The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Thursday, January 28, 2016

Falling Out Of Love With Whole Foods

The “Whole Paycheck” Moniker Is Becoming Less Of A Gentle Jab And More Of A Bitch Slap

Like in the popular John Mellencamp song, I was born in a small town. And I live in a small town today. In the decades between, I've lived in a lot of big towns and while, as Mellancamp sings, I can breathe in a small town, I often can't buy decent groceries there. Or at last that's the way it used to be.

When I was a kid growing up in a Midwestern community of less than five-thousand, we had three grocery stores in town. And they were all pretty much the same. There was no olive oil. Cooking oil came from the most abundant local product; corn. You wanted cheese? You had your choice; Cheddar, Swiss, or American. The produce section could fit on a postage stamp and featured staples like apples, bananas, oranges, carrots, celery, and potatoes. Tomatoes, peas, and corn were available in season, of course, otherwise it was up to the Jolly Green Giant over in the canned goods aisle. Veal, lamb, duck, lobster? In your dreams. Beef, chicken, or pork chops; take it or leave it. My mom and I used to make monthly pilgrimages to the nearest “big city,” a metropolis of about ten-thousand, to acquire those rare “luxury items” we just couldn't get at home.

In later years, I discovered ethnic neighborhoods in places like Chicago and Minneapolis. Wow! No more Kraft spaghetti dinners in a box! I could actually buy the stuff I needed to make real Italian food at home. We had a Japanese friend visiting for a couple of weeks, and she was thrilled to find authentic Japanese ingredients for the dishes she wanted to prepare for us. You couldn't even buy soy sauce in the little markets I'd grown up with.

And then one day I discovered Whole Foods. I was not a “health nut” in those days, so I had pretty much bypassed the place at first until somebody told me I could find more than just granola and carrot juice in there. They had Parmigiano-Reggiano in the cheese department. “Okay,” I said, “let's go check this place out.” And I was hooked. It was love at first sight. Yeah, they had a lot of granola and carrot juice, but there was just so much more! It was mind boggling. The produce section went on for miles, stuffed full of every “exotic” fruit and vegetable my little heart could desire. They had amazing meats. I mean, come on! They had buffalo! There were bulk containers brimming with flours and legumes and grains I had never seen outside the ethnic stores. An ocean of fresh seafood awaited. And the cheese section.......I thought I had died and gone to Wisconsin. By way of Italy, France, England, and a number of other great cheesy places. There was every cheese I had ever imagined and some I hadn't even thought of. And great wines to boot.

Not only did Whole Foods have all these wonderful raw materials for me to take home and transform into delicious fare, they had delicious fare right there in the store. Whole Foods quickly became my favorite restaurant. They had an awesome hot bar. The location I frequented had a wonderful brasserie and a fantastic pizzeria. And a gelateria for dessert. What more could you ask for?

The closest Whole Foods was more than fifty miles away, but who cared? And yes, they were a little on the pricey side, but I was willing to pay extra for the quality and variety. I ignored the critics who called the place “Whole Paycheck” and started beating the drum and singing the song for Whole Foods, touting it as the only place on the planet to get anything and everything you needed to make amazing food at home. Sure it was expensive. Quality usually is. But still I sent friends and family there and I recommended it to readers and listeners and to human beings in general. Then something strange occurred.

Whole Foods had carved itself a niche as the industry leader in natural and organic products. And they pretty much had the market cornered when it came to providing ingredients you just couldn't get anywhere else. They became the media darling for shows like “Top Chef,” where the contestants were always shown going to a Whole Foods to purchase those high-quality high-end ingredients they needed to make their innovative and exciting dishes. Bear in mind, I was not on the “organic” or “natural” bandwagon. I'm still not. Too much wiggle room in those murky, undefined and uncodified terms. But quality and variety......those are things I understood and actively sought out. Still do. So imagine my surprise when I was strolling through a Sam's Club one day and found Parmigiano-Reggiano there. And it was cheaper.....much cheaper.......than what I had recently paid at Whole Foods. Hmmmmm.

A paradigm shift had occurred in the market. Over the course of a fairly short period of time, all the things I craved and drooled over at Whole Foods started cropping up at Kroger. And Publix. And Harris Teeter. Even “lower end” markets like Giant, Food City and Piggly Wiggly were upping their game. My jaw dropped when I started finding prosciutto and fresh mozzarella at Walmart. And all of it at much lower prices than Whole Foods was charging. And most within the limits of my small town. No more fifty mile treks to buy a wedge of cheese. Then farmers markets started springing up everywhere. Fresh, organic, natural produce.....including farm-fresh eggs......were suddenly as close as a downtown parking lot on a Saturday morning. What more could you ask for?

