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What's up with Whole Foods?

I know I have complained about them before but this is too much. I was going to go to Murray's to get cheese for a dinner tomorrow but I was at Union Square so I went to WF instead. I waited for a few minutes and then asked the cheese person to recommend a soft goat cheese from either France or the US. She pointed to a case around the corner and said "The logs of goat cheese are there." I asked about the ones in front of her and was told that they were expensive and that she hadn't tried them but I could have some if I wanted.

I don't expect every supermarket employee to be an expert but come on. I am so tired of Whole Foods pretending that it's a top tier market. It just isn't. I can't think of one department (meat, cheese, fish, coffee) whose quality is not quite easily trumped by another store in NYC. Even less expensive ones.

Sorry to vent but I'm always surprised by the crowds. I find the place mediocre at best.


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  1. It's a matter of branding. A certain demographic of consumer has decided they feel most like themselves (green, eco-conscious, no paper bags, please) in there, and they can be with like people. I don't find anything in the store particularly tempting. The bread, produce or meat is fresher at any number of local shops that specialise in one thing, and occasionally I get the feeling the Union Sq. is not all that clean. Maybe it has to do with the sheer numbers of humanity moving through there.

    1. Well, it's a chain store ...

      I think that, for certain specialty items -- fish, cheese, cured meat -- you really have to be committed to the products from the top down in order to really do it right. The manager has to know how to handle the items and the staff has to have a knowledge and an interest in providing the right kind of service.

      I think that this can be done in a full-service specialty supermarket -- I've had great luck with the cheese counter at Dean and Deluca -- but trying to duplicate that in a nationwide chain is pretty tough, I'd guess.

      1. The WFon Houston seems to have knowledgeable cheese people.

        2 Replies
        1. re: michele cindy

          Second this. Whole Foods Bowery has a pretty impressive cheese department.

          1. re: LeahBaila

            the store on houston has a neal's yard outlet in it, one of the world's premier cheese merchants. the people working there work for neal's yard, not whole foods and really know their stuff. can't speak for whole food's cheese counter right outside of it, as i don't see any reason to shop there with a neal's yard five paces away.

        2. I must agree. On several occasions I've tried "fresh" fish at Whole Paycheck, I mean Foods, only to find that it is anything but fresh, especially at the U. Sq. store. I have had somewhat better luck at the Chelsea location, (which seems more like a local bodega when compared to either Union Sq. or Houston), but am still generally disappointed with the freshness of the fish, the quality of the meats and the mediocrity of the prepared foods. I also complained to the Meat Manager and the District Meat Manager as to the price of Bell & Evans Chickens, which are generally 20-30 cents a pound less expensive at Citarella, Fairway or even Jefferson market. I was told, and I quote (loosely), "If we can get $2.69 a pound why shouldn't we?" Arrogant bastards. At first, I liked Whole Foods. The people were all friendly and extremely helpful, but, as often seems to be the case, their rapid expansion has clearly compromised their commitment to quality. I also have to say I miss Bill Jones from the Chelsea store and hearing his voice directing the now-computerized checkout lines is not the same!

          4 Replies
          1. re: foodluvngal

            yes, the fish there is pretty awful...i walk the extra few blocks to Citarella when i'm cooking fish...and for serious cheese sampling, i much prefer the 14th St. Garden of Eden...and while some of the produce is decent, some of it is appalling (the onions are usually beyond disgusting for example)...but, i still go there to buy unsweetened soymilk, overpriced-but-addictive tamari almonds, and some organic meat...

            1. re: JeremyEG

              When they first started opening WFs in NY is was incredibly excited to shop at them - I still find the one at Columbus Circle to be decent quality although extremely crowded. I felt the decline in quality and have migrated back to the Chelsea Market.

              I will say, though, while I agree with everyone's gripes against Whole Foods that I still will, on occassion shop there. That is more than I can say for any other major NYC supermarket. And while I probably would not buy fish and agree the meat is expensive, I would contemplate buying both if they looked fresh.

              WFs has its faults, but it is definitely better than not having it.

              1. re: john

                I think I disagree with your last statement -- about it being better than not having WF. I think this is a matter of which neighborhood you live in. Perhaps in some neighborhoods having WF adds something that was unavailable or inconvenient. But there are other neighborhoods where one can buy at small purveryors or combinations of places like Citarella, Fairway, Zabar's, Murray's, etc. In these neighborhoods, WF brings nothing to the table (IMHO).

