Friday, August 29, 2008

Whole Foods in St. Paul

A friend of mine calls Whole Foods "Whole Paycheck." There's some truth to it. As I'm standing in the checkout line, I play "estimate the damage" of my cart. I'm surprised how well I do. Except at Whole Foods. It's usually more, but I return. As a kid, "going to the grocery store" meant tagging along with my mom to the Red Owl. Our store in small town Minnesota during the 70's had glum teenagers schlepping dull canned foods, Chiquita bananas, red apples, carrots, lettuce, celery and bologna sandwiches. Today, "Going to Whole Foods" means walking into halogen track lighting that shows off gleaned star fruit, Japanese eggplants, and free range everything with a friendly staff and packaged foods stocked seven feet high. It's the atmosphere of a department store. The Red Owl I knew is long gone. Even small mom and pop shops' inventories today greatly exceed what was available then. But that dim Red Owlish atmosphere lives on, albeit on a larger scale in many Cubs, Rainbows and Sam's Clubs.

Year round fruit and fresh seafood (in Minnesota) is the new norm, whether to call this progress or globalization I don't care. But Whole Foods goes a little further, they also cater to restrictive diets and specialty foods. I started baking bread again. Why I started baking bread in July I don't know. I love Shirley Corriher, the author of Cookwise. Her baking advice has been invaluable. I learned from her book to use high protein flour for a French style crisp crust. Lately, that's been harder to find. The wheat market is tight and the quality has suffered. Even flours specifically identified as bread flour have had lower protein content. A workaround is to mix in a little high protein garbanzo bean flour. I do have a pestle and mortar, but even if I thought I could grind the beans finely enough, I doubt I'd want to. So where does one find garbanzo bean flour . . . ?

Its taken a few years to understand Whole Foods. I'd been a member of the Wedge Co-op when I lived in Minneapolis. But Whole Foods is a corp. not a co-op. I suspect Whole Foods wouldn't mind it if some of their customers thought they were walking into a co-op rather than a publicly traded company whose shares are sold on the NASDAQ. Lately they've modified their inventory, besides emphasizing organics and health foods prominent signs advertise the locations of locally produced goods. Someone wore Birkenstocks in marketing school.

I've pegged my problem with estimating the damage at Whole Foods, I rationalize that since food is a necessity not a discretionary expense, I toss organic green onions and eco-friendly dish soap in my cart without hesitation. I console myself at the cash register, at least I'm getting something for my money: garbanzo bean flour, lamb shoulder roast, or the only sheep's milk cheese my wife has ever liked. Maybe I'd have an easier time estimating the price at Rainbow Foods, but I'm not so sure what I'm getting there is food.

What is Whole Foods Good At? Organics, Eco-Friendly Products, Restrictive diets (e.g. gluten-free, dairy-free).

What is Whole Foods not so Good at? Prices on packaged foods/convenience foods. If you're going to eat microwave burritos, make a bunch and freeze them yourself.

What to get at Whole Foods? Bulk items, especially spices are a terrific bargain. They also have a remarkably good meat case, particularly sausages. I thought years of working in a German restaurant would create a permanent aversion to sausage, but theirs are first rate.

How do I get there? The St. Paul Whole Foods is at 30 Fairview Ave, on the corner of Grand and Fairview. There is also a Whole Foods at 3060 Excelsior Blvd in Minneapolis.

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