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Is It OK to Love Whole Foods?
The overpriced ultra-yuppie grocery wonderland gets so much right, you want to hate it
It's like some sort of drug, something warm and happy and dangerous and visceral they inject into the lighting system or mist all over the carefully constructed mountains of pornographic produce or slather all over the nearly religious seafood and meat departments because, oh my sweet Jesus with a Le Creuset ramekin and 10 pounds of artisanal Gruyere, there really is something frighteningly addictive about the glorious hellbeast grocerypalooza known as Whole Foods.
It's like this otherworldly vibration, this wickedly overblown slice of succulent, obnoxious, must-have lifestyle nirvana for the health-conscious semi-progressive well-moneyed hipster set and also those who really, really want to think of themselves as such.
And best/worst of all, it's all overlaid with this amazing sheen of healthy, pro-green, socially responsible attitude that effortlessly chips away at your cynicism and seems to suggest a bit more of a statement than just, you know, "Hey kids, if you shop here, if you buy into the ethos and if you eat the right kind of organic lettuce and can afford our huge tubs of crab-artichoke bisque, well, you are on the right track. You are, in fact, approaching enlightenment."
All these thoughts collided when I found myself perusing the new 'n' dazzling Potrero Hill Whole Foods location just recently, just one of something like 87 million locations popping up in semi-upscale 'hoods all over the country like manna, like oases of luscious comestibles, like goddamn temples of all that you want to believe is right and good and possible with food and everything possibly related to food and much that isn't but you just don't care because it's all so goddamn tempting and tasteful and harmonious.
As any fan of the place will tell you, it's a terribly difficult place not to love. Everywhere you look there's some thoughtful detail, some amazing product, some well-balanced display of goods and items meant to make you feel a little bit better about our ever-imploding world, and also a bit more covetous, and maybe a whole lot lamer that you don't, say, spend at least 10 hours a week baking ungodly dark brownies using those five-pound slabs of organic bittersweet chocolate they set up next to the cheese department like some sort of culinary orgasm.
It's a terrifically benign kind of evil, really. As one friend puts it, it's the kind of place that makes you feel like you need to change your whole lifestyle - for the better, mostly - just to sync up with it. This is, quite obviously, both wonderfully enticing and violently annoying.
Perhaps you are doubting these words. Perhaps you are like: Oh please, enough about Whole Foods already, it's just a ridiculously expensive grocery store that deserves its "Whole Paycheck" nickname for how effortlessly it drains your bank account and feeds your yuppie ego and shuts out the poor, just a high concept pseudo-liberal cultural irritant that actively excludes a huge segment of the populace that simply can't afford its massive markup on hothouse cucumbers and organic muffins and whipped chocolate tofu. Sneer and hiss and moan.
But then again, no. If you are of this stance I am hereby guessing you haven't actually been in a Whole Paycheck lately, or if you have, your snide bitterness clouds your eyes from an entire range of rather startling, and even nicely heartening, truths.
Because here's the thing: While it's terribly easy to accuse the joint of being the very embodiment of pseudo-progressive ideals wrapped in pitch-perfect marketing that goes so far beyond a mere grocery store, so far beyond the place you need to dash into to grab some sour cream and a pack of condoms, there is indeed something more to this joint's existence, something that, in the age of bloated Wal-Marts and tract homes like a cancer and a president with a fifth-grader's vocabulary, is actually worth celebrating.
I mean, my God. Merely skimming the company's own press releases, reading up on its various foundations, its commitment to transparency in how it does business and the issues it faces as a so-called "do-gooder" company, its current No. 5 ranking in the Forbes list of the 100 best companies to work for, its surprisingly progressive positions on supporting local farmers and promoting sustainability and humane animal treatment, its commitment to community, its overall dedication to minimizing chemicals and additives and all the mountains of toxic crap our country swims in like a noxious river, well, it's tough not to sit back and go: Wait, if they can do it, why the hell can't this be the way of American business overall?
In other words, I don't care that Whole Foods isn't for everyone. I don't care if you think it's unbearably snooty or too white or subconsciously pretentious or that it caters only to a certain upscale clientele or that you can't buy giant bags of Doritos and four-gallon drums of Diet Coke there. Blind cynicism, in this case, is just way too easy.
Curse Whole Foods' apparently genuine concern for the quality of your entire food experience all you want. The bottom line is fairly irrefutable: We should fall on our all-American gluttonous knees right this minute in a devout collective wish, a giant wail of hope that more corporations follow in Whole Foods' footsteps.
Hell, already Whole Foods' success has forced supposedly "downscale" all-American grocers like Safeway and Albertsons to redesign their stores and soften their brutal lighting and improve the quality of their offerings, as they add organic produce and healthy food aisles and even rethink their business ethos by actually becoming a bit more accountable to their customers. Gosh, how horrible.
Because it turns out - hey wow and go figure - you can actually make a great deal of money by, you know, caring about the products you sell and the people you sell them to. It turns out it might actually be possible to run a large, profitable corporation and still have something resembling a conscience, an idea that seems almost antithetical to the brutal capitalist ideal of money-uber-alles.
Yes, Whole Foods is far from perfect. Yes, the large-scale "industrial organic" model the store adheres to, as Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma" so expertly lays out, has its share of major drawbacks. Yes, maybe I've just been suckered in and drunk the organic Kool-Aid. And yes, far too many of the yuppie moms who shop there have the same $400 strollers and the same Range Rovers and the same perky haircut. Whatever.
The truth remains: Would that more businesses behaved this way. Would that more corporations were cursed with a conscience, a sense of community and decency and an overall ethos of holistic health. Plus the damnable place makes you want to eat better and cook more and spend your kids' college fund on fresh duck sausage and 10 bottles of tawny port and a case of organic grass-fed free-range lube. What's not to like?
Thoughts for the author? E-mail him. Mark Morford's Notes & Errata column appears every Wednesday and Friday on SFGate and in the Datebook section of the San Francisco Chronicle.
© The San Francisco Chronicle