The young man looks like he should be a cast member of Glee-not exactly crucial for the Whole Foods pizza team-but he’s selling me on the vegan pie, which I instinctively don’t want to like. I mean, pizza without cheese? Might as well have pasta-less penne or breathing without air or sex without touching. But not only is the pitch good-as if he’s been hawking this stuff for years and not at a store that hasn’t even officially opened yet-so is the food sample, especially the black garlic, a fermented form of the regular, hyped for its antioxidants, and redolent of licorice and tamarind. Not your grandfather’s pizza, especially if he’s named Ray and from New York City, but a tasty treat. It’s moments like this-excited employees and yummy, unusual grub (kombucha on tap, and I liked it!)-that confirm Whole Foods might be a very important addition to the Santa Barbara food scene.
I promise those free samples didn’t sway me, and I can only imagine how happy guests at the VIP opening party on October 5 were to find boxed mac ‘n’ cheese in their gift bags. I know Whole Foods CEO John Mackey is a schmuck for doing his part to scuttle health-care reform, but he’s a CEO so I don’t expect any better; as if other grocery chains don’t have problems, too (just ask unions). And I know the “whole paycheck” joke, but this is Santa Barbara, where we already pay greatly to shop at Gelson’s and Lazy Acres. Whole Foods does have its 365 Everyday Value line, too, about which the new store’s marketing supervisor, Rae van Seenus, said, “You can be a savvy shopper, here on a budget, and get high-quality products at good cost. Our peanut butter is $1.99, and it’s just peanuts and salt, for instance.”
It’s easy to raise a cynical eyebrow at all the marketing-speak, like the branding of the health-and-beauty section as Whole Body /•, as if they owned the phrase. But that’s all easy to forgive once you talk to the ever-accommodating managers, uh, “team leaders,” of each department who really seem to believe in what they’re selling. Produce Coordinator Jeff Biddle, for instance, sports a T-shirt that reads: “Support Local Sustainable Agriculture.” The store trumpets its association with Givens Farm on hanging posters, and the 2,500 square feet of produce is full of local fruits and veggies (identified in a three-tier system as Santa Barbara Local, Tri-County Local, and California Local), at least a half-dozen delivered directly to the store from the farms themselves. Whole Foods is even selling California avocados in the midst of Chilean (that is, tasteless) avocado season. Biddle insisted, “While we strive to provide local and organic produce, we make a lot of decisions based on the flavor.”
That’s not to say the marketing-savvy company doesn’t value the local. Right front-and-center past the checkout is a large shelf proudly heralding Santa Barbara products, from Telegraph and Island beers to Petrini’s dressing and La Nogalera Walnut Oil. Elsewhere in the store, one can find beans from Santa Barbara Roasting Company (even while Whole Foods roasts its Allegro Coffee beans in store for ultimate freshness) and a special, and totally delicious, proprietary smoked salmon from Santa Barbara Smokehouse. The store will be bringing in many area farmers and vendors to do demos-Frank Ostini and Gray Hartley, for instance, were proudly on-hand to pour their Hitching Post wines at the VIP event. Whole Foods is even holding community support days; the first was on October 14, when 5 percent of net sales for the day went to the Santa Barbara PARC Foundation.
Of course, Santa Barbara has always been upscale-crunchy, eager to embrace both granita and granola, so Whole Foods is a natural fit. Luckily, the very ’80s vibe of the former Circuit City building is erased in this updating of the 25,000-square-foot space that is much smaller than the typical 45,000-square-foot version. (Perhaps we need to call ours 5/9ths Food?) The interior is replete with rough wood and hand-lettered, seemingly chalked signs, going for that rustic market feel while still packing in all the modern amenities, like a large dryer where Nebraska Platte Valley beef ages 21 days to make killer prime rib.
As for those signs, even 24 hours before the opening day to the public, two remained incomplete: “We have over _____ organic items” and “We have over _____ local items.” When quizzed about it, Biddle explained, “I haven’t had time to count, yet.” So they seem to be taking it seriously, honest as the groceries are green.
Give in wholly to the grocery experience at Whole Foods (3761 State St.). Call 837-6959 or visit wholefoodsmarket.com/stores/santabarbara.