Whole Foods has opened its new store in London. The 80,000 square foot store is like nothing in the U.K. in the way it combines an upscale gastronomical approach with a “save the world and my personal body” ethos, all wrapped in a trendy, social, foodservice-heavy atmosphere.
The Daily Mail ran a great piece on how British consumers react when they encounter Whole Foods. The piece is entitled “406 Cheeses? They must be off their trolley.”
A trolley is a shopping cart in the U.K., and what the Daily Mail did was ask both its own food writer, Tom Parker Bowles, a true “foodie,” and Julie Critchlow, a housewife and mother who became a minor celebrity in the U.K. when she rebelled against a “healthy food” movement in the schools in the U.K. by slipping her kids foods they were willing to eat through the school fence, to visit the new Whole Foods and report their impressions.
In addition to being a well known food columnist, Tom Parker Bowles has quite a pedigree.
He is the son of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall (formerly Camilla Parker Bowles). HRH Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, was always his godfather and is now his stepfather. Tom’s stepbrothers are Prince William and Prince Harry of Wales.
Julie Critchlow seemed overwhelmed by both the large selection and the high prices (please note that the photos below are not of Ms. Critchlow — these photos were supplied by Whole Foods):
As a mum with two kids, I work out my weekly food budget very carefully. I go to my local Morrisons in Rotherham every Thursday and spend £80 to £100. If I was to come here I reckon my bill would go up to about £400.
It’s all very expensive, the choice is ridiculous and so overwhelming I don’t know where to start. Why do people need 20 different types of tomatoes?
My husband Christopher, who is a lorry driver, said he thought there were only two types — tinned and fresh. And I think a grape is a grape. You don’t need so many different sorts.
Don’t get me wrong. In principle, I am a great believer in choice.
You may remember me for passing burgers through the railings of Rawmarsh Community School, after Jamie Oliver said children had to eat healthy stuff and that parents who gave their kids fizzy drinks were ****holes.
How dare he? And why did the schools listen? But my kids — Rachel, who is 15, and Steven, who is 12 — didn’t like all that healthy stuff the school started to give them and refused to eat.
I wasn’t going to let them starve, so I took them what I knew they’d like. I don’t think people should have healthy eating rammed down their throats. It is supposed to be a free country and everyone should eat what they want. If people want to eat lots of chips they should. I cook every tea time and often make my own chips in the deep-fat fryer.
For a start, the layout of Whole Foods Market is all higgledy-piggledy. In Morrisons I know exactly where I am, but here they don’t, for example, take you from the bread to the cakes, which would make sense. Everything is all mixed up and all over the place.
It’s also full of organic and healthy things and I don’t believe in organic.
To me it’s the same vegetable or fruit whether it has or hasn’t had stuff sprayed on it. At the end of the day you still have to peel and cook it to make it tasty.
The price of organic carrots here is ridiculous — £1.59 for a bag that would cost me 65p in Morrisons. I know all the prices because I buy the same things every week. And as for £1.79 for a Savoy cabbage? You must be kidding!
But I do like the way the fruit and veg have been displayed. The asparagus, which we love, looks great as do the mushrooms, but I’ve never seen 12 varieties before. I usually buy mine in a plastic container with clingfilm on top for 99p.
My husband loves jalapeno peppers and pod peas, but as for the rest of the vegetables, to be honest I don’t know what more than half of them are.
We get through about two dozen eggs a week — I regularly make Steven fried-egg sandwiches for breakfast. I buy free range for £1.19 a dozen, whereas here they are £1.99.
But crikey! The loose eggs are 25p each, which is crazy, and as for the rhea eggs, at £25.99 each — rhea are like small ostriches — it would cost me £100 to feed us four.
I cannot look at the fresh fish stall. I prefer to buy my fish done and dusted and preferably frozen. We will eat salmon but only if it’s tinned.
But one of the things I really love are individual meat pies. Here they cost £3.99 each, which is plain ridiculous.
The worst things are the cheese counters. They smell so much it completely puts me off. We just have cheddar at home, but there must be hundreds of types here. Why do people need so many? And as for that Emmental, it smells like my husband’s sweaty socks. I’m interested in seeing it though.
I never believed cheese with holes really existed. I thought you only saw it in Tom And Jerry films. As for all those goat’s cheeses, you must be kidding. Who would want to eat something that smelt like a goat? The selection of wine doesn’t interest me either. I am a lager lass.
I only use herbs when they are dried and in packets and I wouldn’t buy fancy bread with fruit or vegetables in it — I can’t imagine who would — but I do like French sticks, which in Morrisons cost 40p but here are 99p.
Overall, this place is probably OK if you are a professional chef, but I don’t think it’s any good for working-class mums with kids who make family meals.
I think people will come for a nosey and, if money is no object, they might come back.
But I admit I wouldn’t mind having one of those strawberries they hand-dip in chocolate. They look fantastic, but God Almighty, at £1.80 for one, forget it!
