A Soft Green Opening: Whole Foods Comes to The Bowery

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Only in New York City would a grocery store have a pre-opening party (or a restaurant in Brooklyn be called Grocery). Despite the scoffers, on Tuesday evening March 27th, thirty hours before the actual store opening, Whole Foods on Bowery and Houston opened its doors for a gala event. Whole Foods is perhaps the most profitable chain, in dollars earned per square foot, of any supermarket in the United States. And at 71,000 square feet, the new store on Bowery is the largest supermarket in Manhattan.

Having never been to a grocery store opening before, I was not quite sure what to expect. But it was immediately clear that Whole Foods is proud of the store (its' one hundred and ninety-second outlet), and that it's trying to fit into a neighborhood that often spurns chains.

At first, people streamed slowly into the space they had been peering into for the past few weeks through the glassy windows on Houston Street. Posters and a representative from Zipcar, the carsharing company that's gained a solid foothold in New York City, immediately greeted my friend Gregory and me as we entered the store. Whatever skepticism I might have felt a wholesome purveyor of organic tomatoes and whole grain bread coming to New York's historic skid row, it was hard to not be impressed with the sheer vastness of the dual level space; the main grocery is on the lower level, and on the upper, chefs will do cooking demonstrations, and numerous sushi chefs will prepare fresh rolls for the revolving sushi bar.

The store also features an expansive area for health and beauty products and organic cotton clothing. There's a salad station, an Italian cafe, and a seating area with large wooden tables that overlook Houston Street. And in a nod to New York's cheese craze, Whole Foods has established its first-ever "fromagerie" in the Bowery store. Amid the mountains of cheeses, we found a cornucopia of tasty treats to sample: soft cheese shaped into ice cream cones; sorbet made out of wine; freshly fried pommes frites; vegan chocolate mousse morsels; and row after row of mini-pies. And this was only one corner of the store.

This Whole Foods outpost has launched with a strong focus on supporting local produce and vendors -- perhaps in response to recently disaffected shoppers who felt like the company has been losing the connection to its green ideals. Area farmers will be selling produce to the store, and local restaurants like Kuma Inn, Suba, Candle Café, and the Lower East Side Girls Club Bakeshop were represented and had samples out for the tasting. Fresh & Wild and Il Laboratorio del Gelato and have permanent sections within the store -- a welcome touch for those of us who have cravings for Il Laboratorio's frozen treats after the company's Orchard Street store closes for the evening.

But what struck me the most was commingling of foodies and greenies, with the Bowery Store touting its ecologically sensitive elements as much as it celebrated its specialty cheese section. The wall covering and flooring of the health and beauty department are made of Marmoleum, a completely biodegradable product made of linseed oil, wood flour, pine rosin, jute and limestone. The tiles used on the store’s walls, made by McIntyre, are composed of naturally occurring substances, and about fifty to eighty percent recycled materials. Produce bins are made from reclaimed wood, and takeout containers are made from cattails and sugarcane.

Other green highlights included “mood lighting” -- I thought the slightly dimmed illumination was just for the party, but apparently the energy-conserving florescent bulbs will always be set a little low. Shoppers can also get a 15-cent discount if they bring their own bags for carrying groceries, their own mugs for the coffee bar.

The eco-achievement that impressed me the most was the partnership with Green Mountain Energy to wake people up to their impact on climate change. A booth of helpful young women eagerly assisted partiers in calculating their carbon footprints (the amount of greenhouse gas an individual is responsible for, based on how they live and how much resources they use), and offered suggestions to lower or offset them. Whole Foods is calling the program a "weigh-in," and I must admit my first instinct was to avoid the area in the same way I avoid the stress testers at the Union Square subway station. But when I realized they were giving 30 tips about curtailing global warming, and not advice on dropping extra pounds, I became more interested -- enough to learn that daily, each of us generates an average of around 94 pounds of carbon dioxide.

This particular effort, called "30 Ways in 30 Days," will be part of the Whole Foods on the Bowery shopping experience through the end of April. Customers can use an online calculator in the store to tote up their own carbon emissions, and commit to steps to reduce their carbon footprints via the Whole Foods website.

Although the opening party was a fundraiser for Riverkeeper, with Whole Foods matching donations up to $40,000, the only eco-sloganeering I noticed were brochures by the potted tulip plants (party giveaways!) and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. ambling around the sushi bar on the second level.

As for the "ridiculously good-looking" Whole Food’s staff breathlessly celebrated on the Ecorazzi blog, Worldchanging hates to disappoint, but: not only were the Scandinavian-esque men porting trays in fact staff from a catering company, they were also collecting a good amount of trash from the dessert samples and napkins. Although perhaps biodegradable, my friend Gregory noted that trash still take up space in the landfills, and he was surprised to see disposables at the opening event.

But as smiling people walked out of the massive market and onto Houston Street, carrying blooming tulips into the mild spring evening, I found myself feeling hopeful about the green efforts Whole Foods may bring to the East Village.


Thanks for the report, Bonnie!

I happened to run into a neighbor coming home that night from the party, happily toting her free pot of tulips. She, too, seemed pretty impressed with the scale of the store.

I have encounted a lot of angst/anger about the advent of WF on the LES -- "inspires me even more to work against gentrification" were the general sentiments of one colleague. But is WF the "problem," or is the overall state of American agriculture and food marketing the issue?

Posted by: Emily Gertz on March 30, 2007 10:55 AM