“We look at demographics, what percentage of the population will accept our concept,” says Lannon, the Whole Foods executive. “Density of college graduates is our top indicator, and New York is off the charts.” In 2001, Whole Foods debuted on 24th Street in Chelsea, becoming an instant sensation. “It’s changed my life,” says the chef Bobby Flay, who lives near the store. “I can get up in the morning and get whatever I want.”
Three years later, Whole Foods opened uptown, in Columbus Circle. Lannon says Whole Foods quickly discovered that the hype about the difficulty of doing business in New York was overblown. “There were all these assumptions, like, ‘Oh, people won’t cook, they’ll only buy deli and takeout.’ ” he says. “We sell tremendous amounts of cooking and baking ingredients. And we heard, ‘Oh, New Yorkers don’t want big aisles. They want that rushed, crowded New York experience.’ ”
The showpiece Whole Foods store in the Time Warner building is a revelation to anyone accustomed to Fairway-style shopping-cart gridlock. Fresh fish is laid out on ice to create an eye-catching red-and-white pattern; the smell of roasting coffee beans wafts through the store. “Whole Foods is the JetBlue of grocery stores,” gushes Bari Meltzer, a 29-year-old Barnard administrator who travels from her 116th Street office to shop there. Behind her, a large sign hovering over the produce section lists reasons to buy organic, from PROTECT FUTURE GENERATIONS (No. 1) to SUPPORT A TRUE ECONOMY (No. 8). When you’re paying $1.99 for a single Whole Foods doughnut, it helps to feel like you’re fighting the Man.
Twyman, the manager, is relentlessly excited about the food, describing a display of strawberries as “a freshness statement.” Suddenly he pauses in his evangelical narration of the Whole Foods culture, and his ice-blue eyes glare at a cluster of four men carrying clipboards. Probably competitors, he says; all the rivals have been in to snoop. “As long as they’re not taking notes or taking pictures, we’re fine,” Twyman mutters. “Otherwise, we ask them to stop.”
Twyman, 37, grew up outside Boston, and has moved all over the country while working his way up the Whole Foods ranks. The only time Twyman’s cheeriness cracks is when he’s told that New Yorkers are wary of losing their neighborhood stores to an out-of-town chain. He mentions stopping for lunch one day. “I ordered two hot dogs and a specific kind of juice,” he says. “The guy looks at me and says, ‘You see mango juice? I don’t see mango juice. You see mango juice?’ I walked out. If we bring anything to New York City, it is this: We’re providing great product and great quality of service. And I think every New Yorker can benefit from that. More important, I think every retailer can benefit from that. It’s going to raise the standard.”
As a fellow newcomer to the city’s grocery wars, Twyman says he wishes FreshDirect well, but he follows with a dig. “We’re more about the theater, a passion for the food,” Twyman says. “FreshDirect, you get the product, but there’s no passion behind it: You open a box and, ‘Oh, there’s my broccoli, there’s my can of beans.’ For us, it’s about telling the story about that can of beans. Letting you taste that can of beans. Letting you smell in this recipe we just created how those beans mix with cumin and coriander and cardamom.”
“If I were going to be a big chain, I’d emulate them,” says Fairway’s Glickberg. “But I don’t think a family of four can afford to shop in a store like that regularly.” Fairway’s main response, he says, is to offer ever-better quality while keeping costs down—a tactic highlighted in signs hanging in the uptown Fairway that scold Whole Foods for its prices. “Our same-store sales are up dramatically—dramatically,” Glickberg says. Fairway is also growing beyond its base. In 2001, Fairway went suburban with a store in Plainview, Long Island, and Glickberg is now considering launching Fairway’s own garbage company, to cut waste-hauling costs. The forthcoming Red Hook Fairway, scheduled to open in summer 2005, will include 45 apartments or condos atop the 50,000-square-foot store, and will have ferry service to the East and West sides; the entire facility will draw its electricity from a Fairway-built power plant. And Fairway is seeking an investor that can pump tens of millions of dollars into the war chest.
The battle will keep spreading. FreshDirect, which recently entered Queens, says it should have the metropolitan region covered in the next couple of years. In 2007, a 46,000-square-foot Whole Foods will open at the edge of Park Slope, with a promenade along the lovely Gowanus Canal, to provide a challenge to the new Fairway in Red Hook. First, though, in February 2005, Whole Foods will open a tri-level, 50,000-square-foot store on 14th Street, with only a statue of George Washington to separate it from the city’s pioneering Union Square farmers’ market. After 28 years of having downtown mesclun shoppers pretty much all to itself, the famously, endearingly dysfunctional Greenmarket might, like the city’s sclerotic supermarkets, get a kick in the asparagus.