Whole Foods Comes to Columbus

I know that Whole Foods often gets called, “Whole Paycheck” by its detractors, and is often decried for putting smaller, locally owned natural foods stores out of business, but I rather like them. Now, not on any account do I think they are the greatest thing since sliced bread, but I do think that being able to shop in such a store once in a while is a pretty good thing, and a fun experience. When we lived in Providence, Rhode Island, we used to shop there fairly frequently, and I often found some interesting cheeses and produce items I had not ever seen before and so got the chance to try them and maybe add them to my pantry on a semi-regular basis. I also found that thier “365″ brand staple items were comparably priced to regular grocery store items and often of better quality.

Well, the last time we went to Columbus, which would be last week, I discovered that they had opened a store there, much to the consternation of the folks at Wild Oats and Trader Joe’s, I am sure. When we went back yesterday to finish our Yuletide shopping excursion, we stopped in and discovered that not only had they opened a store, they opened -the second largest- Whole Foods in existence.

The place was like an airplane hanger–it was cavernously huge, and I noted, a lot of that space was wasted in making the aisles unecessarily wide.

Even though the place was packed with patrons, curiously poking and prodding the produce, sniffing the flowers, tasting the cheeses and asking incessant questions about the wine, there was more than enough navigation room in the aisles. It is possible that after they achieve the full complement of customers that I will bless the designer who made the aisles roughly as wide as a typical country lane, but right now, it just made the place look and feel curiously empty.

The other first impression we made was of the smell. For all that the store is huge, well-lit and airy, there was a lingering, unpleasant scent that was less than inviting. It gave the impression of a dank cave, as we wandered through the floral section. Zak noticed it and in his usual gentle fashion, wrinkled his nose and muttered to me, “What the hell smells like ass in here?”

“Maybe it is the flowers,” I said, nodding toward some potted, blooming orchids.

“I thought flowers were supposed to smell good,” he hissed.

I shrugged, steering toward the produce section. “Maybe they grow them in ass.”

Zak kept muttering, but I made my way through the beautifully arranged produce, bypassing all of the “normal” stuff and heading straight for the chiles, herbs and other fun stuff. It was there that I found a huge mound of fresh galangal, and next to it, fresh turmeric root. I blinked, picked some up and sniffed it, and then grabbed a bag and put some pieces in.

Turmeric is a relative of both ginger and galanga, and while it is most familiar to us as a bright yellow powder that gives mustard its color, it is in its unprocessed state a fairly flavorful, brilliant orange rhizome.

And I had never seen it offered fresh before, and thus, I had to know what it tasted like. Into the basket it went.

The mushroom section was nothing less than a temple to edible fungus–the number and kinds of fresh mushrooms on offer as above what I had seen even in places in California. It was amazing. But, bowing to the fact that Zak doesn’t really like mushrooms and barely tolerates the ones I put into the food as it is, I walked past the mushrooms, and was stopped by one source of the funky smell: a giant display of wheels of cheese, and cut wedges.

Of course, I picked up a wedge and took a deep sniff of it, and was rewarded with a good snootful of nutty cheesy aroma. I couldn’t help but admire a store in the US that kept cheese at room temperature, so that its full aromatic bouquet was released–most Americans are terrified of mold and and bacteria and don’t want to hear about the fact that without certain sorts of mold and bacteria, cheese would not exist.

I looked at the placard that declamed the type of cheese and saw it was “Parrano,” and was reading about its origin in Holland, when a very tall, somewhat bear-like shaggy gentleman came up with his shopping cart and said, “That is a fantastic cheese. It tastes like parmesan, but is smooth and soft like gouda. If you go into the cheese department, they will give you a taste of it.”

I looked up and smiled, and nodded, then stuck it in my cart. “You sold me on it.”

He blushed and then blinked. “Oh,” he added, looking down at his clothes. “I work here–I’m not just some random weird guy trying to get you to eat cheese.” He blushed, and grinned back at me. “I forgot that I wasn’t in uniform.”