                1. re: john

                  I also used to share your sentiment when they first opened in NY, and I also find their Columbus circle branch still pretty decent. However, I came to realization that that half of the products in the store were just overpriced conventional products and not organic as the image the brand conveys seemed to be. Also despite being a national chain and having a leverage to buy products in bulk, their prices are often higher than of many independent stores in NY.

                  I also think that despite of whatever noble intentions the company was driven when it first started, quickly evaporate as the company goes public and gets street visibility, so it has to meet the bottom-line every 3 months. I also find their competition crashing practices very Walmartish. Wait and see till they buy out all your local markets or drive them out of business, but then it will be too late to stop patronizing them. Right now the way they keep Wall street happy is their aggressive expansion, but as soon as they reach market saturation they will have to focus on their margins, so we'll end up with another walmart - huge chain of mediocre product (at least walmart prices are low).

            2. I shop at Whole Foods for the products that are hard/impossible to get anywhere else. They have quite a few of these that I consider my regular staples. They have quite a few natural and organic things that are hard to find in other places.

              But as for high end knowledge? I don't go in expecting that.

              1 Reply
              1. re: BW212

                I have to agree with you BW. I shop primarily at the Greenmarket across the street, and go into WF to get their 365 EVOO (an excellent qpr) and Silk Soymilk (priced better than my local store in Jersey City), and a few similar items.

                I often buy cheese there because its convenient, and I usually know what I want, but the prices are HIGH unless the item is "on sale."

                WF is fast becoming "just another chain," and that's too bad. It defeats the whole premise, imho.

              2. I agree with all the comments re: WF in NYC. Some are better than others but none of them rise above any other top-notch independent store that we have here. I'm talking about the "real" places that have made NYC what it is: Zabars, Fairway, Ottomanelli, (the old) Balducci’s, etc.
                But the original Whole Foods in Austin, TX is another story all together. I was there this past spring for the South By Southwest Fest and I made a point of stopping in. It’s really an amazing and mind-blowing place. Every department is so fully stocked and staffed by nice, knowledgeable folks that it’s like being on another planet. Well, it is Texas so it may as well be another planet. They even have a wine section that’s bigger than Astor wine. The downside is that this is the ONLY place in Austin where people can shop like this. Everything else is pretty bleak.

                2 Replies
                1. re: Gnu23

                  I think the WF scam is finally getting out.
                  After spending hundreds on several trips I have come to the conclusion a majority of the stuff is overpriced crap.

                  Baked Goods-terrible.
                  Prepared foods-mostly inedible
                  Deli-overpriced cheap products.
                  Cheese-go to Fairway
                  Etc., etc.

                  1. re: DoctortedNYC

                    For me, the reason to go there is for some of their 365 brand products - mineral water, olive oil, mayonnaise, some reasonable prices on nuts and dairy products. I've never tried their baked goods/prepared foods/deli products. Fish looks terrible. Cheese is overpriced (at one point, they didn't show the prices - I complained to C/S, and the prices are now shown). Buying produce there can be v. expensive, esp. since the herbs are only organic, and 2.49 a bunch. I do like their meat and chicken, and stock up and freeze things that I buy.

                2. Generally agree except the Bowery location has a fromagerie that stock cheeses on a par with Artisanal, Murray's and Saxelby's and has a staff trained by Herve Mons the affineur.

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: guttergourmet

                    Interesting - that is worth checking out. My experience thus far w/ WF cheese is pre-wrapped and overpriced. Will stop by this weekend and report back.

                    1. re: MMRuth

                      Go past the wrapped section and through the sliding doors to the climate controlled fromagerie. Nothing wrapped there. Fantastic selection. Staff will discuss and let you taste. Discovered a "new" cheese last weekend that was invented in the 90s in southern France called Gabietou which the staff person told me was a cow/sheep milk combo the proportions of which were adjusted daily by the cheesemaker tasting the raw milk and altering the mix accordingly. Then a British woman came in and demanded to know why she couldn't have a fresh raw milk brie de meaux. The staff person and I explained that the FDA are fascists who require all cheeses in this country to be aged at least 60 days.

                      1. re: guttergourmet

                        The FDA rule sounds like one of those early 20th century ideas that is long past its prime. Modern food production techniques are much more sanitary than whatever decade the FDA still thinks it's in.

