“Meet George Jetson,” kept cycling through my brain as I was guided on a press tour around the first location for 365 by Whole Foods Market, the lower-priced concept store launched by the chain best known as “Whole Paycheck.”
I kept waiting for the floor to start moving, like those airport walkways, and shuffle me through the wide, comfortable aisles, as boxes of organic cookies and bottles of kombucha magically drop into shopping carts based on the pin-prick glucose level check every customer automatically gets on the way in the door. Yes, this store is from the future. And it's a mile from my house in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles.
There’s a lot to take in about the new spinoff store. It has a robot, for one. And a coffee bar that serves alcohol. Maybe it's the other way around. It is indeed both super-future-fancy and incredibly pared down natural and organic food all at the same time. While it may be kind of hard to wrap your head around both of those things happening simultaneously, they seem like a natural fit inside the store. Or maybe that was just all the fluorescent future-lights and organic Tempranillo affecting my vision.
But here's what I do know: Whole Foods has cracked the code. The organic grocery chain that's spent the last three decades convincing us we weren't spending nearly enough money or time on our groceries--thinking about them, growing them, buying them, or preparing and eating them--is now doing the opposite. It's turning that "fast, easy, cheap" meme on itself, looking us all straight in the eyes and saying, Yes, folks, you can have it all. Of course we can. After all, this is Los Angeles. And this is Whole Foods.
The ubiquity of the namesake 365 brand product labels does not bore; rather, they have a soothing, calming effect on the brain, like staring at a well-organized book shelf. Clean lines, short aisles, and flickering digital signage--it's almost like standing inside a neon MOCA exhibit instead of the weekly to-do list. Is it possible that shopping for food can be more satisfying than eating the food?
Yes. Yes it can.
“Whether you’re looking for a quick in-and-out shop for a few items, stocking up for the week, or having a sit down dinner at by CHLOE, with a beer from Allegro’s craft brew bar, you’ll find a blend of innovation and convenience,” Jeff Turnas, president, 365 by Whole Foods Market, said in a statement, referencing the "Friends of 365" partner businesses located inside the store.
“From the food offerings to the design," Turnas adds, "we’ve built a foundation on the quality standards you’ve come to expect from Whole Foods Market in a fun new format that’s easy to navigate and focused on value in every department.”
He's way underselling it.
Whatever you've come to expect from Whole Foods, yes, you can expect a grocery store inside 365, even though it's dotted with sci-fi frills and robots (and possibly frilly robots). It's still just your regular old store-on-the-corner place to go for almond, coconut, soy, rice, hemp, flax, or cow milk, and fair trade, whole trade, certified organic, non-GMO, heirloom variety, vegan, gluten-free, delivered on a fuel-efficient truck, bananas.
It sells food. And a lot of magic.
For the Trader Joe’s or Sprouts shopper, 365 by Whole Foods Market will be an easy transition. Kind of like upgrading to the newest model of your car after a decade; it’ll be familiar, yet full of fancy fun stuff that may or may not be so distracting that you get in an accident. So, you know, be careful with those carts, people.
Where TJ's lacks in fresh produce, 365 will not disappoint. It's expanding the offering of conventional fruits and veggies, a slightly disappointing nod toward boosting its "more affordable" image, but organic produce will still be abundant in the climate-controlled produce room called "Veg Valley." (Ladies, two words: padded bras.)
The store has done away with specialty cheese and meat counters; there are no fancy cases of prepared kale and quinoa salads--those will strictly be offered in the self-serve hot and cold bars, which will be line-priced so you don't get sticker shock like when you "just have the salad" at a regular Whole Foods and it ends up costing you $18, so you laugh it off at the register like you've got Channing Tatum and a diamond-crusted bottle of Champagne waiting in your Bentley to go with it. Now, you can pack those containers full of bricks if you want (see: quinoa salad), and it'll still only cost you five bucks. Eat that baby alone in your Honda Civic hatchback with a can of wine and call it a damn fine day.
As for the rest of the store, expect to see your favorite top-selling brand name items on the shelves, or those same products in disguise behind the in-house 365 label for a slightly lower price.
And speaking of "365," the goal seems to be to get you into the spaceship store more often--like every day of the year. Whether it's for coffee, wine, or beer from Allegro's kiosk, tea from a reverse conehead robot, or a meal at in-house vegan restaurant by CHLOE, the dining area is overflowing with outlets so you can plug in, recharge, use the free Wi-Fi, and have another carrot dog (more on those in a bit). Why the chain doesn't just rent out loft space so customers can actually live in the store is still a mystery, because it sure seems like the folks at Whole Foods don't want you to ever leave the store. There's no place like home, right, Dorothy?