I smiled at him and assured him that I didn’t think he had any untoward intention whatsoever (I have never had someone try a cheese-based pickup line, so I was pretty sure he was just a fan of the curd) and I waved him on his way and kept travelling through the giant land of food.

As I wheeled along, the bad odor strengthened until I got hit by a huge wave of fishiness.

Displayed in ice-covered glory about twenty feet away was a giagantic fresh seafood department. I could see piles of thawed squid, red snapper, sea bass, shrimp, tilapia, tuna and salmon, but I stayed firmly put. Finally, holding my breath, I ventured forth to get a closer look.

The fish all -looked- fine, but inhalation was a dangerous thing.

Zak, who grew up in Baltimore and Miami–two havens of seafood–shook his head and turned away.

The website may claim that they have fresh seafood flown in six times a week, but judging from the smell–it cannot be as fresh as they might like. It is certainly not fresh enough to tempt me into trying it; our local Kroger’s seafood aisle does not have a bad smell at all–only an oceany fragrance.

I simply refuse to buy seafood in a shop that smells like rotted fish guts. That may attract sharks, but it does not attract me, nor any other shopper who knows diddly about fish.

So, we headed to the olive bar, which offered twenty different kinds of olives.

We came back with manzanilla, pink olives with coriander, oil-cured Moroccan olives, Basque marinated olives, and some wee tiny ripe ones whose name I cannot for the life of me remember, but which taste delightful.

The actual cheese section is right next to the olive and olive oil section (the long row of olive oils prompted manic cries of “EVOO! EVOO!” from Zak who has taken to tormenting me with that particular Rachaelism) and is pretty amazing in the variety of interesting cheeses on display. The folks in the cheese department were all as friendly and helpful as their off-duty comarade; I appreciated that the staff was made up of folks who really love and appreciate food. We picked up several more cheeses, though I was happy to note that most of the prices they had on cheese was comparable to the prices at Curds & Whey, the small cheesemonger at the North Market.

I was rather worried that because Whole Foods can buy in more volume than the small, local cheeseman, that they might hurt his business by offering the same product at lower prices.

Thus far, this does not appear to be the case.

By the time we finished with the cheese aisle, we were tired of looking and shopping. The store was just too big, so we bypassed the packaged foods and staple items, breezed through the chocolate section where we did pick up a few things for gifts, and then sauntered through the prepared food stations.

We stopped and gaped, but we did not buy anything–the prepared food section is huge, absolutely gigantic. It was plain to me where Whole Foods in Columbus expects to make most of their money–in the home meal replacement business. Not only is it huge, but you can sit down and eat what you pick up there, or take it home, as is obviously intended.

There is also a huge bakery department, but the samples of some of the “artisan” breads I tasted lacked character. The crumb of the Italian country bread was nice enough, but it was obvious to me that they did a single or perhaps double fast rise at a warm temperature. There were none of the excellent flavors that develop if slow, cool temperature fermentation of the dough is undertaken as is done in the creation of real artisan breads.

So, we took our olives, cheeses and chocolates to the checkout lanes, and made small talk with the very friendly cashier. I was interested to note that they offer classes at Whole Foods in all sorts of cooking and food related topics, some of them taught by non-staffers. I may end up trying to teach a few classes there, but I may not–it is quite a shlepp.

All in all–it was a pleasant enough, if somewhat surreal experience, shopping in such a gigantic Whole Foods store. But, I have to admit–the fish department was disappointing, and while I liked the cheese section, I can get as good a selection and just as good prices at the North Market. The meat section tempted me not at all, and the bread was beautiful to look at, but nothing special to taste.

I suspect that Whole Foods will do quite well in Columbus, and I wish them well.

For myself, I am sticking with Bob, the Fish Guy, the folks at Bluescreek Farms, Curds & Whey and the Bee Guy at The North Market. Bob’s fish never smells of bait, the meat at Bluescreek is not only locally raised and wholesome, but tastes divine and is priced better than the stuff at Whole Foods, and I like the cheeseman and Bee Guy is great for conversation and honey.

