Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Whole Foods Opens in London

"Whooping staff, hordes of photographers and a symbolic bread-breaking aren't usually associated with the opening of a supermarket," reported the BBC last Wednesday, "But this is no ordinary supermarket - this is Whole Foods, the all-American brand that has cornered the market for all things organic, natural and, well, wholesome, across the pond." Accompanied by photos of the "Greens' Wall" (at right) and of the enormous crowds, the article was a pretty straightforward description.

Beyond the BBC coverage, the Guardian's online Food and Drink section had a fairly scathing description of Whole Foods and the entire movement for organic, local, or hand-made food. Here's the title -- "The sausage division: Britain is starting to split into two nations: the ingredient obsessives versus the food ghetto."

The "food ghetto" receives this description: "In one corner is the fifth of the adult population who don't realise that sausages come mostly from pigs and are stunned to learn that oats are grown by British farmers. They are joined by the thousands of children who told an earlier poll they were quite certain that cows laid eggs and that the source of bacon was, in fact, sheep. This is the part of the nation that lives in a food ghetto, where fish is never seen without a coating of breadcrumbs."

The other side of course includes Whole Foods' Target Market: "consumers in pursuit of 20 varieties of tomato, 12 sorts of asparagus and 400 types of cheese. What matters to these shoppers is not simply getting their hands on recherche ingredients but the provenance of even quite familiar foods. Where did this cow live before it ended up on your fork? What Whole Foods consumers seem to crave is narrative, in contrast to those respondents to the polls who want to be relieved of the burden of storymaking."

I live around a mile from a palacial Whole Foods, where I do much of my grocery shopping, so I'm amused by the perception that it's so extremist. I've also visited Whole Foods markets in Palo Alto and Mountain View, CA, near Fairfax VA, and at the source of it all, the original, gigantic Whole Foods in Austin, TX. I don't consider myself that obsessive. But then, I'm here not there.

The BBC says Whole Foods is "a temple to all things foodie" while the Guardian says "The worry is that this type of initiative has made the business of buying and eating food so complicated that those of us who feel we can't keep up are increasingly minded not to try in the first place."

The Guardian can really get off on some crazy tangents, it seems to me. Even the BBC seems a little overwhelmed by what might be just another grocery store with marketing differentials and upscale foods in greater-than-usual variety. I just don't see that Whole Foods is as marginal as they make it out to be.

Well, I admit that England has changed in my lifetime, and in my own experience. I recall that in 1976, on a visit to Oxford, we made a very mild American-Mexican dinner for my sister's neighbors. The ingredients other than meat, onions, and canned tomatoes had come with us on the train from London -- I mean, we understood that corn chips, canned tortillas, and red beans were unavailable in the whole of England except at one or 2 specialty shops in the Megalopolis. No fresh medium-hot or hot peppers appeared at any British markets, even in London. (I didn't have time to experiment with Asian markets and peppers of potentially toxic levels of heat.)

During that long stay in Europe, on the chance that I would have to produce exotic fare for Europeans, I always kept a container of chili powder in my toiletries case. It came in handy for this event. What I cooked was not at all highly spiced, but one neighbor chose to eat dinner before she left home. She very politely explained that she only wanted to see the food, but not to taste it. I had made the same meal for some Parisians earlier that year, and was received with greater curiosity.

Yes, the world is flatter than ever. But I suspect that a spiritual relative of that neighbor is writing for the Guardian.

Note: The International Herald Trib had a totally business view of the new store, writing:

Analysts said the new London store would appeal to the rarefied breed of shoppers who currently buy organic produce at health-food stores, prepared products at a specialty store like Marks & Spencer, and paper goods and pantry staples at the local supermarket.

Mainstream shoppers are another matter, especially in traffic-choked London, where location and loyalty rule: Many shoppers rarely venture beyond the store nearest to their home, even when the experience is less than ideal. And Whole Foods in London will not offer parking, an amenity that Londoners say could make or break success.

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