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A forty-something woman was staring at a case full of frozen seafood, muttering aloud to herself. "Oh, my God, those are gyoza!" she finally exclaimed and then turned around, wildly searching for her shopping companion. "Did you see these?" she asked, dragging him over to the display and nearly shoving his face into the case. "Wow," her pal said. "What are those?" The woman looked at him as though he'd lost his mind and repeated, "They're gyoza, of course." He looked back at her with the type of expression people usually reserve for when they are lost or in pain. "Are you going to make me eat them?" he asked. "Yes, yes, they're delicious," she declared, and after filling a plastic bag with the Japanese dumplings and throwing it into her basket, she moved on to the cheese case. "Oh, my God, did you see this?" she said about ten seconds later. "They have Pierre Robert!"
Welcome to the wonderful world of Whole Foods Market, where you can find pretty much everything you'd need to make just about any meal. If they don't have it, they'll get it for you. And if they can't get it for you, they'll feel so badly about it that they'll give you the next closest thing in the hopes that it will make you happy. This is where true foodies hope to wind up when they die.
I confess that I have spent many moments of gleeful exploration in the 42,000-square-foot Cherry Creek store, which opened just over a month ago. This market is the second Colorado site -- the first one opened in Boulder two years ago to rave reviews -- and it's one of 118 stores across the country. To say that Whole Foods is a major player in the supermarket world would be a gross understatement: A repeat pick on Fortune magazine's list of top 100 companies to work for, the chain employs 17,000 people, runs seven regional bakeries, and owns Allegro Coffee Company, Pigeon Cove seafood company and a produce-inspection company. In addition, it has swallowed up a number of large natural-food-store chains all over these United States.
6853 S. York St.
Centennial, CO 80122
Region: Southeast Denver Suburbs
Hours: 8 a.m.-10 p.m. daily
The company started in 1980 in Austin, Texas, when a trio of businessmen -- John Mackey, owner of Safer Way Natural Foods, and Craig Weller and Mark Skiles, owners of Clarksville Natural Grocery -- decided that the natural-foods market had some potential. Dozens of mergers and acquisitions later, it turns out they were right. Whole Foods has assured its customers that its products are as chemical-free as possible and humanely obtained, and to make itself even more appealing to the folks who flock toward nature's ways, it began lobbying around the issues that strike close to home, such as genetic engineering, pesticides and the regulating of vitamin and herbal supplements.
One of the few grocers closed on Thanksgiving, the market also decided to risk some grumbling from customers in favor of the well-being of its employees. "I've worked enough holidays to know how depressing it can be," said a seafood-department manager a few days after turkey day. "It was wonderful being at home eating my own food instead of selling food to someone else."
There is, of course, a downside to all of this happiness. Whole Foods is expensive, sometimes painfully so, and the lines to lay out those large amounts of money are always long; customers are often cranky from being whacked in the back by other people's baskets, and the parking -- or lack thereof -- sucks. Adding to the time it takes to get away from the madness is the fact that the scales used to weigh bulk purchases never seem to be working.
But isn't that the price we pay to get what we want?
Judging by the aforementioned lines, the answer is yes. It appears that locals who've spent the past two decades buying bulk spices, free-range chicken and hummus mix from Alfalfa's and Wild Oats have changed allegiances, and it's having an effect: Whole Foods knocked the Alfalfa's across the street out of business before it even opened.
But a one-day item-for-item price comparison between Whole Foods and the Colorado Boulevard Alfalfa's revealed that the two stores are relatively even: Green grapes, asparagus, Dover sole, chocolate chip cookies and chicken breasts cost more at Whole Foods; Alfalfa's was higher on artichokes, portabellas, apples, sushi-grade tuna and bagels.
The all-important salad bar -- a top commodity since so few eateries offer them these days -- at Whole Foods was pricier ($4.99 per pound to Alfalfa's $4.59), although it seemed to make up for it in ingredients. Aside from twenty or so standards, such as tomatoes, carrots, beets, broccoli and cucumbers, the store had such interesting pre-made salads as Indian quinoa, Thai noodle, mushrooms marinated in oil and vinegar, grilled chicken with tarragon, olives with shredded carrots, and a fat-free Southwestern black-bean deal that had been brazenly spruced up with jalapeños. A few of the ingredients -- most notably, the cottage cheese --were getting that icky film on them, but for the most part, the bar was well maintained. I wish they'd come up with better dressings, though, because the lunch crowd must choose between stinking out co-workers with garlic mustard, tamari vinaigrette, Caesar or roasted garlic ranch, or going with plain old oil and vinegar. And if you aren't careful about what you throw in your box, you could end up with a $12 lunch.