By Jamie Swinnerton
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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.
Two other popular items that seemed priced out of proportion were the scones. At $2.49 each, none of the options, including blueberry, cranberry, orange or chocolate raspberry, seemed worth it, especially since they were all on the dry side and not very sweet; it's scary to think that breakfast for a family of four could cost $10 before juice, eggs or meat. And the muffins were smaller than the ones at comparable bakeries, but at $1.69, similarly priced. On the other hand, there are plenty of people out there who don't even bat an eye at those prices. "I can remember a day when we'd go to the grocery store and there would be only one kind of white bread you could get," said one seventy-something woman who seemed happy to chat with me about her Whole Foods Experience. "I'm so happy to have so much to choose from, I don't care what it costs."
Whole Foods also dishes up an extensive repertoire of prepared foods, and the choices there are simply staggering. From the ready-to-go section of dishes already portioned out and priced -- the quickest way to get a meal, since there's always a line at the sandwich and bento-box stations -- there was a ham-packed, thick-crusted individual-sized quiche Lorraine that reheated beautifully in the microwave; some creamy chicken tarragon salad with a lot of red onions in it; fat, well-priced empanadas filled with spinach and mozzarella that were big enough for a meal on their own; and egg rolls that sadly did not reheat well in either a microwave (they became soggy) or a toaster oven (the wrappers were too greasy to crisp up). The sushi-to-go was a total bust: Both the vegetarian and tuna rolls were filled with squishy, too-moist rice, and the result was sort of like eating pudding flavored with cucumbers or fish.
Across the aisle from the ready-to-go wall is the deli, which is where Whole Foods labors hardest at being innovative. Not everything works -- the lobster cakes, for instance, contained way too much breading and no lobster flavor at all, and an order of overcooked teriyaki sweet potatoes turned into shoe leather in the microwave -- but when it does, what a revelation. A Himalayan salad of japonica rice was sparked with curry powder and ginger, while Brazilian barbecued turkey proved that lemon juice goes just as well with that kind of fowl as it does with chicken. And if anyone else in town is offering sesame-studded kale, I'd like to taste it: Healthy and sharply flavored, it was the ideal accompaniment to a few thick slices of succulent leg of lamb, which had been undercooked slightly so that they didn't toughen up during reheating. Each time I visited, there were at least a dozen meat dishes and two dozen salads and sides; the selection seemed to rotate every two to three days.
The assortment is even more overwhelming in the rest of the store; luckily, the staff proved to be knowledgeable at every turn. In the cheese department, which hosts mold-enhanced visitors from all cheese-producing parts of the world, my wedge of Italian mountain gorgonzola was cheerfully replaced when I brought it back the next day full of the kinds of mold that aren't supposed to be in cheese -- a side-effect, unfortunately, of not being able to cut many cheeses to order because of sheer volume -- and my inquiry into whether they carried Boursault received a reply to the negative, but was immediately followed up with "I have a few other French triple-cream cheeses on hand, though." Now that's informed.
The seafood and produce departments have the most attractive displays, and with the exception of some salmon that looked like it had been deboned with a hacksaw and some tragically limp baby spinach, both take good care of their charges. The fish guys swear that they can special-order anything from the sea, as long as it's in season. I'd dare say there can't be any kind of bean, though, that Whole Foods doesn't have in its extensive -- yes, it's bigger than those of any other gourmet grocers -- bulk aisle, unless you're sick of flageolets, rattlesnake beans, black soys and appaloosas already.
The Whole Foods section that's the most fun, though, might be the vitamins and herbal supplements area, where the average shopper wandering through will be stymied by the number of ailments that can be cured the natural way. "Look, honey. They have vitamins that improve sex," one guy said to his significant other. "And right next to it, vitamins that improve your memory, so we'll remember to have it."
Oh, my God, I'll see you there.