Is it all necessary? Probably not.
From the Organic Authority Files
But if you're not growing all of your own food, mining your own Himalayan rock salt, and making your own shampoo, you gotta shop somewhere.
Here’s what I know for sure about 365 by Whole Foods Market:
Paper signage is a thing of the past. It’s one of those elements most people probably hardly even notice when shopping. But all those taped up paper signs and shelf tags used to be trees, you know. They have been replaced with gadgets, aka "digital signage" that can be controlled and updated remotely—even all the way from the company HQ in Austin, Texas. No, they're not secretly watching you through the devices (yes they are). Do all those digital signs really offset the use of paper? Nope—at least, not in the short term. But, breaking our paper addiction in any capacity is a progressive move, if not a legitimately decent one. You’ll still get receipts on paper, though, but you can opt out of those as well.
Efficiency makes for a better shopping experience. That Marie Kondo is on to something. Just like clutter at home or in the office can be seriously disruptive, it can make for a stressful shopping experience, too (which may lead to impulse buying and overeating, btw). The less-is-more ethos of 365 reduces the offerings per category, yet the store still feels abundant. Everything. Is. Perfect.
Yes, you may need to shop somewhere else for specialty items, particularly in the supplement and beauty categories, but your fridge and pantry won’t suffer. Neither will your bank account. Or, apparently, your appetite for Dill Pickle Potato Chips.
On the efficiency trip, the multiple checkout line approach is a clunky and inefficient queue system of supermarkets past. Who needs that many choices anyway? Building on models Whole Foods uses in its Manhattan stores (and other stores from the future), 365 has one line that delivers you to the next available cashier. It removes the stress of having to try and size up how fast each line is moving or agonize over all the empty registers you could be checking out in. Just get in line and let the Grocery Gods decide your cashier fate. And if you’re so inclined, you can do some of the cashier’s job in advance by weighing and labeling your fruits and veggies at a fancy-looking weigh and sticker station in the produce section.
We are all going to eat more carrots. Only, they’ll be flavored JUST like hot dogs and served on whole grain buns with lots of green, crunchy toppings. You’ll eat them, Los Angeles, and you won’t hate them. Not even a little.
That's probably because we'll also be drunk. Really, really, drunk. Not only is 365 selling booze by the glass starting at 11 am at the Allegro kiosk, but 90 percent of the alcohol (off the shelf) will be under $20.
(This is how you REALLY know it's the future.) Robots are taking over. Your tea; they’re just taking over your tea (for now, anyway). TeaBOT is the in-store tea-maker that’s part R2D2, part barista. But mostly, it’s just a fancy-looking tea-making vending machine. You select your tea and your water temp, and the bot brews it up for you, complete with a loose-leaf tea-straining lid (you have to fasten that yourself, humans). In short, it’s cool (er, hot) because it’s kind of simple and kind of complicated at the same time, but, you guys, it makes tea. So, you know. Relax, sip, and contemplate why our Robot Overlords are so fond of Earl Grey.
What you won't see in the 365 store (yet):
- High-tech parking lot. Expect Trader Joe's-type traffic and lots of it. Apparently, in the future, looking for a parking spot is sport.
- Still no sign of kombucha bottle fizz level detectors. So, until further notice, open bottles at your own risk.
- Smart grocery carts that tell you when you’ve hit peak "Whole Paycheck" (and can count the exact number of reusable bags you’ve brought in--and credit you properly). Yes, this should have been done ages ago.
Judging by the new 365 store, I'm guessing things turn out okay for us in the future. There are robots with nothing better to do than make tea--they're not too busy fighting disease or protecting our borders; their biggest concern is making sure chai is at the best possible temperature. Carrots--crunchy, sweet, healthy carrots--are our hot dogs of choice. Kale is silver. Yes, folks, I time-traveled to the future; it's beautiful, it's delicious, it's affordable, and best of all, it's right down the street.
Related on Organic Authority
Trader Joe’s Slashes Prices as Whole Foods’ Cheaper Concept Store Launch Nears
Whole Foods Market to Start Selling ‘Imperfect’ Fruits and Vegetables at Reduced Prices
Will This News Get You to Spend More Money at Whole Foods Market?
photos: Jill Ettinger