Monday, April 09, 2012

How Whole Foods is ruining the "Whole Food" Movement

A grocery store called “Whole Foods”... sounds healthy, ay? It sells organic produce, has special sections for allergy-prone customers, and offers some hard-to-find products. It also has its own hot bar, salad bar and deli. Some stores even have a pizza oven or a wrap/bowl counter.

The hot bar items include soups, home-style sides and main dishes (macaroni and cheese, roasted chicken, mashed or scalloped potatoes are regular items at the one near my workplace) and diverse ethnic dishes that you can scoop into a container and eat at home or in their dining area. Some of the soups are made in-house- there are at least 5 soups daily. The salad bar has 3 different types of greens to which you can add all kinds of fruit, veggies, proteins and condiments. For all of these except the soups you are charged by the ounce. The deli offers pre-made pasta salads and the like, proteins, meats, made-fresh sandwiches, pizza and bowls or wraps depending on your preference. A pretty good variety of meal items, as you can see. They even list all the allergens (except for yeast which I am allergic to) on the tags for the food. Everyone who works there is usually fairly nice, which makes me think they must be treated well as employees. They probably take pride in their edible creations.

But have you ever eaten at the hot bar, the salad bar or the deli?  It's mediocre on a good day. The ethnic dishes have mostly healthy ingredients and good spices in the ingredient lists, the other hot bar items appear to be something I could make in my own kitchen that I would enjoy eating leftovers of... So how the hell are all the dishes lacking any flavor and character? The pizza dough is a weird texture, is undercooked and the cheese on it is gross. The bowls/wraps are... frankly, disgusting. The grilled tofu in the salad bar tastes like tofu. (If you don't eat tofu, this is a tragedy- tofu is supposed to absorb the flavors of the spices and food it's cooked with.) The only thing that's worth the calories is the salad bar (minus the grilled tofu) because how can you screw up fresh veggies and fruit, right? Oh, but Whole Foods can- I once scooped up half-cooked beets! Perplexing! How do you take perfectly normal foods and literally take all the flavor out of them?

I don’t claim to be a domestic goddess (quite the opposite, actually) but I can do better than this.

I once took a class with a woman who worked at the pizza bar at a Whole Foods. She hated the pizza there and would casually talk to her customers like all good employees do. She found out that people where buying pizza there solely because it was convenient. They specifically said that they didn't actually think it tasted good, that they didn’t really like it at all.

The worst part of this all: the cost. At $7.99 per pound, the hot and salad bars are a real rip off. For a normal restaurant-sized meal, I would pay about $13 by weight. This size of this $13 mound of food would be two, maybe three meals portion-wise for me, but for $13 I'd rather go to a restaurant and get delicious food with appetizing leftovers as opposed to bland, over-priced crap. A friend of mine's brother once went to a Whole Foods for the first time and loaded up a to-go box with a scoop of everything that looked delicious. $25 later, he sincerely regretted his decision.

Whole Foods’ bowls/wraps (same ingredients, just in a bowl or in a tortilla) are $6-8 and the cost of pre-made salads vary by weight, but I assure you that they are considerably more expensive than elsewhere. Yes, they are fresh. Yes they are made locally and employing the people who make them. But why would I pay for food that doesn't taste good?

I am not trying to steer you toward other grocery stores that mass-produce salads, soups, sandwiches or ship them from Texas, but I think convenience has blinded us. I think Whole Foods is trying to get people to be healthy by selling local foods that are in-season, fresh, and organic and by offering ethnic and diverse foods. I appreciate that (even though I can rarely afford it these days) and they have it mostly correct, just not the part about their prepared foods.

They are making healthy produce available to us, but they are ruining the idea of healthy eating by taking all those healthy foods and preparing foods with them in a way that lacks real character. Who is tasting these foods before they are offered to their customers? Clearly nobody with alive taste buds. When people pay $13 for a forgettable & flavorless meal, what is that telling them about "healthy" food? Expensive and healthy food should be delicious, not dead and unremarkable! It should hook you, it should make you crave it like I crave a nachos from Blossoming Lotus.... or a Bryan's Bowl.

You can open an urban grocery store almost anywhere and it will thrive. In Portland, as long as it's got the "health food" label- it will almost always be busy. It’s too bad, because we all vote with our dollars. And by buying these prepared foods from a place that doesn’t care how they taste, we are enabling them to keep up the crappy work. Just say no to bad food and save yourself some money in the process!

The one exception to Whole Foods’ terrible prepared foods is the bakery. One of the best cakes I think I’ve ever tasted was from Whole Foods. I recommend you try it out if you’re ever in the neighborhood… while you’re there, pick up some fresh produce and make something delicious.

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