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The Wholy Grail

Photo by Christopher Gardner

Deli Delights: Whole Foods Market offers a whole slew of organically grown produce, earth-friendly products and gourmet foods.

Whole Foods Market leverages the funky little natural foods store into a profusion of gourmet glamour and progressive packaging

By Christina Waters

Cross political correctitude with deep financial pockets. Throw in environmental consciousness, organically grown taste buds and gourmet sensibility and you've got Whole Foods Markets, where the natural foods movement meets the '90s entrepreneurial spirit. Born in Texas in 1980, the Whole Foods empire now spans the continent, where it's positioned as the largest natural foods purveyor, getting bigger by the minute.

Fueled by the spending power of baby boomers and their ecologically enlightened offspring, Whole Foods is what can happen to the corner alternative market, given enough investment power and utopian vision. But unlike Gap stores, which took a progressive homegrown style and simply cloned it repeatedly, Whole Foods tailors its individual stores to regional tastes and tendencies.

For those of us who remember the infancy of the alternative health food stores--those patchouli-perfumed haunts dispensing love, peace and herbal remedies along with lumpen organically grown produce--Whole Foods feels a whole lot like the Promised Land. Take the Palo Alto branch, for example, the first California outlet, opened in 1989. Here intimacy has given way to one-stop shopping on the scale of a Safeway megastore.

The diehard Birkenstock set will feel at home among the clean bins of bulk unbleached flours and myriad dried grains. Recycled paper products, biodegradable cleansers and homeopathic remedies call the faithful who've long ago made their peace with Mother Earth. But this is a brand-new movie, and the art director has a whole lot more to work with than just two-pound blocks of tofu and a stick of incense.

Blending the best of European open-air markets with upscale wine shop and designer butcher store, Whole Foods feels as simpatico to well-heeled patrons of New York's Dean & DeLucca as to those who like to stop in at Bob's Pumpkin Patch. In Central California, where natural foods were staples before most of the United States could pronounce "acidophilus," similar stores combining gourmet and organic products have been fixtures for two decades.

But not on this scale, and rarely with such style.

Like a corner in any clean, well-lit city--Oz, perhaps--Whole Foods Market sprawls over the entire block at Homer and Emerson streets, just off the main drag of downtown Palo Alto. Barely through the front doors--framed by a cadre of recycling bins--I'm engulfed by a fresh flower stall that would do San Francisco proud. Exotic lilies, maroon sunflowers, larkspurs, roses and proteas are massed in profusion right next to a strategically placed coffee bar. There I could fuel up on my choice of organic coffees before swinging into the main aisles, or I could finish up my shopping with an espresso drink from the cafe a few feet further on.

A cavernous industrial ceiling floats above colorful islands of activity. An aromatic wall of fresh-baked breads--crusty, rustic, old-fashioned sheaves baked on Whole Foods' signature hearths--almost stops me in my tracks. Instead I gravitate toward a seasonal display of pumpkin rum pies, displayed on a round wooden table, along with samples for immediate consumption. Succumbing, I inhale the alchemy of fresh pumpkin, eggs and cream all packed into a superior crust, and fall under the Whole Foods spell.

Just behind the samples is a pastry case that blends New Age whole wheat muffins and pies with gorgeous, European-style confections. Miniature turbans of cheesecake flaunt their diverse flavorings--chocolate, cappuccino, Grand Marnier. There's a vegan chocolate torte "frosted" with slabs of kiwi and papaya. The next island of temptation involves a salad bar that offers such toppings as nuts, grains, legumes, four sprouts and six dressings to accompany every conceivable salad ingredient on record. A wall of Noah's bagels--eight kinds--nestles between the salad bar and a smoothie and juice bar, adorned by pretty tableaux of sprouting wheat grass as if from the hand of Martha Stewart.

Bear in mind that I haven't even gotten more than 20 feet into the store yet. Tearing myself away from the throbbing mecca of the deli and take-away counters, I stride into the heart of the action.

Fresh produce at Whole Foods isn't so much displayed as it is architecturally choreographed to create miniature environments of fresh color. Green spinach, alabaster leeks and orange carrots ascend from floor to ceiling in undulating columns. In another region, taro root, tomatillo, plantains and purple potatoes shimmer, each fresh harvest--most from nearby growers--is marked "organic" or "conventionally grown." And most of it is organic.

Soon I've reached the dairy section, where raw milk and Normandy butter happily coexist. Across the aisle, an encyclopedic selection of imported and microbrewery beers stand at attention. There are organic French country ciders, oatmeal stouts, Belgian lambic ales, ambers from SLO Brewing Company. Then comes a heady selection of sparkling wines, ranging from the Italian Rotari ($10) to Taittinger champagne ($30). Whole Foods even stocks the connoisseur's best friend, Riedel Crystal stemware from Austria (bargain priced at $7.99 per glass).

