive oil)-maybe it’s for bark-covered Adirondack furnishings; and there was something called “Seventh Generation Natural Toilet Bowl Cleaner,” which carries a quote on the label, allegedly from the Iroquois Nation-which, it is little known, had fashioned a somewhat jagged-edged but functional commode back when the Mohawks were still scurrying around in the woods.
On one side of the store is a small wine shop with bottles from major wine-producing countries around the world, but pretty thin pickings. Inventory is still coming in, a Whole Foods rep said. Take note that the wine shop is closed on Wednesday in order to remain open on Sunday (one of those loopy New York State laws).
Now, a little caviling.
The store has an enticing little bakery with cakes and mousses and cookies. But if you want to buy a treat and eat it right away, this is not so simple. One afternoon I bought a cannolli, which the methodical clerk spent several minutes gift-wrapping. I then had to queue up at the busy checkout line to pay for it. After that I trundled over to a crowded café, searched for a seat, opened the plastic container (not very earth-friendly) and ate my cannoli (which was just O.K.). I decided to fetch a coffee. Mistake. That consumed another 10 minutes.
Normally, I would not eat prepackaged deli sushi at gunpoint. But Whole Foods has a sparkling sushi bar with five davening chefs, who, when I arrived the next day at noon, were not in sushi-making mode. Hungry, I picked up an attractive-looking plastic container of salmon sushi and tuna maki rolls and parked at the sushi bar to eat it. Momentarily, I was shooed away and told politely to get in line at one of the 40-plus registers (which, I have to say, move along at a good pace). Then it was off to the café, which was just filling up with the lunchtime crowd.
After two days of investigative strolling, I was curious to know how the store was doing, it being nearly a month old. Rather than put myself in the hands of corporate spokespeople, I went right to the source to uncover the unvarnished truth-the kids working in the aisles.
“It’s crankin’,” said a tall, friendly fellow standing near the meat case. A co-worker nearby nodded in agreement.
Excellent. On to the last question.
It was something I had been pondering for weeks: Considering the store’s location, and serious shortage of on-street parking, how do people get all of this stuff home?
I approached another employee, Dean Desantis, who described himself as a shift manager.
“How do people get all of this stuff home?” I asked.
“Look over there,” he said, pointing to the dairy section, where a middle-aged woman with a small handheld basket was buying one small container of ricotta cheese.
“That’s a typical New York shopper-a little bit at a time.” he said. “Of course, we deliver.” They will go from 42nd to 125th streets, river to river.
Before leaving, I stationed myself near the exit escalator along with Ms. Petran. Over the next three minutes, a procession of shoppers paraded by. Of the first 10, nine carried one small plastic bag, large enough for a container of milk, some green vegetables, maybe a small chicken, a few cans of cat food-and that was it. The 10th shopper clutched two such bags.
“This is fascinating,” I said to Ms. Petran. “How is the store going to pay the gazillion dollars’ rent this way?”
“The company understands the market,” she replied confidently. “And if they’re little bags or big bags, it’s all about getting them in and getting them out.”