The New Whole Foods Spin-Off Has Arrived on the East Coast, and We Went Inside to See What's Doing
For very nearly as long as Whole Foods has been around, it has been awfully fashionable to crack jokes about Whole Foods, and how expensive shopping there can be. This has always been a relatively un-clever road to take, because anyone who knows very much about the brand is well aware of the fact that when we talk about Whole Foods, what we're really talking about is two stores, and not just the one. For every eye-wateringly expensive, entirely unnecessary snack food being made by an ex-investment banker with a dream of getting you to pay $6.99 for, say, a couple of kale chips, for every insipid $4 cup of soup, there's a terrific house brand item, created under the 365 label (365 because it's for everyday, get it), usually available at very competitive prices.
Because of this, with a modicum of discipline (don't shop while you're hungry, and certainly skip past that unrepentantly bad hot bar), a thrifty shopper might make a relative killing at even the most fancified Whole Foods, skipping past the non-mandatory bells and whistles and going straight for the own-brand goodness. When you start looking at a Whole Foods for what it can do for you, how much quality food you can snap up at a reasonable price, like this is some sort of secret Trader Joe's hiding out inside a Whole Foods, it's pretty difficult to stay mad.
For fans of all things 365, a 2015 announcement that the company would be building stores designed to streamline the Whole Foods shopping experience and spotlight the value-minded brand sounded like a huge win—it would strip the concept down to the bare minimum, give us more of what we needed, and less of what we didn't. Initially rolled out as 365 by Whole Foods, it's now called Whole Foods 365, and there are six stores in locations as diverse as Santa Monica, California, and Akron, Ohio. This week, the East Coast waves hello to its first store, located on the lower levels of a luxury apartment building, towering over a scrubbed-up strip of Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn; sixteen more locations across the country have either been announced or are under construction. (One additional location opened early on in the Seattle suburbs, but appears to be at least temporarily closed, don't ask, it's a whole thing.)
What are the stores like? Well, to haul out that extremely rough comparison again, your typical 365 footprint answers the question, what would happen if you crossed a Whole Foods with a Trader Joe's? Sure, there's a lot more to it, and we'll get to that in a moment, but let's just say, avid shoppers at the latter will immediately understand what's going on, when they walk through the doors. There's an emphasis on economy here, from the overall shopping experience (get in, get out) to the prices (lots and lots of the house brand stuff) to the size of the store (they're big enough, but not too big to overwhelm).
Standards are the same, quality is the same, but meat is pre-cut, pre-packaged; there are a couple of dozen types of cheeses rather than the usual dizzying display, there's an impressive amount of produce given the model, but it doesn't go on forever, you weigh and label your own to save on labor (and time) at checkout. Again, everything you need is here, with very little of what you don't, all based around the premise of saving you a bunch of money. There's also a rewards program—members get an automatic 10 percent off on a range of different products each week, along with other special offers; just download an app, and start saving.
Of course, this is Whole Foods, so there are plenty of ways to part you from your money—they don't just sell the house brand, there's a lot of other stuff, too. They're big into their Flash Finds offerings, a selection of interesting, often local product, product that is not typically, shall we say, priced to move. Yes, there's a hot bar, yes, it's $8.99 a pound (they won't like this being aired in public, but the pricing has changed significantly since they first opened up, and now matches what you pay at a regular Whole Foods store). There's pizza by the slice (or by the pie), too; typically, you will also find at least one outside vendor selling fast-casual meals; in a store in the Portland, Oregon suburbs, Next Level Burger does 100% plant-based fast food; a store in the Silver Lake section of Los Angeles has a taqueria. None of this stuff is cheap. Less so at the outset, and now a bit more, some discipline is once again required to make it in and out of here without running up a gigantic tab, but stay focused on the array of affordable organics (and other things), and you'll leave happy, with money still in your wallet.
Because New York is New York, and everything has to be a little different here, the first East Coast branch of the 365 brand doesn't quite follow the model you'll find in other cities, and it starts with the footprint. At street level, there's a food court of sorts, featuring a branch of Next Level, the aforementioned plant-based fast food spot; local brand Orwashers Bakery is here, doing pastries, sandwiches and the like, serving Toby's Estate coffee. There's a Juice Press outlet, along with the store's own Pourit Authority, a super-cool, DIY drinks set-up, with twelve taps—eight for beer and cider, four for wine.
Down on the lower level is where you'll find the bulk of the store—here, in a typically-New York, labyrinthine layout, you'll find the usual, from canned soup to bulk nuts, not to mention a relatively vast beer selection. Here, as in other 365 stores, the know-it-all beer person who may or may not be hanging around to sort of answer your questions has been replaced by a touch screen; a very smart program created in partnership with the Delectable app will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about the beers on offer, and even give pairing suggestions.
On the whole, in Brooklyn, more than in some of the other stores, the line between the two models appears to have been blurred somewhat, but not to worry—at the heart of it all, this 365 store is still very much on brand—it's pretty simple, very straightforward, it's great for everyday shopping, and it'll probably be a gigantic hit. And if you don't like, it, hey—there's a giant Whole Foods, with every imaginable frivol, located just down the road.