As I type, Whole Foods Williamsburg will open its doors to the public in six minutes. Yesterday, before the big moment, we stopped in to tour the 51,000 square foot chain, which now has 460 locations, mostly throughout the U.S. and Canada, and a couple of locations in the United Kingdom.
In the 90-something humidity, Michael Sinatra, northeast regional spokesperson for Whole Foods, met us outside the store’s sliding glass doors at 238 Bedford Avenue. Just moments prior—a drill, it seemed?—a large fire truck and six firemen stood outside, in full gear, one carrying an ax, waiting to enter the premises. Anticipatory pedestrians, seeing this commotion, and the hub of activity indoors—employees behind the coffee and smoothie counter, deliveries of bulk products, all visible vendor stations manned (90 percent of the grocery store is located downstairs, via an escalator)—tried to come inside. Sorry, they were told, we open tomorrow. Hopes were dashed; they walked sulkily away.
But we, the lucky ones, were escorted in. A blast of arctic air, a shocking temperature difference compared to the Heat Dome outside, hit our sweaty skin. Just an hour or two later the swampy mix that was the sky furiously emptied everything it had on us. “Want something to drink, an iced coffee, a smoothie?” Sinatra asked us. Yes, we did. One of each. Our physical discomfort was rapidly relieved by the climate controlled chill, and our cold drinks. All around us was a flurry of activity, last minute preparations for the next morning’s grand opening—which, as I type now, has occurred.
Before descending to the lower level, Sinatra offered us skewered lobster tail from a Luke’s Lobster cart upstairs. Allergic to this crustacean, I passed. But our photographer inhaled hers in two large bites after peeling the shell from the meat. “That was perfect,” she said, “I didn’t have lunch.”
You know that story about the foreigner who arrives in America and, struck by its excesses—especially, say, during a trip to a Target or the grocery store—they feel they’ve entered a singular land of abundance and riches because never in their lives have they seen anything similar? Well, I am American; I even live in New York City, where it’s hard to not trip over high-end goods in huge quantities. And yet, on the main grocery floor at Whole Foods, I felt like that foreigner, confronted with an ocean of neatly ordered produce, seafood, meat, cheese, beer, coffee, a bulk speciality flour section, body care products, frozen food, prepared foods, a bakery, and two gigantic walls of La Croix.
Whole Foods Williamsburg lands approximately in the middle of all other Whole Foods in terms of square footage. But here, as Elly the “Forager”—a position that fills product “holes”—told us, “We have a very apt customer base.” So this store, maybe more than any other, has a gigantic selection of local—yes—artisanal products. She was carrying a round flat package of nixtamalized heirloom corn tortillas from the restaurant Tacombi in Manhattan, and handed one to each of us. “Try it,” she said, “It’s just their corn, lime, and salt.” They were delivered fresh that morning. “Check out the frozen section, too,” she said. We would not be disappointed.
Sinatra showed us frozen pie crusts from Four & Twenty Blackbirds in Gowanus. “Now you don’t have to go buy their pies, you can make your own.” I said, well, I’m lazy, I’ll keep buying their baked pies, but while I explained that, our photographer was losing her shit over Graeter’s Ice Cream from Cincinnati, which is apparently very hard to find. She was told to take a carton of Black Raspberry Chocolate Chip home, if she wanted, and she did. After the tour we walked faster than anybody would like to in the heat, straight to her freezer to preserve it as best as we could for eating, like it was an icy crown jewel.
In my head, I was telling myself: I can just keep shopping at my local bodega. I am not picky. But then the small devil on my left shoulder was telling me something else, especially when I looked at the wall of coffee in front of me, an all star line up of Brooklyn and the country’s best. Café Grumpy, Variety, Kona beans, Stumptown, single origin K-Cups, Allegro, based in Colorado, which is Whole Food’s store brand, Oslo, Toby’s Estate, who made a special roast for the store called, creatively, “Williamsburg.” I had a hard time imagining staying away from that. Nearby were bulk bins of flour from Brooklyn Bread Labs—I’m not a baker but I knew a couple who would be very excited about this—and before that was an entire aisle of local, hard to find, less hard to find, foreign, domestic and every other kind of beer, a selection greater than anything I’ve seen outside of an actual liquor store. The displays alone, beyond considerations of eating or baking or cooking, made me wanna just hang out and stand in front of the products for a while.
Then, more show: whole animal butchers behind a glass wall slicing and tying up pork and beef and racks of lamb mostly from farms north of here, which they then label with their source in their display cases.
Hungry for meat and alcohol right now? A Jewish Delicatessen, N4, serves all the classic (though non kosher) mozzo balls and smoked meat sandwiches you desire, along with five wines from Red Hook winery and 18 beers, all on tap. Hankering for cheese? Scoot across the way to the cheese department, where 25 pound wheels await you. “We’re the largest distributor of Parmigiano-Reggiano in the world” says Sinatra. Need a 25 pounds Blue Fish? No problem. We were shown one caught that morning, hanging from its mouth by a string. All sea food is sourced directly to its origin. A computerized system, Trace Register, tracks every catch. Plus, adds Sinatra, “We’re the only grocery store that owns a dock-side facility.
Back upstairs is a weird disappointment compared to the abundance below: in house pizzas, Luke’s Lobster in a cart, sushi, No. 7 with their “veggie concept” menu, as Sinatra explains it, and Layers, who are selling a vegan parfait with coconut yogurt. It seems so small scale compared to the tightly ordered giant food ship downstairs. Once—somehow—you’ve made all of you selections and, likely, ready yourself to drop quite a fair amount of cash, 23 registers are there to check you out.
As we walk back outside into the heat I still feel like a foreigner, taken aback from the onslaught of edible, stacked, specifically sourced, local, small batch, specialty, frozen, fresh, everything, in abundant quantity that we had just been whisked past and through. “It’s a whole universe,” I said, unsure if I felt unsettled or just impressed by it all. At the same time, I knew I’d be back to purchase more of it than I cared to admit in that moment. Williamsburg has long been lost to big brands. Trader Joe’s is coming, Apple, too, in a couple of days. Ralph Lauren is already around the corner. This is not the beginning of the end. It has ended. Whole Foods Williamsburg is not “Williamsburg.” It has added itself to something already brand new.
“Yes,” said Sinatra, in response to my summary of the place. “It’s a good one: It’s a nice, well-balanced, fun, delicious universe.”
All photos by Jane Bruce