So, a lot of the talk around town lately has been about the giant Whole Foods flagship that opened in Pasadena November 7 and the Fresh and Easy stores that opened their doors a day later, British grocer Tesco's first foray into the United States. On Wednesday, Jen and I checked both of these out, hitting the F&E on Eagle Rock Blvd. and then heading over to Pasadena for the Whole Foods.
The L.A. Times described Fresh and Easy as something between a Trader Joe's and a Ralphs. It's somewhat bigger than a typical TJ's and most of what it sells is under a store brand. Prices are generally but not universally on the low side, and one of their specialties is a large variety of prepared foods. Unlike Trader Joes, though, they make an attempt to carry all of the basic items a standard supermarket would carry, although for most items they might only carry their store brand and one leading name brand. They take some pride in their store layout and graphics, although I didn't see what was so special about it, and in their customer service, although most of the checkout stands were those annoying self-service scanners.
They also don't have anywhere near the number of specialty items that Trader Joe's carries, which was disappointing to an expatriate Brit we chatted with who was scrutinizing the tea selection and found it to be rather pedestrian. In fact, beyond maybe a couple of Indian foods, there wasn't much of anything unique about their selection. While I suppose it might be a nice store to have in one's neighborhood, I don't really know what niche it's trying to fill. Perhaps the quality or "niceness" is one step up from a typical supermarket, but I have to wonder if I would find everything I'm looking for during a weekly shopping trip. They're also apparently lagging behind one of their stated goals of opening up in underserved communities. One thing that would be nice would be if they included a few more British items, just to have something in the selection that other places don't.
Having unique items isn't a problem for Whole Foods. Their new store on Arroyo Parkway in Pasadena is huge, with two floors and a wide variety of myriad foods, and in all sorts of organic or otherwise ethically popular varieties, though most national brands aren't represented. In addition to the standards like a butcher, a seafood guy, a baker, they have all sorts of other specialty food makers on site, from a juice bar, chocolatier, and sandwich maker to a guy who makes jams and roasted nuts.
The BIG catch, though, is the price tag. On multiple occasions while touring through the store, I had to exclaim a "Holy crap!" at the prices. Just to name a couple of examples, earlier in the week we had picked up a package of rambutans at a Chinese supermarket in our neighborhood for $4.99 a pound, which isn't cheap, but it's a rare fruit. It was great that Whole Foods had them, but they charged $9.99 a pound. Filet mignon was available at Fresh and Easy for $13.99 a pound, but at Whole Foods, a pound would run you $31.99.
Maybe it was organic or free range or something, but seriously, if you're making supposedly ethical food that's way out of the price range of a normal family, then all you're really doing is making another luxury item like designer clothes or high-end furniture, but with the food, it's one that you can then turn around and show off to your friends as a token of your moral superiority. Of course, Whole Foods is a business and I'm sure they're making a lot of money in rich neighborhoods with this business model. But if organic food advocates are really so convinced that their food-production techniques are superior to factory farming, why not figure out some way of making these foods accessible and affordable to everyday people? Or even better, the people living in poor neighborhoods who have nothing available but lousy food choices?
Also, the layout of the store seemed to be deliberately confusing, as if I were in a Vegas casino.
In short, I might go to a Fresh and Easy from time to time if there was one nearby, but I can't think of any reason why I'd shop at Whole Foods. Ehh, maybe the prepared foods would be good for lunch.
UPDATE: Another article about the unaffordability of healthy eating.