April 20 2016 01:52 PM

The Whole Foods ‘experience’ brings pot of competition to a boil

The long-awaited opening day of Whole Foods in Meridian Township last week was big entertainment and serious business. Some sharp repartee at the cheese counter summed it up.

A customer listened politely as the cheese man handed him a wedge of Gabriel Coulet, a French Roquefort.

“Put honey over it and it cuts through the bite,” he told the customer. “King Charlemagne loved this cheese.”

“Charlemagne is dead,” the man shot back.

“Yeah, but it wasn’t the cheese that killed him.”

Whole Foods wine buyer D.J. Jaskowski is a veteran of Goodrich's Shop-Rite, a much-loved, locally owned store that closed in 2014.
Lawrence Cosentino/City Pulse

One of the corporate tenets of Whole Foods, the Texas-based chain of 431 stores, is to make shopping an experience.

For those who braved the opening, it was that and then some. Shaking up a crowded local health food market, Whole Foods is slathering a lot of honey over a potentially bone-deep market bite.

As I circled the jammed parking lot, and the jammed lot next door, a lady called out to me: “Good luck.”

The inventory is a healthy-cop, decadent-cop workover of epic proportions. If I had to pick one item to represent the entire store, it would be Laura’s Wholesome Junk Food, a line of sweet treats “made of ingredients you can pronounce.” Over 200 locally sourced items, a brew pub, coffee shop and crisscrossing hordes of eager “team members” kept the 45,000-square-foot store swarming with people all weekend.

“Team members” from Ann Arbor, Chicago and other established stores were brought in to support the regular staff of about 135 for opening week. The entire regular staff, except half a dozen experienced team leaders, are local hires.

Near the entrance, a woman was slicing and frying shiitake mushrooms. Republic of Tea Double Green Matcha tea was brewing nearby. A wine expert served up samples of super-sweet ice wine at $17 a bottle. A genial chef from Easy Artisan Bread of Tecumseh, sporting a felt pizza hat, demonstrated how to make pizza from his “premium grain” mix.

“Go extra thick with the portabello because they shrink,” he told a knot of onlookers.

Many customers were surprised to see D.J. Jaskowski, the store’s wine buyer, in his familiar reaching-for-a-bottle pose. Jaskowski was the wine buyer at Goodrich’s Shop- Rite, an East Lansing institution since 1967 that was closed closed in 2014 and replaced by Arizona-based Fresh Thyme Market.

“It’s like a Shop-Rite reunion,” Jaskowski said on opening day. “I’ve already seen about 20 people I haven’t seen since Shop-Rite closed.”

One lady cried when she saw Jaskowski and declared that she had found her “new store.”

The unforeseen Shop-Rite migration is one bubble in a pot of local competition Whole Foods is bringing to a boil. Two locally owned health food stores are within a Hail Mary parsnip throw of Whole Foods: Foods for Living, a block west on Grand River Avenue, and the East Lansing Food Co-op, at the other end of tiny Northwind Drive.

Once upon a time, national chains swamped mom-and-pop stores with low prices and fluorescent uniformity.

Whole Foods has mastered the art of making each store fun and local. Its Spartan-themed brewpub is paneled with boards from an old basketball court, complete with tape from the free throw line. A candy-red, refurbished cigarette machine from the 1950s will dispense “single serving pieces of art” crafted by Lansing’s Reach Art Studios.

The big-but-local, healthy-but-fun formula drew an impressive mix of ages and races, men and women, suits and students. “Thank you so much for being here,” a white-haired lady cried out to a woman behind the deli counter on Opening Day, as if she were thanking her cardiologist for a successful bypass. “This is so beautiful!”

Whole Foods team leader Sarah Tack, who moved from Troy in January, said there is room in the local market for everybody.

“They have their loyal customers and I don’t think we’re interested in taking that away,” Tack said. “I think there’s a place for all of us to exist.”

Bruce Grambau, general manager of the 40-year-old East Lansing Food Co-Op, said, “It’s hard for a small, community-owned business to go up against" 45,000 square feet, "and they have a beautiful store.”

Business at the Co-op stayed the same most of last week but dropped off over the weekend, “which we pretty much expected,” he said.

Grambau can’t match the selection at Whole Foods, but he’s proud that the co-op is owned by its customers, buys extensively from local farmers and keeps grocery dollars in the community. “That’s our biggest strength against a brand new shiny store across the street,” he said.

Kirk Marrison, general manager of employee-owned Foods For Living, kept his usual air of bemused equanimity, Whole Foods hoopla notwithstanding. Marrison has worked at the store since 1998, a year after it opened. Business took a hit over the weekend, he said, but it seemed to be picking up Monday afternoon, with more than two dozen customers milling around.

“It’s a shiny penny,” Marrison said of Whole Foods. “People are going to want to check it out, but nobody knows what will happen after that.”

With two years to prepare for the advent of Whole Foods, Foods for Living has been frugal and avoided “overextension,” Marrison said.

A loyal base is clearly one of the store’s biggest assets. Marrison warmly greeted half a dozen longtime customers in 10 minutes, including a man who drives in regularly from Jackson.

Marrison’s sang-froid, despite the juggernaut across the street, is impressive. He’s gone so far to calm down “furious rabids” who swear they’ll never, ever go to Whole Foods.

“I tell them, ‘It’s OK, you can shop where you want,’” he said.

Debbie Schankler of Okemos, one of the customers who thronged Whole Foods on opening day, seemed to bear out the “shiny penny” theory. Ogling a wall-sized array of bon-bons, most of them involving sea salt, Schankler said she has lived in the Lansing area since 1985, and considers Whole Foods a novelty she would only indulge “a few times.”

“I want to support Foods for Living and I want to support the Co-Op,” she said. “When I moved here in 1985, the Co-Op was all we had.”

Schankler is wary of any chain store, however loudly it proclaims health and sustainability values and localizes the décor, but she couldn’t help being impressed on opening day. “They don’t just point to what you want, they take you there,” she said. “These people are up and ready.”