Whole Foods saw the writing on the wall and responded. Well.....sort of. They responded at the corporate level anyway. Lots of promises and guarantees, but so far no sign of any real change has been forthcoming as I discovered on my last trip to Whole Foods. Somebody had given me a fifty-dollar Whole Foods gift card. I was astonished when I realized that I could not spend it all in one trip. Not because the prices were so low, but rather because I couldn't find anything upon which to spend it that I couldn't find elsewhere and cheaper. Ten dollars a pound for bacon? Not when my butcher sells it for less than four dollars a pound. Arborio rice? They've got that everywhere nowadays. Olive oil? Trader Joes.......just as good and much cheaper. That Parmigiano-Reggiano that originally got me in the door at Whole Foods is now available at Walmart for about half the cost. I've never been able to find grana padano at Whole Foods. I picked some up at Publix the other day. Ooops.

Whole Foods got body-slammed by overpricing scandals in New York and California. More recently, the company's stock took a hit after an analyst downgraded the chain to an “underperfom” rating; Wall Street shorthand for “sell.” That move was based largely on a survey that revealed significant rumblings in the ranks of the Whole Foods faithful. More than a thousand Whole Foods customers.......customers, mind you, not the common “man-on-the-street”.....were polled and more than seventy percent failed to notice any price changes in the previous three months. This in the face of the company's promise to lower prices. Worse, only twenty-four percent of respondents said that Whole Foods' organic products were “definitely” better than those found at grocery stores. Fifty-four percent of those surveyed said the quality of the food was "sometimes" better at Whole Foods while the remaining twenty-two percent said "not at all." Apparently I'm not the only one falling out of love with Whole Foods. It looks like I've got a lot of company.

They've brought it on themselves. Everybody who's ever taken an economics class in high school knows that competition drives the market. When your loyal customers discover they can buy products that are equal to or better than yours for less somewhere else, how long do you think loyalty is going to last? I'm as loyal as the next guy. Sometimes I'm too loyal, riding the bandwagon all the way to the last stop in the hope that something will turn things around. But I guess when it comes to Whole Foods, I'll be jumping off as the wagon passes Publix. Or Kroger. Or Harris Teeter. Or even Walmart.

Will I stop recommending Whole Foods to other people? No. Not yet. They still have some unique aspects that other stores have yet to implement. For instance, you can sample before you buy at Whole Foods. The cheesemonger there will gladly let you try a bit of an unfamiliar cheese. Some Whole Foods locations have olive oil bars where you can try out the various brands and varieties offered. But the competition is catching wise to that trick, too, and it won't be long before Whole Foods loses its last competitive edge.

The “Whole Paycheck” moniker is becoming less of a gentle jab and more of a bitch slap as cost-conscious consumers continue to board the bus for less expensive locales. Goodness knows I'm not a penny-pincher, at least not when it comes to quality. Nickels and dimes don't bother me in the slightest. But dollars do. When I can buy two or three of something at one store for the cost of one of the same item at another store, guess where I'm shopping? Especially if the quality is about the same, which is more and more becoming the case with Whole Foods versus, say, Trader Joe's or Kroger. Parmigiano-Reggiano is as much a staple for me as American cheese is for some households. Harris Teeter regularly has it on sale for less than ten bucks a pound. As opposed to nearly twenty dollars a pound at Whole mean Whole Foods. There's just no competition there. I love....let me spell that out.....L-O-V-E bacon. Ten bucks a pound for stuff that's supposed to be locally sourced? Okay, I'm usually all about “local,” but not when I can get Benton's bacon, the best bacon on the planet, for $7.50 or some pretty darn good porky ambrosia from my butcher for less than four dollars a pound. There's just no competition there. I get fresh eggs from a local guy. He charges me two dollars a dozen. Whole Foods can't touch that. And there's a place in town that now sells grass-fed beef for about what Whole Foods charges. Except it's fifty miles closer. No brainer.

Like John Mellencamp's “Small Town” character, my bed is in a small town. And as the quality and variety of goods being offered in my small town continues to increase and expand, my wallet will stay there, too. See you around, Whole Foods. I'll drop by when I'm in town and have a lot of extra money to spend. But don't hold your breath.

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