Food Shopping

July 25, 2006

Being the sole shopping parent in a vegetarian household, I have test-driven through many supermarkets. When we first moved to San Francisco in 1999, I shopped at the natural bulk food store, Rainbow Grocery, which I remember enjoying — and missing.

After we crossed the Bay Bridge a year later, I made my purchases at the Safeway-owned “PaK ‘N Save” in Emeryville. I loved the prices, but hated the lack of organic produce.

Then I switched over to the other extreme, Whole Foods, in which I paid dearly for a great selection and top-notch customer service. (Unlike Pak ‘N Save, Whole Foods has baggers.) I shopped there for at least three years, so I have easily spent thousands, if not, tens of thousands of dollars.

Now that I’ve settled into a new house, I have been walking to the nearby independently owned Berkeley Bowl, which I used to dismiss for its packed parking lot and long checkout lines. But I can understand the rush: I have been buying almost the same exact items for almost half the money I spent at Whole Foods. For example, I typically spend around $80 a week at Berkeley Bowl, whereas I spent up to $150 at Whole Foods!

Now that I discovered this dirty little secret, I admit I was pleased by this hit piece in Business Week online about Whole Foods’ stock, “Whole Foods: A Little Too Rich?”.

While green-focused gourmands will gladly splurge on organic cheese, investors may want to wait for a bigger markdown on the share price before putting Whole Foods in their carts.

I can’t sing enough the praises of cheap tofu and produce at Berkeley Bowl. But fellow Berkeley resident and Mt’er Amy made me pause in a discussion we had yesterday. I had to consider the flipside of becoming stingy with my food purchases.

Unlike Safeway, WalMart and other popular chains, Whole Foods is committed to environmental protection and other social causes, and even dedicates at least five percent of its earnings to non-profit organizations.

It’s also picky — in a good way — in the products it sells. It makes sure that animals killed for meat are raised humanely (although we don’t eat it at all.) It doesn’t allow any trans fats — such as those in my favorite Morning Star products — to appear anywhere in its stores.

As Amy has tirelessly researched organic farming and food distribution for work, she says the health food chain boasts competitive compensation packages for its employees. No doubt that is a welcoming trend to WalMart and Safeway that pay their employees meager salaries and could care less about the welfare of the animals raised for their products. Bottom line: Amy is far from rich, but she says the deeper dent in her family’s budget for Whole Foods is worth it because of how far those dollars go — for everyone.

I will probably stick with Berkeley Bowl because I can walk there. I’ll save a drive to Whole Foods for special occasions. Still, I am glad Whole Foods is growing. It is a positive trend towards healthier eating and the humane treatment of employees.

But there is a disturbing trend I see in this as well. With gas prices, housing, and other living expenses going up, more expensive groceries — or, the growth of supermarkets that cater to the upscale eater — will leave out a lot of folks. One scene that has repeatedly played out in my head is the sad stark contrast between the oftentimes rotting, non-organic produce at the Emeryville Pak ‘N Save and the pristine, hyper-expensive produce — like, $3 avocados! — at the Berkeley Whole Foods.

In a May 3 conference call, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey called his chain store a “lifestyle brand.” It made me cringe because it sounded like Whole Foods was inaccessible. Perhaps Mackey should focus some of his good will to lower prices at the store. That way the people he purports to help, can shop there.