Austin's Whole Foods site to see in London
Signature store reminds of home with a twist: puddings, pasties, more than spot of tea.
LONDON My friends give me such grief. We are in the Queen's city, primed to see sights, but I head to Whole Foods Market as they dash off to Westminster Abbey.
"You fly all the way across the ocean to go to a grocery store?"
Not exactly, but I haven't been in London since Whole Foods opened its three-floor store in 2007 in the historic Barkers Building near Kensington Palace.
Having watched the Austin-born natural foods chain for three decades — it celebrates its 30th anniversary this week — grow from one 10,000-square-foot store at 10th Street and Lamar Boulevard to more than 270 stores in North America and the United Kingdom today, I simply have to visit the tony sibling on English soil. Would it have a tea room? Security personnel in bobby hats? A pub with dart board?
No, no and no.
In many ways, the interior of the 3-year-old market looks very much like Austin's downtown store \u2013 spacious, artfully stocked departments with a plethora of tempting fresh foods. But there are distinct differences, beginning with the well-worn grand staircase near the door that the queen is said to have once walked when the building was a department store. Of course, I have to climb the steps, for tradition's sake. (Had I been pushing a grocery cart, or "trolley," as they are called, I would have used the elevator or "lift" to the next level.)
"Turn at the crisps," a helpful store employee tells me. Crisps? That would be bags of chips.
I quickly learn British groceryspeak as I observe other market differences. In the dairy department, cans of baked beans are stacked high near the eggs, because a full English breakfast usually includes both. And the eggs — from ostrich to hen to duck — are sold individually, marked with a code number identifying the source.
I am drawn to the make-your-own-muesli bar, a stainless steel, salad bar-looking display that offers two dozen ingredients to scoop for your breakfast cereal. This would be the equivalent of a make-your-own-granola bar in Austin.
Tea abounds — more than 100 kinds in packages or in bulk. Black tea is the biggest seller and green tea is coming up, but no sweet tea and no tea room.
"There are many places to go for traditional tea in London," says Jeff Turnas, regional president of Whole Foods Market for the U.K. So, instead of a tea room, the store has a juice and coffee bar.
The meat department, which does its own butchering and sausage making is a shopper-stopper. Six whole lambs, each hiney adorned with a red tomato, share case space with two hindquarters of beef. Above the counter, a dry-aging cabinet holds roasts and steaks.
Sunday roast is still big in London, Turnas adds. "Our meat department has become a destination." All of the meat is grown in the U.K. and the store is the first to practice the 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating Program that audits how the animals have been raised and treated, he notes. But only two or three local farms can do all five steps at this time.
At the 80,000-square-foot London store, cheese has a large, chilled, humidity-controlled room of its own. It is ripe with flavors and aromas. The cheese wedges, rounds and pyramids — many of them regional — are not buried in coolers but instead cover tables, counters and shelves. Tasting is encouraged. I want to linger and party.
"Unlike the States, many of these cheeses are made from unpasteurized raw milk," Turnas says. Shopping patterns in the U.K. are different, too, he adds. "The amount of Stilton brought in at Christmas is amazing."
The London store does not have a chilled walk-through beer alley like the Austin store, but in its wine department, it offers barrels of organic wine — on this day a Spanish red and a Spanish white — for refilling glass bottles. The shoppers bring their own bottles or purchase them. At the London store, the barrel wine sells for the equivalent of $9.34 a liter (a third more volume than a typical 750-milliliter bottle.)
Unlike many Whole Foods Markets whose main doors open into carefully arranged stacks of carrots, apples and other produce, this one welcomes with an in-store bakery and tables of fresh breads and pastries piled onto trays and cake plates.
"Our bakery department, in my opinion, is one of the best if not the best in the company," says Turnas, a 15-year-veteran of Whole Foods and former president of the North Atlantic Region. "People love the bread here."
But my eye is caught by a pile of giant meringues, easily the size of hamburger. You don't see that in Austin. We don't have Eton mess either. That's the name of a popular English dessert made of crumbled meringues, strawberries and whipped cream, served at awards day picnics, cricket games and weddings.
From the enticing bakery welcome, shoppers move forward into prepared foods and salad bars, or take an escalator down to the lower ground floor to produce, dairy and meat departments. If they have come to eat rather than shop, they go upstairs to the market's restaurants, Merchant of Vino wine bar and a food court with stations for burritos, pasta, soup and salad, crêpes, gelato, meze, coffee and juice. This is a bustling lunchtime haven with seating for 230.