As for real artisan bread, we have The Big Chimney Bakery here in Athens. They understand the use of slow rising and make bread to die for.

So, that just leaves the olive bar to attract us back.

And it will. When we are in the neighborhood, we will stop in and stock up on a variety of olives to satiate our taste for the little salty, bittersweet fruits.

14 Comments

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  1. I like the Whole Foods near my house fo the cheese bit bucket, which allows you to sample a dollar or two’s worth of cheese without committing to something you’ve never tasted before. I also find it a great place to supplement my weekly farmers’ market with non-local produce — citrus and chanterelle mushrooms. But it’s too pricey to shop at regularly and I wouldn’t trade my farmers’ market for anything!

    Comment by sprite — December 21, 2005 #

  2. Ah, the Whole Foods question. I wish they would work with local farmers to sell locally grown produce. The store closest to me is not on my regular traffic route, so I don’t shop there, but I have friends that love them.

    The fish department in Columbus sounds gross. I’m not knowledgeable about fish, but I do know if it’s fresh it won’t smell bad.

    Comment by Ardene — December 21, 2005 #

  3. Sprite–I am so into the farmer’s market here in Athens–I would never, ever trade it for anything else! I am with you.

    Pricewise, as far as WF is concerned–it is pricey on some things and reasonable on others. Generally, the prices are in line with luxury items such as imported cheeses and wines that you would get elsewhere. The produce is about the same price for organic that you pay in any grocery store–but much more expensive than local farmers’ organic produce prices.

    It is a trade off. Like you, I will shop there for certain specialty items–when I am in Columbus anyway–but other than that–I have sources for most everything there elsewhere that I like better.

    Ardene–I agree with you. The Columbus Wild Oats store goes to great lengths to offer locally grown vegetables and fruits and actually features some of the farmers here in Athens–which is pretty neat and cool.

    And yes–you are right. If the fish is truly fresh, then it will not smell bad. It will usually have an oceany, saline, iodine or the tiniest “fishy” scent. (Oily fish with the skin on always have a whiff of the fishy to them, fresh or not.)

    But they never have that stomach-lurching fish innard scent that the fish department had. I know that smell well–I have helped clean many hundreds of pounds of fish in my time, and the innards and blood, as they pile up, have a particularly unpleasant scent.

    It is possible that they had just gotten done with cleaning a shipment of fish and hadn’t yet disposed of the guts–but there was also a whiff of ammonia, which is one of the smells that is particular to not fresh fish.

    And it smelled–for lack of a better term–too ingrained, to be just the immediate problem of a pile of fish guts from freshly caught and gutted fish.

    I am probably grossing people out using such terminology, so I will stop there. Suffice to say I will keep buying frozen fish at the local Kroger’s and fresh fish from Bob the Fish Guy in the North Market.

    Comment by Barbara — December 21, 2005 #

  4. EVOO! EVOO! EVOO!

    All hail the Lord High Queen of Mac’n'Weenies!
    Our Lady of Perpetual Perkitude, the Divine Ms. Ray!

    EVOO! EVOO! Evohe Rachel!

    C’mon, who in their right mind wouldn’t desire to share a little Bacchanal pleasure with such a YUM-O dish?

    (Yes. I have completely overdosed on Rachel Ray & the Ray-isms. Even if I try to escape them, I am forever drawn back…so I figure, if you can’t beat’em…)

    Comment by Zak — December 21, 2005 #

  5. I may not be able to beat Rachael Ray, but I -can- clobber you, Zak!

    Get out with the invocation to Rachael!!!!!

    And don’t you dare mess up my beautiful new kitchen by invoking her in there! There is not enough sage in the world to smudge that hungry ghost out of my sacred temple of fooditude.

    Comment by Barbara — December 21, 2005 #

  6. Hi Barbara – hope all is well with you. Would you mind if I add you to my monster list of blogroll to stay in touch? You write brilliantly :-)

    Comment by VK Narayanan — December 22, 2005 #

  7. Please do, VK–and thank you. And thank you for asking–would you like me to add you to my blogroll as well?

    I am still very impressed with your offer of the kadai for the Menu for Hope. That is so loving.