                  2. So...I no longer live anywhere near NY, and whole foods is my mecca. I am excited that WF is closer to my new apartment than the last. The things I like about it:
                    -I don't buy fish from WF, never did in NY either. But here they have a large selection of frozen wild fish and shellfish. There is no other place to buy fish here, except a guy that's only open 2 days a week for a few hours.
                    -the cheese is well maintained. come on, most supermarkets, like my local co-op, completely ruin the cheese by letting it spoil or get dried out.
                    -the fruits and vegetables are expensive, but ALWAYS taste good, unlike many other local chain supermarkets. they also post the place of origin.
                    -bread!! believe it or not. They have a decent organic ciabatta here, only the co-op has better bread but is not as convenient. All in all, I don't think I could survive too long in this town w/out WF. I actually looked up WF locations before deciding on grad school.

                    So, NY has so many other good places to shop. I find it funny that you compare WF to "other stores" in NY. I certainly hope there are are other places better than WF. But the one in columbus circle was very convenient, very well-stocked. much less expensive than dean and deluca. I mean you can put together a good dinner, after work, without hitting a bunch of stores. The one in Union Square is something altogether different though, it's not really a supermarket so much as a large deli. And I don't feel that WF zen in Union Square.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: fara

                      the fruit and veggies at Union Square WF do *not* always taste good. Mushy spoiled melon, moldy onions, etc, etc, are all common.

                    2. Yes, I suppose it is wonderful if you live in New York and have so many choices. For many of us, that is not the case. We have a couple of health food stores here... last time I bought a single red bell pepper at one of them (my SIL is health conscious, needs to be organic) I paid $5.00 - yes, for one red bell pepper. I can find a nice selection of cheeses, sometimes as many as a dozen varieties at one of the wine shops here. You don't want to know what it costs.

                      I am glad you have options. I'm waiting with baited breath for WF, as I would for TJ's. It may not be all that, but its a whole lot more than what we have.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: KaimukiMan

                        Thanks for your post. When I'm in other towns I seek out local farmers' markets but if there is no such thing, Whole Foods is my choice too. My complaint is only that if organic red peppers were available for $2 and then Whole Foods comes in and charges $5, it's hard to tell what the appeal is. I just find them arrogant. That is not the case at any other Whole Foods I've visited out of NYC.

                        Also, I remember when organic chickens were very expensive. I've seen them here for about $1.99 a pound now on sale. That's partly because they aren't considered specialty items in a lot of places anymore. The demand has caused the supply of organic and local foods to increase and that has been good for all of us. I say if you can afford it, buy organic and local, wherever that may be and hopefully, someday, organic peppers will come way down in price.

                        Please tell me that pepper was yummy at least? : )


                        1. re: JeremyEG

                          I believe KaimukiMan got the $5 pepper at a local health food store, not a Whole Foods. I found the same thing in my town; that local health food stores charges prices for some things that were totally absurd and made Whole Foods prices look almost reasonable for those same items.

                      2. I can get most of the same things Whole Foods offers at other places. The local co-op carries most of the same staples that Whole Foods does for much less. I can get high end or organic meats through some of the local gourmet stores and our major grocery chain has started carrying some also. Cheeses at our wine and cheese shop or the gourmet store.
                        About the only time I actually go to Whole Foods (in Minneapolis) is if I am in than end of town near lunch running errands or between appointments. They are one of the few places you can get something takeout that is more natural or organic.

                        1. I tend to agree: Produce-Union Square Greenmarket
                          Meat-Jefferson Market, Ottomanelli's of Bleecker, Faicco's of Bleecker
                          Detergent, toilet tissue, Skippy peanut butter- Food Emporium

                          3 Replies
                          1. re: guttergourmet

                            i agree, but:

                            Westsoy Unsweetened Vanilla Soymilk, organic chicken hearts, Tom's of Main toothpaste, canned smoked oysters in olive oil: Whole Foods

                            1. re: Simon

                              Given the choice between the soymilk and the toothpaste, i'd rather eat the toothpaste.

                              1. re: Simon

                                Tom's of Maine can be purchased in any of Duane Reades...

