My Love Letter to Whole Foods

Thursday, December 1, 2011

“Ahhhh.” ……Oh, sorry. I was just remembering the day, the moment I fell in love with a grocery store.

Where good grocery stores go when they die.

It was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. I had been dispatched by my wife, relative to whom I am a 1099 employee who works for pumpkin pie, to pick up a whole turkey, plus a turkey breast and some other items. Apparently, science hasn’t been able to engineer a single bird with a large enough bust line to satisfy my family’s demand for white meat. You’d think this would be a high priority for the animal husbandry specialists at Victoria’s Secret Farms where they grow the models.

And off I went, leaving at 6 AM to drive the 32 miles to the largest of the area Whole Foods Markets. That’s “Whole” as in “whole-some.” Whole Foods, if you don’t know, is a chain of upscale grocery stores. Natural this, organic that. It’s clean. Friendly. Well stocked with really attractive food. If I was single a fruit or vegetable, it’s where I would go to meet someone. (Do fruits and vegetables have gender? If not, where do those cute little dipping carrots come from?)

Yes, I’ve been there before, but always with my wife, pushing the cart the way I did for my mother when I was a little kid and she wanted me to feel useful. (Oh-my-God. I’ve married my mother, haven’t I? ..Nah.) The thing is, grocery shopping with my wife, wisecracking and flirting with her from the rice wine vinegar to arugula to goat cheese is a very, very different experience than going it alone. You should see the look she gives me when I ask where they keep the Cracker Jack. Hysterical, but in a scary way.

At 7 AM, precisely, a Whole Foods employee unlocks the underground parking garage doors where several other early morning shoppers and I are waiting. There are stairs up to the store, an up escalator, but also a down esca-ramp to help people take their outgoing grocery carts to their cars. I get one of those half sized carts, and wonder if it’s okay to take one without a crumbled candy wrapper, sticky juice box residue or yesterday’s sales ad lining the bottom.

Grapes I can find. I taste one. Delicious. I’ll buy two bags. Wait. Are they organic? I’ve been studying my wife and I’m pretty sure that if rat poison were organic, it would be edible. Kale, no sweat, but I needed an English cucumber, because the more civilized the cucumber, the better. “Excuse me,” I approached one of the always nearby stock people, “can you…?” “Of course. The cucumbers are right here, sir.” And there they were, so perfectly organized, among the always full bins of color coordinated other vegetables, I didn’t recognize them. They had been inserted long-ways into the vegetable wall so all I could see was cucumber tips. “Is there anything else I can help you find?” “Uh, not right now, but thank you.”

Those are the butt ends of the cucumbers in the upper left.

And then I realized, that being a man alone in a Whole Foods must be like being a pregnant woman on subway. “Wow. So that’s what it feels like?”

Over to the cheese department. That’s right, they have a cheese department, including people slicing cheese from big wheels of the stuff. I’m surprised they stopped short of having a cow and goat so they can make the cheese I order fresh on the premises. “Excuse me,” I address the white lab coated twenty something woman carefully adjusting her stock. “My wife…” Notice how I open. “How wonderful is this guy,” she says to herself, “coming here from God knows where, at the crack of dawn, to help his wife prepare the perfect meal for our national holiday?” “My wife ask me to pick up a half pound of Brie, something, she said, ‘not too fancy’,” by which she meant “cheap,” but not so cheap that our guests, who would probably prefer Cheetos, will be able to tell the difference between what we’re serving them and the good stuff.

Was the cheese girl in the lab coat offended? Don’t be ridiculous. This is Whole Foods where the customer service is natural, organic and made fresh daily. “In that case, let me recommend…” and she pointed to this one stack of perfectly wrapped wedges – not to be confused with “wedgies” which are very different and less comfortable – imported from France. “Have you,” I asked, seeing all the other brands in the case, “actually tasted this particular Brie?” “Of course,” she smiled, naturally, organically, without the least offense or pretense. “I’ve tasted all the cheeses we offer, which is why I recommended this one.” ..Wow.

And yet, that was not the moment. It was the prelude to the moment, but not “the moment” itself.

My next job, before heading for cases of perfectly stacked bags of frozen vegetables… They’re not ordinary frozen vegetables, not at Whole Foods. These are special cryonic organic vegetables that will be brought back to life when cooked in high end olive oil, or by Olive Oyl, I’m not sure which. So before I get the frozen vegetables, I go to the dairy wall at the back of the store, where they keep the milk, yogurt and… and.. Oh, no! I can’t find the Attune bars for my daughter, Goldilocks, who, with her husband and my new grandson, is visiting us for the holiday. Apparently, these are the only “probiotic” bars she can eat and she’ll no longer love us or let us play with our grandson unless I have a box of them in our fridge. (Just kidding. My daughter’s wonderful. My son too.) Probiotic? Who wouldn’t be in favor of “biotics”? Personally, I prefer that my candy bars not having anything live in them, but what do I know.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any. Maybe I can pick up a Baby Ruth for her at the ordinary grocery store that’s near our house, 32 miles closer to our house, to be precise, but who’s counting. “Can I help you?” The incredible thing about Whole Foods is that the people stocking the store, which they’re constantly doing, are trained to recognize “that look” on their customers’ faces. “Actually…,” and I told him what I needed. “Well, I can’t help you, but let me get our Attune bar inventory specialist..,” which he did. Immediately. I think the guy, a twenty something stock person named Marcus, must have beamed himself over. “As a matter of fact, sir, we’d run out, but I can check to see if any have come in. If you’ll just…” “No. No thank you. It’s very nice of you to offer, but I’ve got to get back. My wife executes these holiday meals with military precision and is probably on the verge of calling out the National Guard to look for me, even as we speak.” “But…,” he pleaded. “Thank you, really, but I’ve got to go.” And I did.

And then it happened. Two isles and half a store away, my back to the dairy wall, I hear a voice. “Sir. Excuse me, Sir.” It’s Marcus, the Attune bar inventory specialist, jogging after me. He had to look all over the store to find me. “Are these what you were looking for?” And there, in his hands, was a freshly opened, all natural, organic cardboard case of boxes of Attune probiotic bars, dark chocolate – precisely the flavor my daughter likes. “How…” I fought back tears. “How did you know?” Modestly, he flashed that “Whole Foods” smile, a deep breath of pride filling up his forest green Whole Foods shirt. “Sir, it’s what we do.” …No, he didn’t say that, but he did smile, the saliva on his brilliant white, all natural teeth flashing a trademark Whole Foods sparkle.

And that was the moment I fell in love with Whole Foods. ..Not with Marcus or the Cheese Steward, just to be clear. With the store. I’m a happily married man. And I have a daughter who still loves me and lets me play with my grandson. …It’s alllll good.


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