    And thank you for complimenting my writing–I am mostly quite pleased with it.

    Comment by Barbara — December 22, 2005 #

  8. I hope you call the Whole Foods store to voice your concern over the fish smell and tell them about your experience. I’m sure that management would like to know.

    We’ve got one Whole Foods here in Portland, but many options for locally-grown and organically-raised foods. My favorite is New Season’s Market (online at newseasonsmarket.com, natch.) I also should let you know that earlier this year you inspired me to subscribe to a local CSA, and it was a wonderful experience.

    The one thing I can’t get enough of from Whole Foods is their coffee beans. Just love ‘em! We don’t get down to that store often, but it’s always worth the trip. (Not to mention there’s a Sur La Table on the next block! Heaven!)

    I love reading your site, and it’s fun to read about Columbus because my in-laws live there and I actually know the place a bit. I wonder if I can get my MIL to visit any of the places you mention!

    Comment by Kristi — December 22, 2005 #

  9. So what does turmeric taste like? You can’t leave us hanging like that! By the way, I’m curious why you’d be afraid Whole Foods would sell the same cheese as a local merchant for cheaper. While local businesses are in general a good thing, I tend to think that some forms of businesses really are out-dated. A cheese merchant seems a bit too much of a niche for a modern world to me.

    (No, I’m really not trying to start a flame war with my first post.)

    (Really.)

    Comment by Sæculorum — December 23, 2005 #

  10. Kristi–you are right. I should call and tell the manager–because Zak and I cannot be the only ones to notice it. I hadn’t thought of it. Duh.

    I am glad you like to read here! Welcome, and please, post comments whenever you like!

    Saeculorum–the turmeric hasn’t been eaten yet, so I can’t tell you. I’d like to, but I can’t. Sorry. I am going to make a really lovely-sounding Thai dish with it, and I promise to report back as soon as I know! Really!

    As for worrying about Curds & Whey going out of business because of Whole Foods maybe being able to offer lower prices on cheese–well, I can see your point. But while Curds & Whey is a niche shop–it isn’t a self-contained shop–it is inside the North Market in Columbus, which is one of those old-fashioned public markets where venders have stalls, and so it is kind of like an old-fashioned grocery store. It is just that each department is owned by a different person.

    I guess part of it is that I don’t want to lose the folks who work at Curds & Whey. They have over twenty years experience at selling cheese. What they know about cheese is gargantuan compared to what the admittedly well-trained and enthusiastic young folks who work at Whole Foods know. The folks at Curds & Whey are wizards of cheese–they are like walking encyclopedias of cheese knowledge. I respect that and I don’t want to lose that.

    And, really, no matter what prices Whole Foods offers, I don’t think that the folks at the North Market are going to suffer. They all offer something that a large corporate entity like Whole Foods cannot offer and that is the established customer service, often, truly locally produced products, and a sense of place and history. They are selling out of one of the oldest public marketplaces in the US, after all, and everyone there is doing booming business.

    It was a momentary frisson of fear, I think, that caused me to worry.

    Oh, and btw–that was a good question. Not a flame, in the least. Not even a flicker.

    Please, comment often–I like to hear what my readers think and I love the dialogues that come from an active community of commentors.

    Comment by Barbara — December 24, 2005 #

  11. Barbara,

    interesting take on WF. I actually quite like them because of a few basic policies they have/ THey give the employees a LOT of responibilities and freedom in decision making for each individual store, so all stores do develop a ‘personality’ a little.

    The local one to me DOES push local produce and farmers and even mentions them by name – of course, anyone with any sense does the same when your local farmers are people like Frog Hollow – reputedly the best stone fruit in America. We also get very clean nice seafood – but staggeringly expensive.