                            2. I feel your pain. Despite knowing that Murray's staff and supply are hard to beat, we should be able to count on an "upscale", gourmet food market such as WF to offer a reasonable substitute, especially when they employ a designated "cheese person" with prices to match. I was definitely among the many "excited" NYers when WF first opened in Chelsea, and I am still glad that they did. I would also argue that the TW and Bowery locations are a great improvement on the Chelsea store. U Sq., on the other hand, is a disaster to be avoided at all costs. It is neither clean nor well-organized. I do not care for the layout, and the long check-out lines feel like a punishment. But worst of all, IMO, are the employees. They are unfriendly, uncaring, and unprofessional. They know little-to-nothing about the products they sell, and I have dreaded shopping there in the past (I no longer go there at all). I am sorry to say that I am not surprised by your cheese counter story, and thought I would mention that the Union Sq. store is, in my opinion, more of an anomaly than an example of the brand as a whole (even the hot food bars are bad).

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: vvvindaloo

                                I agree completely with your description of the Union Sq. store - I'm usually snarling by the time I get out of there - and just go to the Chelsea one, which is not a zoo, at least on a weekend morning. Still have to check out the new location's cheese room.

                              2. That is a wild experience.
                                I don't want to like WF, but I have to say, at our local WF (Toronto) the folks at the cheese counter are excellent -- they're helpful, opinionated when you ask for direction and really into cheese.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: orangewasabi

                                  Ditto at my store just outside Chicago-- an excellent selection of cheeses, and extremely knowledgeable, and eager to share their knowledge (and I'm a serious cheese eater). I asked for ideas for a third cheese for a cheese plate I was serving, and ended up with tastes of two or three, one of which was exactly what I was looking for but never would have found on my own. Plus a little glass of wine to go with it, while I was standing there. I told my husband he was lucky the cheese guy was about ten years too old for me...

                                2. I think for places like Honolulu, that will (allegedly) be getting a Whole Foods soon is that it will force other stores to at least make some sort of effort to compete. The other grocery chains will have to offer more alternatives and the smaller co-op places wont be able to get away with charging $5 for a bell pepper. While I hate wal-mart, and won't shop there unless I just can't find the same item someplace else (even at a higher price), they have forced the other places to carry a better selection. Same for the Home Depots, Office Max's, etc. Food shopping is no different. No competition, and you can get away with murder.

                                  1. I go to WF every few weeks. Now, I don't live in Manhattan (and yes, I do miss Murray's and Chelsea Market) but I also rarely buy cheese there. I tend to go to WF for specific products that I know they carry that others don't -- a brand of Prenatal Vitamins, Kashi GoLean frozen waffles, a certain brand of Organic mint oreo imitators that are better than either the oreo version or the Newman's Own version. If I'm there, I'll also pick up produce -- their fruit is usually very good, and I can't get to the farmer's market every week (in LA the hours can be harder and the parking can be difficult. WF I can stop at on my way home from work). I've had pretty good luck with their meat and their fish, especially if I'm looking for something that may be harder to find like salt cod or lamb tenderloins. Again, I'd be able to find that at a specialty purveyor, but in my neighborhood the WF is closer and easier.

                                    1. I think it clearly depends on the city and the individual stores. The Whole Foods stores in Boston/Cambridge are a relatively recent affair: WF bought a local chain called Bread and Circus and slowly rebranded them into Whole Foods. (Indeed, my wife to this day finds herself calling them Bread and Circus sometimes.) B&C was a solid, well-staffed chain with a fairly devoted core market, and both the employees and the customers have survived the transition into being part of the WF monolith pretty painlessly. The fish departments are fairly consistent at having better than average fish at popular prices, butcher departments ditto. (I just tonight bought a pair of gorgeous bone-in pork chops at the WF nearest me.) Produce -- irrelevant, because I buy all my produce at Russo's or, this time of year, at farmer's markets or my CSA. Cheese -- the River Street location of WF has a cheese counter that has won local awards for both quality and selection, and when you consider that the original Formaggio Kitchen (arguably the single greatest cheese store in the country) is maybe a half-mile away, that's pretty impressive. The same store has a beer and wine selection that rivals a lot of the smaller liquor stores in the area in price and smokes them in quality. And they have Lake Champlain's Five Star peanut bars, so I don't have to fight the crowds at Cardullo's in Harvard Square every time I want one. I don't do all or even most of my grocery shopping there (we're spoiled for quality here), but what's not to love?

                                      1. I really think the Union Sq. WF is a different environment - no longer grocery store somehow. I've never been to another WF like that, and certainly none where the cheesemongers are indifferent.