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To Market, To Market

Head for Whole Foods.

Normally I avoid opening events like the PR plague they are. Soft openings, hard openings, grand openings, invitation-only VIP openings -- all really just code words for the same thing: amateur night. While I understand the necessity of openings and the point of such parties (everyone has to have a first night, and better that those first-night jitters are inflicted on friends, family and professional leeches from the press rather than on actual paying customers), only one thing is guaranteed true at a restaurant's opening night: No other night will bear any resemblance to it in terms of service, menu, music, vibe, attitude, anything. I've seen restaurants bring in guest chefs for openings, hire mercenary servers and bartenders to crutch up their floor staffs, cook menus with absolutely no relation to what will eventually be the daily board of fare -- and in my time on the other side of the swinging door, I've committed all these same sins myself.

Last week, though, I got swept up by a different kind of opening -- this one for the brand-new Whole Foods Market in Tamarac Square -- and I had so much fun the first time through, I actually went twice.

Why? Because I am seriously in love with Whole Foods. And this isn't some drippy little juvenile foodie crush, not some smitten, puppy-dog infatuation where my objet d'amour can do no wrong. No, this is hot culinary lust tempered by a certain mature understanding of the pitfalls of modern romance. I am a grown man. I know how passions can go sour. I also know that no relationship is perfect, which is why I can comfortably say that the Whole Foods in Cherry Creek, with its lot full of valet-parked Range Rovers, makes me want to puke, and that the fleet of straight Alpha soccer moms out at the Highlands Ranch location, all cruising the aisles with their jogging strollers, looking for free-range tofu and sugar-free sugar, makes me want to bait a hook with a Krispy Kreme, cast it into the masses and lead them all out into traffic. Frankly, I'm not up to leg-wrestling some World's Greatest Grandma over the last bag of cruelty-free peaches or fighting my way through a knot of vapid trust-fund hippies comparing the carbs in a hundred brands of bottled water just to get to the cheese counter. And the thought of paying fourteen bucks for a couple of breaded veal cutlets -- no matter how well the baby cows lived, how lovingly they were tended or how peacefully they died -- makes me itch. So clearly, my love affair with Whole Foods is not a perfect one.

But if you are overcome by the same kind of awe and quivery joy that I am when stepping into a crowded market; if you've ever stayed up all night just to see Fulton Fish Market (pre-Bronx) or Union Square at dawn, when the chefs and their buyers are out in force; argued over cases of lettuce or strawberries with some direct-to-market farmer trying to shaft you by hiding small heads or rotten berries at the bottom of a weight order; spent an hour on the phone with your butcher gossiping about meat; or tried to plan an entire vacation around a visit to Tsukiji Market in Tokyo, then you will understand when I say that there's something close to nirvana about stepping into this place.

Its 50,000 square feet boast a fresh produce market, aisles and aisles of groceries, industrial kitchens, its own clutch of restaurants, prepared foods, ethnic foods, a chocolatier, bakeries, butchers, sausage makers, an entire section devoted to seafood with fresh deliveries six days a week, beautiful cheeses, a sushi bar, a noodle bar, an olive bar, a salsa bar, fresh-pressed tortillas, a barbecue counter, a deli and a wine store (called Merchant of Vino and offering microbrews, artisan wines, and thousands of bottles brought in from growing regions all over the world). And when I turned a corner and found myself face to face with a meat counter that seemed to stretch for a mile, I was like Augustus Gloop in the candy factory. It's going to take the cleaning crew a week just to scrub my nose prints off the display cases.

Sure, I'm feeling a little big-box guilt over this. I could make the Starbucks argument here and get all hysterical over how this chain of 170 stores (which raked in $3.9 billion last year) is ruining the market for the little guys, for the mom-and-pop grocers and the neighborhood butchers. I could say that the coming of this newest Whole Foods is going to doom Tamarac forever, serving as the anchor for more chains and more big retailers that will come in and further glut the market with their cheap products and soul-killing homogeneity. And if I wanted to, I could certainly make the case that when retailers like this begin taking control of a former niche market (in this case, the organic/natural/free-of-everything grocery niche that used to be the sole provenance of hippies, granola-eaters and radical, cash-rich activist vegetarians), they invariably over-exploit and ruin the insular charm that once made the niche so attractive.

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