    I go for many of the basic things you mentioned – olives are great (I love their balsamic marinated cipollini onions too) – an occasional nice cheese (although in the Bay Area we have many otehr good suppliers). But mostly I go for the slightly unusual dried goods (organic semolina flour, rolled barley, etc.) and for when I need more fresh produce than my CSA supplies. For example I went Christmas Eve to get six large bunches of chard for the dish of greens I was on the hook for for our Christmas potluck for 32 people. Their produce at our local store is impeccable.

    The other thing it is great for is stuff like essential oils. My kids and their friends make perfumes as gifts every year – in large enough quantities that I have to buy three or four more supply bottles every year.

    And finally, we don’t have a good butcher near us – WF is about the best we can do – so when I need something a little better than ordinary I go there.

    It sounds like you and other Columbus area natives are planning to do what I think a lot of people do – use it as the fill-in/backup for the things you don’t have such a good supplier of locally.

    Oh – one last thing – I completely understand the convenience/prepared food thing and far better WF than McDonalds, but it is the one part of the store I completely ignore – and it is half the store literally where we are (rich suburbs with lots of lazy, wealthy people).

    Comment by Owen — December 26, 2005 #

  12. Hey, Owen!

    Well, Whole Foods is only local in that Columbus is an hour and half drive from here, but we go there fairly frequently. So, when I am in the area, I can stop in at Whole Foods and get my olive fix, but it isn’t ever going to be a major source of our basic food items.

    I didn’t really get a chance to look at the staples, because we spent so much time in the produce, olive and cheese departments, but I will take a look when we go back tomorrow. (I am taking a friend knife shopping at Sur la Table, so she can get her first good kitchen knives. I want her to be able to take the knives on a test drive before she buys them, which they do allow you to go about at SLT, which I think is awesome.)

    Anyway–I think that if I didn’t have access to such good meat both in The North Market and locally here in Athens, I would be more intrigued by Whole Foods’ meat department. But as it is, I am very lucky to live in a farm area of a farm state, so I don’t have to rely on a corporate chain for meat at all, much less good meat.

    I can see why a lot of folks love Whole Foods, and I am very fond of them myself. I like Wild Oats pretty well, too, and Trader Joe’s, but none of them get my 100 percent backing as the be-all of food shopping. Again, I much prefer the North Market for most things, in large part, because I know the folks there, have established relationships with them and have built up a rapport over time.

    That is probably as close as I will get to Meg’s experiences with the boucherie she goes to in Paris–personal service from folks who stop to chat with you, and who will show you pictures of thier vacation with their kids, and will tell you how the whole family is doing.

    I like that.

    Comment by Barbara — December 27, 2005 #

  13. I like that Whole Foods opened a location in Columubs–it’s a great store. But if they open a location near the North Market I might have to boycott them on principal.

    http://www.columbusalive.com/2005/20050914/091405/09140510.html

    Comment by Brian — December 29, 2005 #

  14. Interestingly, I just wrote an update on the Whole Foods Columbus store that compares prices on Meyer Lemons between the North Market Produce and Whole Foods.

    Now–first of all, I am not going to switch from buying most of my meat, fish, and poultry from either Athens county sources or from the North Market. Bluescreek Meats and North Market Poultry and Game, as well as Bob the Fish guy are never going to lose my business. NEVER.

    However, no matter how much I love Meyer Lemons, I am not paying 6.99 a pound for them at North Market Produce.

    I will pay the 1.99 a pound for them at Whole Foods.

    My feeling on this issue is this–I don’t tend to buy much from the North Market Produce guy at all anyway–his prices are generally too high for me, and he doesn’t sell much in the way of Ohio produce anyway. Most of my vegetables come from the Athens Farmers Market.

    But Jeni’s Ice Cream, Curds & Whey, Nida’s Sushi and the afformentioned businesses will never, ever lose my patronage to Whole Foods. Ever. I am that loyal to them. They make or sell good, unique products, locally produced (Except Bob–his stuff tends to come from the ocean, which is in short supply in Ohio for some reason…), and of higher quality than Whole Foods can even dream of.

    So–really–it is a no brainer for me. Whole Foods is merely supplementing my shopping choices.

    Comment by Barbara — December 29, 2005 #

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