A wine selection of California's greatest hits leads to the gourmet cheese counter at the very back of the store, where I spot Pont L'Evêque, St. Nectaire, Morbier, oodles of Bries and Camemberts, Stilton from Cambria, Vermont cheddar and a table full of fat wheels of Basque P'tit. A galaxy of California goat cheeses lounges attractively amidst seasonal dried flowers and leaves. The prices for such luxuries are lower than at more chichi gourmet outlets.

An olive-tasting bar abuts the long, curving, full-service butcher counters, where the possibilities start with fresh petrale sole, Idaho trout, local halibut and smoked wild ahi and move on to Diestel turkeys, fresh goose, pheasant, aged beef, Cornish game hen and the mighty Rocky chicken. If I only want small samples of the gorgeous prosciuittos, or smoked turkeys, I can reach for packaged selections from the Whole Foods Smoke House.

The center of the store stocks all the usual natural foods brands of canned goods, packaged cereals and grains, as well as some mainstream items like C&H Cane Sugar, Ocean Spray cranberry juice, Carr's Table Water Crackers. That's why my fellow shoppers range from the Doc Marten's to the Donna Karan crowd, conservative matrons reaching for bottled water along with tie-dyed students and suit-and-tie professionals.

Long clean, blond wood bins of bulk grains, nuts and flours flesh out the remaining food aisles, next to a sizable display of Allegro coffee beans in every flavor from Kona to Sumatran. The front of the store, leading me back up toward the checkout counters, is devoted to herbs, vitamins, extracts, lotions, creams and green household products.

Forty-one stores in nine states--six in California by the end of next year--currently compose the Whole Foods empire. Sales last year soared above $402 million--not bad for a company still busy reinventing public perception of the natural foods business. The words "natural foods" and "business" barely belonged in the same phrase 15 years ago when three Austin entrepreneurs pooled their dreams to open the first Whole Foods Market in Austin.

Today the structure of the company is unashamedly corporate, albeit horizontal. The avalanche of marketing information--available to all via the Whole Foods Web site on the Internet--boldly announces its intention to continue the strategy "to open or acquire stores in metropolitan areas where we believe we can become a leading natural foods supermarket retailer."

The '90s found Whole Foods busily absorbing other long-established natural foods retailers--Whole Food Company, founded in 1974, and Bread & Circus, founded in 1975, were recently digested by the expanding empire. In early 1995, Whole Foods swallowed two Bread of Life stores in Campbell and Cupertino, again leveraging long-established consumer habits with its buying power. In each case strategic links were made with a ready-made, educated, progressive client base whose tastes and incomes had hungered for supermarket diversity mixed with alternatives to the traditional Safeway or Lucky.

Western regional president Walter Robb readily admits that Whole Foods is aiming to multiply its flock and increase the size of its stores. "We'll have eight stores in the Bay Area by the end of 1996," Robb says. "And I'd like to see that number reach 20. I'm not growing this to grow--I want us to have key locations, as we can handle them." Tellingly, Robb adds, "I don't think we're different than anyone in the supermarket industry--Safeway is only opening superstores now. And as we have more to offer, it makes sense for us to grow."

The "more" that Whole Foods offers is obvious to any regular shopper. Private-label products are expanding, and nutritional supplements occupy a large part of evolving stock. But the "largest, newest section," Robb adds, "for just about everybody in this business, is prepared foods."

While cruising the Palo Alto Whole Foods, I ended my tour with a pit stop at the prepared food section, where whole chickens fresh from the spit wait to be taken home, along with pasta salads, tabouli and tofu fit for a carnivore. A buoyant young staff outfitted in baseball caps briskly prepares focaccia sandwiches, and scoops up wild wheatberry salad and Indonesian roasted eggplant in a riot of food possibilities that looks like world-fusion heaven. Here tofu has been reinvented as multicultural gastronomy, tossed with plum sauce, and barbecued to a glistening bronze hue.

I ordered a seasoned tofu burrito and cruised to the dining area, equipped with condiment stand, booths and sleek, comfortable tables and chairs. There I joined a mixed bag of fellow diners, all feasting on low-priced, generously portioned, good-looking, fresh-tasting food.

"I don't think the word 'natural' means much anymore," Robb says. "The converging rivers of natural, gourmet and ethnic are all moving toward the mainstream, and that's where we're evolving." But, he hastens to add, "We shouldn't forget our roots."

Organic foods and whole foods, "as close as possible to their natural state," are still the mainstays of the Whole Foods mission. "Our customers obviously include those who've been there all along, who first got interested in natural foods. 'The Choir,' we call them," he laughs. "There are also cross-over people increasingly concerned with their health and well-being.

"Another part of our clientele are those interested in the quality, those who buy organic for superior flavor and freshness." Robb characterizes the Whole Foods consumer as "college-educated, and they have a little more money. The level of education is important. They have more interest in their choices."

According to the regional director, Whole Foods doesn't claim to have all the answers for every consumer. "That's an important point. We don't want to get preachy. We just tell our story. We're just here to do the best job of the choice we represent--we try to be the total experience in natural and organic foods, to offer the best."

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From the Dec. 7-14, 1995 issue of Metro

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