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Feature Fri May 15 2009
Next Wednesday, Whole Foods Market is scheduled to open their new Midwest flagship store at 1550 North Kingsbury Court. Eight years in the making and clocking in at 75,000 square feet, it will replace the present North Avenue store and be considerably larger in scope (the third largest Whole Foods in the world) with approximately 75,000 items, one-third more than what the average store contains to date.
I was treated to a pre-opening tour, and found this megastore to be quite approachable -- unlike a Walmart or Home Depot, where you can wander aimlessly in a very generic setting. Not so here. It's got more of a store-within-a-store feeling, with each department's physical layout set up as if it were a free-standing, self-contained world unto its own.
Witness a sustainable fishmonger, where seafood is under close scrutiny from sea farm or boat to seafood case, or a 21-day dry-aged, antibiotic-free meat counter that adheres to some of the strictest standards in the industry. Both meat and fish are received and cut in chilled prep rooms for optimum safety and freshness.
A fromagerie features 350 artisanal cheese selections. Beer and wine departments feature self-serve wine stations with state of the art technology for holding and serving wines by the glass, and upwards of 200 beers available for purchase. A bread bakery with all products baked daily from scratch and onsite by a staff of 30, patterned after their Kensington store in London. There's also a bulk chocolate shop with numerous brands from around the world, starting with Chicago's own Vosges Haut Chocolate, whose flavors include bacon or chili.
The produce department will feature the largest selection of fresh, locally grown and organic produce in the city, with a large variety of exotic ethnic fruits and specialty vegetables. Some of the indigenous farmers teaming with Whole Foods are Herbal Garden, Harmony Valley, Tipi Produce and Driftless Organics.
In the prepared food section, deli cases will include 50 heat-and-serve entree options, supported by a selection of 32 hot food items held on a steam table and an additional 32 chilled salad and side dish items. I'd imagine that the equally impressive self-serve dessert bar will prove to be popular as well.
And in case you haven't noticed, bulk is back... or else you're being put on notice now. Whole Foods is beefing up their bulk foods/products department where you'll be able get all the honey, maple syrup or agave nectar needed to fill your bathtub. You can build your own trail mix, get your herbs and spices and even partake in a do-it-yourself bath salts bar (with recipes), all while sipping on fair trade coffee that will be roasted in-house.
The Whole Foods design team logged considerable air miles traveling the world taking notes and then putting to use some of the more inspired ideas they found in their travels.
Numerous Chicago-centric design elements have been incorporated into the store, not the least of which being a tattoo of the city flag on the forearm of the store's manager -- or in Whole Foods' speak, "team leader." As you wander about the store, you'll notice things like a brick wall plastered with an ad just like the ones you see when driving on the Kennedy, an abstract graffiti rendition of the city's skyline, or an old water tower. They've also named some of the hot food outlets after Taylor Street, Pilsen and Riverview, and built an outdoor riverwalk cafe and exhibition kitchen for classes.
Whole Foods commitment to local vendors and growers is demonstrated by teaming up with local purveyors to exclusively supply products only to the Lincoln Park store. Among them are Rolf's Patisserie, Club Lucky, La Creperie, Sweet Mysteries Bakery, Swirlz Cupcakes and Homers Ice Cream. Profiles of the vendors will be an integral part of the marketing campaign. Green, local and fair trade (or in Whole Food-ese, "more than fair trade") items figure prominently into the store's core values by carrying "natural and organic products in their purest state, unadulterated by artificial additives, sweeteners, colorings and preservatives."
Building materials such as reclaimed wood, brick and cork can be seen throughout the store in the likes of a cork floor for the wine department (who'd have figured?) and cork light shades for some of the light fixtures. Chalkboards framed by repurposed sheet pans from the store's former commissary hang on the walls. A row of self-serve freezers are dark until the mounted motion detectors are tripped to light up as you approach. Curtains that come down in front of the cold dairy products at night when the store is closed, keeping the cold contained within, both saving considerable energy.
Besides being smart and in tune with the needs of the day and with an eye to the future, the reality is that repurposing materials and prioritizing efficiency saves money as well as energy. It doesn't have to be more expensive to be greener; in fact, the energy savings will more than pay for the additional technology over a short period of time, translating to a better bottom line.
Whole Foods' corporate philosophy and altruistic business model embraces many relevant buzzwords for meaningful 21st century business practices. This is reinforced by their commitment as global citizens, and further expanded upon by their social responsibility in trading only ethically produced products that meet environmentally sustainable criteria.
Couple that with the company policy of championing humane working conditions and accepted labor practices regarding minimum wage and child labor laws to be strictly adhered to by all suppliers. Whole Foods is at the vanguard of the new millennium of sound business practices -- in fact, their "Whole Trade" Guarantee, which covers select products displaying the Whole Trade logo, goes as far as to donate 1% of the item sales back to the Whole Planet Foundation, which provides micro loans to workers in developing countries such as Guatemala and Costa Rica.
It appears that Whole Foods seems to be walking the walk besides talking the talk, something I find refreshing and willing to support after the greed and cynicism of the last eight years. At the very least, it's worth checking out.
About the Author
Alan Lake has been a professional chef for over 25 years and has won numerous awards, professional competitions and distinctions. He's mainly consulting now, setting up projects like kitchen design, menu development, hiring and training staff, research, etc. He's also been a professional musician most of his life and coined the term "Jazzfood" to describe his "solid technique based upon tasteful improvisational abilities" and views his food as he does his music.