When I first got into health food, I shopped for food at a small, groovy store in the East Village of Manhattan. It was called Prana, which means “vital energy,” and it was the size of your average one-bedroom apartment.
In the early ’90s, it was sort of radical to be into health food; yes, the ’60s had come and gone, but all the hippie stuff had yet to make its mainstream comeback. Yoga was still uncool and performed in ballet leotards on thick gym mats. The word “dysfunctional” had only just been coined and The New Age seemed, well, new. You had to really want this organic birdseed bad, because it was a pain in the butt to get your hands on.
So I have always been a Whole Foods Market fan, my argument being that the health food industry should have healthy competition — it increases quality and availability. And I stand by that. WFM has earned a stellar reputation as an employer, donates regularly to charity, and welcomes local farmers to sell produce in their stores (see “Brave New Organic,” by Isaac Kestenbaum, January 12). The company resists unions only because its founder — John Mackey — believes that he can do better than any union can.
However, in the last fifteen years, I have watched Whole Foods swallow up its competition like a big fish gobbling guppies — first Bread and Circus in Boston, then Fresh Fields in New Jersey. England’s Fresh and Wild just got devoured by the piranha. Last year, Whole Foods came to Portland — which I suppose was inevitable — and bought our dear Whole Grocer. However, because it seemed like a miracle that the W.G. had even survived sexy Wild Oats’ moving in right next door to it, that particular buyout felt like a karmic slap-in-the-face to a shameless hussy. But just last week, Wild Oats — the only real competition in Portland — and this city’s first dance at the high school health food prom, got a bucket of pig’s blood poured on its head like Sissy Spacek in Carrie. They’re calling it a “merger.” Right. Just change the “g” to a “d” and squint a little to see the truth.
Even so, I stand by my argument on principle: if Whole Foods is doing so well that it can crush its foes, that’s the way of capitalism — the market will work it out eventually. I mean, there’s still Hannaford! Truth be told, I was quite looking forward to making this new store my own.
But that’s been difficult. Not because it isn’t clean and inviting, but because of its size. It’s almost as if the Whole Foods people had never set foot in Maine before. There is nothing even close to its scale in Portland proper. The wine section is as big as any liquor store in town. The display of soup cans that greets me as I enter the store contains no fewer than 6000 cans of soup — and I’m thinking, “now, who is going to eat all that soup?” I actually wonder: this city has about 65,000 residents, and yes, we extend to 230,000 with our neighbors, but it feels like it will take a good five years for us to run through that damn soup.