Tom Parker Bowles was a little skeptical because his ethos is focused on locally grown and small scale, but he wound up being bowled over by Whole Foods’ focus on local product and the interaction it encourages between food, staff and consumer:
I arrived at Whole Foods Market feeling very cynical. I have a problem with the ethos of a company that started off as a hippy store — hey everyone! We care — but is now a huge public company with little to do with small farmers.
Plus there is a lot of nonsense talked about organic food as if merely calling it organic makes it OK, and if you eat it you will look like Kate Moss or be cured of cancer.
Nowadays supermarkets use it as a marketing tool, to enable them to charge huge prices. I also prefer to support small shops and farmers and prefer markets over supermarkets.
I am a simple soul at heart. I like to buy British and seasonal foods.
But as soon as I walked in the door I was very impressed. It was a great joy to see so many British producers given space and although some items are very expensive, there were some great bargains, such as the organic milk at 79p a litre.
It is clever to put fresh bread near the entrance because it gives off a nice smell. The cynic in me realized it was no accident. There were all sorts of bread, such as sour dough bread and pain au levain, at £3.99.
But I couldn’t see a plain brown or white loaf. Remarkably, within two minutes, I had caught the New Age hippy ethos and was ready to hug a dolphin and adopt a mung bean.
It is a Disneyland of food where everything is perfect. There are even tendrils that appear every seven minutes to give the vegetables a quick shower.
I wanted to find ingredients for a delicious dinner, and went straight for the Scottish beef at £15.99 per kilo. The only way to get flavour out of beef is to hang it for 14 to 40 days.
Here they hang it in-house for 21 days, which is short by my standards, but it looked good and black. The assistant behind the counter was very knowledgeable, which you wouldn’t find in most supermarkets.
Then I got diverted. Next to the beef was everything you could possibly need for a barbecue. I loved the fact that all the chicken was English. Right next to that was lardo…
Wow! They’ve even got lardo! It’s the cured back fat of pig topped with fennel that you barely find even in an Italian specialist shop. You slice it very thinly and eat as you would salami.
It is pure fat and anathema to a vegetarian, but it absolutely melts in the mouth and was a reasonable £1.99 per 100g.
I was also impressed that all the meat was rated. A five means the animals were kept in five-star accommodation, while one means intensive rearing and was therefore cheaper.
I also wanted a selection of English cheeses and found the very best you could get. There was Colston Bassett Stilton and Montgomery cheddar, Lanark Blue, Cornish Yarg and Appleby’s Cheshire.
I also spotted a display of Gruyere that had aged 18 months and is about as different from the Gruyere you buy in a supermarket as a Ferrari is to a Mini.
I don’t like goat’s cheese but I was approached by a man who offered me a hard goat’s cheese, which to my amazement I enjoyed.
You are constantly being offered food to taste by the very people who make it, so you can ask them lots of questions. It’s a brilliant idea.
Close by was an enormous spread of antipastos. It would make my wife very excited, and no doubt please any mother with a hedge-fund husband who didn’t want to cook.
I then passed the fresh-fish counter. It didn’t smell at all, which is a sign that the fish is really fresh. I prodded every variety I could reach. Had I done that in Tesco, I would have been escorted out.
Sure enough the flesh bounced straight back every time. It all looked so good I decided against the beef and plumped for John Dory at £20.99 a kilo with some langoustines at a decent £14.99 a kilo.
I was pleased to see that most of the labels said MSC, which means the fish comes from sustainable sources.
I also bought some samphire, which is like skinny asparagus and has just come into season, for £8.99.
There was a whole area for Thai food, including fresh ginger, fresh horseradish and five types of grape-sized aubergine. Do we need that? Probably not, but it looked delicious.
I spotted some wonderful fresh beetroot at the vegetable section so thought I’d make a beetroot salad. The asparagus was really good quality, too.
I also chose the fresh broad beans and peas. I was cross the peas weren’t British as they are just coming into season, but that is really nit picking.
I am also a tomato freak and was delighted to spot Tigerella tomatoes, so called because the markings make them look a bit like a tiger. Most supermarkets turn tomatoes into bland billiard balls, but not here.
For dessert I’d have tiny wild strawberries and British September elderflower ice cream, £4.29 for a punnet of 500ml.
Whole Foods Market is the opposite of the usual supermarket experience mainly because you are encouraged to touch, taste and smell. It might not be for everyone, but it is certainly a place where you can find the very best of British.
Whole Foods is not so much a supermarket as an experience. This is both its strength — it allows it to compete against everyone — and its weakness. Although Whole Foods has helped to change the way America retails and the way Americans think about food, those of its innovations that are scalable are quickly adopted by larger players that price more moderately.
So this one London store will probably be a big success. It may even lead to changes toward more variety, more foodservice and more interaction in other British stores — but it is hard to see it as a rollout across the U.K., much less the continent.