On this day, Erin Narthey, an ex-pat shopper who lives two tube stops from the store, has dropped in after a class for a burrito and some soy snacks. Janie Romer of London is cooking pork and veggies in hot broth at Shabu Shabu, an in-store Japanese hot pot restaurant the market has recently added as a partner. On a celiac diet, she has come for lunch after a hair appointment. "I also like to buy Mexican food here," adds Romer, a singer/songwriter who says she has visited Austin and used to date a member of Asleep at the Wheel.
As noon hits, the tables fill up, many of them with young mothers, or nannies, with kids and buggies enjoying lunch dates. For us, the pasty station, which sells hot half-moon-shaped organic steak and veggie pies, beckons. Although traditional in England, the pasty was added to the store's offering this year. Call it a collaborative local effort. Whole Foods buys the organic animal from a farmer, butchers it and then sells parts of it to the organic pasty producer in Cornwall. The pasties, several flavors, are prepared and sold at Whole Foods near the entrance at lunch. I succumb and purchase one of the $5 flaky traditional meat pies not easily found in Austin. My intention is to just taste, but one bite becomes two, then three \u2026 ahhh. It is worth a trip across the pond.
The store, Turnas says, has made definite changes since it opened three years ago in a period of economic downturn. Gone is the champagne and oyster bar. Added are the popular burrito station (Mexican food is not so readily found in the U.K.), and the healthy-eating restaurants like Shabu Shabu and SAF, a sibling of a vegan East London eatery which they hope will become a destination restaurant in the store.
The store is well located at 63-97 Kensington High St., a top shopping area near Kensington Gardens that already attracts tourists.
"At first, I didn't necessarily want us to be a tourist destination — we are a community market — but the idea of a tourist spot, now we are embracing it," Turnas says. We are doing marketing initiatives to draw tourists in."
Originally, Whole Foods Market in Kensington was designed for urban shoppers and provided no parking. But people come from farther away with their cars, so now there is a branded lot that is free for shoppers who spend 25 pounds (about $40). Expecting most shoppers to use hand-baskets, the store opened without any conveyor-belt check-out lanes. But now it has added four lanes for shoppers with big carts of groceries.
"There are things we try all the time at Whole Foods everywhere. Some things work, some don't," says Turnas, a veteran Whole Foods leader, who arrived in the U.K. more than a year ago. His task is to make the store profitable (it has yet to turn a profit in the three years it's been open) and to oversee future growth for the Kensington store and four smaller Whole Foods Markets in London.
"This flagship store will be a long-term investment. We are bullish on the U.K.," he says. "We will open more stores."
But will they be as large? Will they attract celebs such as Goldie Hawn, Kirk Douglas and Dustin Hoffman like the Kensington store? Will they offer Thirsty Thursday wine and food classes, mix-your-own bath salts, kids clubs and floristry classes? Will they make visitors from the U.S. abandon the usual London tourist attractions like I did?
Perhaps, but the Whole Foods name is not yet as familiar to the cabbies as the London Eye, Big Ben or Buckingham Palace. My driver did not nod with understanding until I said Barkers Building.
Obviously, he's never had one of the organic pasties.
Groceryspeak, British style
• Biscuit - cracker or cookie
• Bangers - sausage
• Crisps - potato chips
• Porridge - oatmeal
• Pudding - dessert
• Cash register - till
• Tin - can
• Grocery cart - trolley
• Elevator - lift
• Pasty - a portable meat pie
Celebrate 30 years in the city that started it all
Whole Foods Market is celebrating its 30th anniversary this weekend with a series of public events. Bands, entertainment, contests, games, prizes and more are on tap starting Friday. All Saturday events are under a big tent on the outdoor parking lot of the Whole Foods Market at 525 N. Lamar Blvd. Here's the schedule:
• 7 p.m. - Sunset Supper and Cinema: 'Dazed and Confused' on the rooftop plaza
• Noon-3 p.m.- Birthday Bash Festival: More than 40 local vendors for a local taste fair
• Noon-5 p.m. - Go Texan Fair: Live cooking demonstrations by Whole Foods Market chefs featuring locally grown produce.
• 6-9 p.m. - Benefit Concert: The White Ghost Shivers opens at 6 p.m., followed by Beto and the Fairlanes at 7:30 p.m. (Beto and the Fairlanes played at the Whole Foods Market `Resurrection Party' after the big flood in 1981.) $5 suggested donation, general admission. $20 VIP tent with food/drinks. Proceeds benefit the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians.