Comfortably Numb: The Whole Foods Market Experience

Comfortably Numb: The Whole Foods Market Experience banner image

Hanley with LollyThere are many types of commercial crazes. Here be two of them. Firstly, the sort that comes out of nowhere and skyrockets in profitability like Icarus with a one-way ticket to the Sun. Secondly, there are those which initially appear quite the same, but have in fact managed to furnish Icarus with a return ticket in First Class, destined to descend to the consumer market on an unrelenting mission to open the wallets of the middle classes, again, and again.

I’m old enough to remember the emergence of the organic produce craze in the mid-1990s. This particular Icarus has peaked and troughed like a high-roller pigeon; it has always had a constant, underlying presence, with periodical subsequent re-emergences in popularity. When supermarkets realised that not everybody could afford to spend fifteen pounds on an organic chicken, the “free range” bird as a halfway-hen-house was chucked out of the roost as the slightly less extortionate alternative. Since then we’ve had celebrity chefs dominating our television screens, millionaire cooks telling us we’re all terrible human beings who should be tried in The Hague for funding the systematic genocide of millions of animals.

How dare we not be able to justify spending so much money on organic produce, when our Good Life-living prophets tell us we must at all costs? Hell, it’s only what human civilisation has been trying to advance us out of since day one, in order to be more agriculturally productive and keep our species alive. I’m sure if my eleventh century ancestors were perusing the organic aisle in Ye Olde Sainsbury’s today, they’d howl with laughter and fall onto their own swords at the irony of produce so expensive in comparison to modernised fare and variety that already meets high, scientific standards.

Now, to the subject of this piece proper: Whole Foods Market. I mentioned earlier that the organic food phenomenon really hit Britain in the late 1990s; Whole Foods had first sprouted onto the market in Texas in 1980. The seeds were eventually carried by the winds of change to London in 2007, with the first superstore bearing its fruit on High Street Kensington. Fellow Londoners may be shocked to learn that there are only seven such facilities in the capital, especially when it seems you can’t avoid this new middle class badge of honour wherever you are. I’ve not seen this level of alacrity by a metropolitan populace to actively showcase such a label about town since Bloomingdale’s various-sized “brown bags” became the the grand fromage in the Big Apple in the nineties.

I finally capitulated. It’s not possible to live in west London and not be sucked-in by the great Whole Foods tractor beam eventually; my fully-operational, local organic facility happens to be on Fulham Broadway. My Waitrose loyalty card screamed in muffled disappointment from my wallet upon traversing the threshold into this craze of grazing cathedral. You can’t deny that it’s certainly an impressive place. The vegetable selection upon entry alone is something to behold: luscious, fresh, bursting with flavour, and pulled out of the ground right in… Kenya. With society in the current epoch of locality as a major selling point (I’m completely bemused), that crucial small-print allows one’s MyWaitrose card to see the light at the end of the tunnel – but enough hope to rise up and take a gulp of fresh air?

The selection of fresh meats, game, and cheeses were certainly well-sourced and impressive. The quality and variety on offer were certainly up to the standard of my local deli in Parsons Green – my favourite fodder dispensary on Earth; period. The “superfood” or seed zone, alas not the sort of seedy department I had in mind, immediately struck me as a pick ‘n’ mix where chipmunks could go totally nuts (sorry), and squirrel away (sorry again) enough stores to endure a winter in Westeros. This area of produce simply doesn’t fall under my jurisdiction so I’m afraid we’ll have to branch out (not sorry) into another alcove of the establishment. The MyWaitrose card rubs its hands with glee as I begin to go crawling back.

Now we finally hit the deal-breaker, like the Titanic and that iceberg – the sinking feeling was that bad. I hate being accosted. I hate being ambushed in the street by someone with a hi-vis vest, Cheshire cat grin to match, and the clipboard of doom that you feel morally will be wrapped around your head if you don’t give a few quid a week to feed poor Fedozi in sub-Saharan Africa. It is no less infuriating during the numb delirium of trying to make the crucial decision of what size bag of spinach I want to procure for my dinner. This one took the biscuit. Remember that iceberg? Well, this spiel was all about some Icelandic volcano water, filtered through a Fabergé Egg after being freshly chipped off that ‘berg, and bottled at source into a hand-blown Lalique plastic vessel. Please, spare me the bullshit. Did I cave? Of course I bloody did – a quid each!

One thing that can be said about Whole Foods is that the music playing in the store to help survival in the maze of middle class miscellany is certainly very tasteful – I remember a lot of Pink Floyd gently oozing its way into my ears. It seems Whole Foods (and this entire sector) will be going from strength to strength for the foreseeable future. It does present a new, alternative dynamic to your everyday shopping experience and should be applauded for that. Of course, it’s not an everyday experience and it won’t be usurping the weekly shopping trip to Waitrose down the road. It’s the one-off, “special destination” factor that will keep it fresh, exciting and leaving its happy customers Comfortably Numb.

Just like that bloody water.



Photo: Tyler Cipriani