The sights, sounds and smells of construction were still all around when I walked into the new Whole Foods location on the corner of Chenal and Bowman — a situation that Whole Foods Marketing Coordinator Kate Neu says is completely normal. New assured me that the store would be ready to go on time when the doors open Feb. 18.
It’s been interesting to keep up with Whole Foods over the years its organic food niche has become more and more mainstream. With big box retailers like Kroger and Walmart both offering things like organic produce, cage free eggs and other specialty diet foods (often at more competitive prices), the Austin-based chain has had to find new ways to remain a relevant brand name. Things like graded scales applied to produce, meat and fish are intended to let customers go beyond just regular organic and free-range food into the sort of gold-standard territory of quality and sustainability that the store claims is its top priority.
Of particular interest to me was Neu’s assertion that the new store would allow for better signage to highlight local growers — something I’ve always felt that the previous location could have done a better job promoting. Top growing standards are certainly important, but trucking strictly raised produce from California seems to somewhat defeat the purpose. People in Little Rock love local food, and the opportunity is there to forge some relationships that will add some real substance to the shine of this fancy new location.
Another big way the Whole Foods brand has attempted to remain relevant is by expanding its prepared food offerings, and after seeing the new location’s expanded facilities in this area, I have to say that they may really be on to something. This new store is going to be more than just a grocery outlet; it wants to be the place you come for lunch or afternoon coffee, grab a beer after work and pick up dinner in the evenings. And they’ve got enough variety to cast a pretty wide net in that regard.
First up, we visited the cheese counter, and as this section is probably my favorite thing about Whole Foods, I was excited to see that it was a good bit larger than the Rodney Parham location’s counter, as well as more open and accessible. Neu stressed that this design was so that cheesemongers could cut sample pieces of whatever cheese people wanted to try with greater ease, as well as cutting custom size blocks of cheese at no additional charge. I always found the cheese staff at our Whole Foods to be very friendly and knowledgeable, so I’m glad to see they’re getting such nice new digs.
Like the cheese section, the butcher counter is also much larger. On the fish end, a fresh sashimi bar has been added where shoppers can pick up pieces of sashimi-grade fish ready to be made into sushi rolls at home. On the meat side, a larger butcher shop allows the store to offer large “Butcher Packs” — selection of meat cuts sold in bulk for a 20% discount. And lastly, the new butcher area includes a barbecue bar featuring meats smoked in-house on Whole Foods’ own smoker. I admit that I’m rather skeptical about takeout barbecue from Whole Foods, but not skeptical enough that I won’t try it.
One entire side of the store is dedicated to self-serve prepared foods including pizza, a build-your-own sandwich bar, a charcuterie counter and an expanded salad and soup bar. With the amount of traffic that goes up and down Chenal every day, I don’t think it’s going to take all that long for this to catch on as a quick place to grab a bite of lunch. There are limited tables for dining in, but the real appeal is the ability to customize a lunch and take it to go.
Finally, craft beer lovers will enjoy the small bar area tucked away in the corner of the store. Sure, you can get a growler filled up, but this is a fully functional beer and wine bar with tables and taps, all decorated in warm wood tones and quite a bit cozier than a bar in a grocery store should be. I don’t know if this would ever be a spot folks would come to just for a drink, but they’re going to be pouring some Arkansas beer, so if a trip through the bulk aisle (or Best Buy next door) leaves you in need of refreshment — this has that.
As for the footprint of the actual grocery store, other than being somewhat more spread out and easy to navigate, I really didn’t notice that it was much larger than what customers are used to at the Rodney Parham location. It’s obvious that Whole Foods sees itself as a full service food operation for people to grab something to eat or drink at any point in the cooking chain — and they even offer a concierge service where you can e-mail them your shopping list and they’ll have it bagged and waiting for you when you arrive. I don’t know if they’ll go shopping for you while you kick back with a couple of cold ones in the bar, but that’s a possibility that is worth exploring for all you folks who love drinking and hate shopping. It’s an attractive new store, and while it doesn’t have the familiar charm of the Rodney Parham store, it’s going to make a splash when it opens, no doubt about it.