To start the year off right New Year’s Day, I decided to take my family out to breakfast at Whole Foods. Here in the land of yogurt and granola, where progressive thinking is all but a religion, there are all manner of healthful products useful in keeping New Year resolutions. What led me to Whole Foods, however, was not the prospect of a healthier New Year but the more mundane promise of orange juice and a ham and cheese omelet at one of the seven restaurants in the chain’s new showcase store in Lincoln Park.
I could have stayed home and concocted breakfast out of the same ingredients in the refrigerator. This would be in keeping with the one resolution I did make this year: spend less money. But I had just finished reading about Whole Foods and its enigmatic founder John Mackey in The New Yorker, so when my wife mentioned that her friend who was laid off at the Board of Trade last fall has taken a job handing out chocolate samples there for almost the same pay, we agreed to go take a peek.
The Whole Foods I grew up on, the first in Chicago, opened in 1993 in a mall at North and Sheffield in Lincoln Park. It was a novelty at the time––a health food store next to a transcendental bookstore––that stocked fresh organic products and gourmet food items most grocery store owners couldn’t even pronounce. But healthy habits did not come cheap and Whole Foods quickly became synonymous with “Whole Paycheck”, and my interest waned. The extra cost notwithstanding, the concept proved a huge success. A year after the Lincoln Park store opened, Whole Foods went public. The Texas-based chain went from three stores to 280, and in May 2009, the old Lincoln Park store closed and Whole Foods opened a new 75,000 square-foot emporium just a block south at 1550 N. Kingsbury.
Down Memory Lane
Traversing that extra block took me back through 30 years of memories about a no man’s land of manufacturing plants that once thrived along the Chicago River’s edge behind Cabrini Green. Today, realtors have given it the trendy name of “SoNo” (South of North Avenue.) Back then, Kingsbury was a half street, half railroad spur best known as a backdoor route into the Loop for those brave enough to chance it.
In the early Eighties, the area saw its first new construction in a decade when a gentleman’s club named “The Crazy Horse” opened on Kingsbury. Shortly after that, a tiny corner tap was taken over by ex-hippies and rechristened as a beat hangout called “Weeds”. One by one, the factory buildings were converted to design studios, media stages, Internet start-ups, and boutique furniture and cabinetry showrooms. North Avenue blossomed with a string of Pottery Barns, Victoria Secrets, Banana Republics and J Crews. A strip of nightclubs and upscale restaurants settled in next to Weeds. And when the last of the Cabrini Green high rises on Halsted Street came down, the very private (and expensive) British School went up (and my pediatrician moved his practice from Northwestern Hospital downtown to an office building next door). As if to certify the neighborhood had finally arrived, some developer built a 26-story luxury condo tower smack dab in the middle that opened last year just as the housing bubble was collapsing.
I couldn’t help but notice as we neared our destination that there were three daycare centers with trendy names like Chalk, Bubbles Academy and Fantasy Kingdom within . (The latter, I learned later, is so exclusive it has a keycard-protected indoor garage to drop off and pick-up the kids.). Driving up Kingsbury, it was sad to see Carbit Paints, the last of the rail spur customers, with a for lease sign on the side (but heartening to see the gentlemen’s club still in business.) And then, there it was just across the street, sprawled out along the bank of the Chicago River, the largest grocery store I have ever seen.
A Behemoth of a Grocery Store
However dire the economy may be, Whole Foods makes no bones about its desire to be seen as the horn of plenty for a new age. The Lincoln Park store, for instance, is a behemoth of a grocery, almost the size of one and a half football fields with 420 parking spaces, seven dining venues, two bars, a mezzanine wi-fi lounge and a stage for musical entertainment.
In addition to shopping, you can go there for Tai Chi lessons, a chiropractic clinic, kids songs & stories every morning at 10, or, if you happen to be free January 23, a celebration of National Yoga Day. At the front door, widescreen TV’s pipe a stream of football bowl games to patrons sitting at one bar. Further down, a wine and cheese bar opens later in the day for more civilized mingling (and hook-ups). The aisles are marked by street signs pointing to the “Chicago Bar” (with its 16 spigots of local brews on tap) and “Whole Baby” (an infant aisle featuring chlorine-free diapers) or the “Buy in Bulk” section where, next to the grind-your-own-nut-butter station, you can choose from 21 kinds of nuts, five oatmeals, nine rice grains, and an assortment of other dried fruits and seeds – all arrayed in plastic silos on the wall – to customize your own bag of trail mix.
Walking into the store is like walking into the mouth of a cornucopia. Everywhere is the promise of healthy living, all in abundance. Fruits and vegetables at the entrance give way to a fresh seafood bar, a butcher counter, an enormous beer selection (everything, ironically, except Budweiser and Miller), wines and cheeses from around the world, chocolates, cakes, and any number of exotic petit fours and gelatos. In the yogurt section alone, I counted 21 different brands of yogurt, not varieties, not flavors, but brands, each in an assortment of sizes and calorie counts.
At the Allegro Café, they were featuring a Celebration Caffe made of coffee from Costa Rica, Guatemala and Sumatra “with hints of bittersweet chocolate and spice.” Not your cup of tea? Then put in your own order with the barista for a custom roast, go shopping and return ten minutes later to pick it up. And speaking of baristas, don’t look for Starbucks (ditto Folgers, Maxwell House and Dunkin Donuts) here. The coffee aisle has pretty much everything but.
Although I lingered to look at everything, I put nothing in my basket. Our mission, as I said, was not to shop but to eat. So we pressed on to the dining area where the selection includes Wicker Park Subs, Taylor Street Italian, Pilsen Taqueria, Asian Express, a Chicago Smokehouse and, my favorite, the Riverview Diner. I ordered the ham and egg omelet with coffee and orange juice. They were no more expensive than at my own neighborhood diner, and quite a bit tastier, although I missed the sass I’m used to getting from the waitress when she brings it. And I ate it slowly, savoring the aromas around me, listening to people decide what goes into their shopping basket––and what gets left behind.
So I feel now like I’m ready for the New Year. I’ve caught up with the changes of the last many years, seen the wealth of opportunities for good eating and good living today, and demonstrated the self-discipline needed to navigate my way through without getting carried away. Nonetheless, I didn’t want to leave the store without buying something. On my way out, I noticed a crate of coconut water on sale for a mere $2.50 a carton. Reading the label, I learned it is naturally filtered for seven months through the dense fibers of a young green coconut to create a nutritious, pure and refreshing isotonic beverage. It has five essential electrolytes, no fat, no cholesterol, no preservatives, and “more potassium than a banana.”
If you work out, drink too much or live on caffeine, you can’t get enough of this stuff, according to the label. It regulates your blood pressure and heart function, promotes smoother, healthier skin, and the packaging is BPA-free. Best of all, the product itself is recognized as a winner of the “America’s Healthiest” fitness award, and what can be better than that?
I took my coconut water home and poured out a cool one. I think its fair to say: I’m set for 2010.