I don't know how many of you have ever been to Whole Foods. They have three locations in Canada - Vancouver, Toronto, and in the Toronto suburb of Oakville. When Whole Foods opened its first location in New York City a few years ago, it was a Big Thing. I immediately fell in love with it and contrived to shop there whenever possible, even though it was nowhere near where we lived, and despite prices that put it in the "indulgence" category.
Whole Foods is a combination of an extremely upscale supermarket, a health food store and a specialty food outlet. They have a giant selection of organic produce, organic food products of every description, huge organic meat, fish, cheese and bakery departments, and - what they're especially famous for in New York - prepared food. Everything is freshly prepared in the store with all organic ingredients, and the selection is vast.
Buying freshly prepared food from specialty markets - that is, bringing home already prepared, but healthy and delicious, dinners - is very big in New York, and Whole Foods outdid every other seller. In addition, their space is beautiful, and their customer service is perfect. In a city where shopping is often a zoo-like experience, this is big.
Last week we checked out the Whole Foods in Toronto, and yesterday we went to the one in Oakville, partly in search of certain foods we haven't been able to find in our local Loblaws, but partly just because I love them. The one in Toronto, in the upscale Yorkville neighbourhood, is very nice. But the one in Oakville is the true Whole Foods Experience. It's huge, gorgeous, and the prepared food section rivals the one in New York.
There's a downside, of course. That two Whole Foods can be successful in the GTA belies any stereotype of frugal Canadians, because their prices can be outrageous. You have to really watch what you're putting in your cart, lest you find that the bunch of seedless grapes you've just selected comes to $28 or that little goat cheese salad is $14.50. (Someone near us at the prepared-food counter quipped, "Another name for this place is Whole Paycheque".)
At the same time, there are bargains to be found, especially the Whole Foods brand, 365. The prepared food is no more expensive than other prepared food - that is, much more than cooking for yourself, much less than eating in a restaurant - but it's so much better.
To the health-food store community and the labour movement, Whole Foods is an Enemy. Although they're supposed to be an excellent company to work for, the owner is notoriously anti-union. They're also accused of using their giant volume purchasing to strong-arm suppliers.
An independent health food store in our neighbourhood, Alternatives, just went out of business; their branch in Oakville tanked last month. I'd be extremely surprised if the advent of Whole Foods in the area didn't at least hasten its demise, if not kill it outright.
I don't necessarily believe, as some people do, that any independently owned store is good and any large chain is evil. But for the folks who owned and worked at Alternatives, Whole Foods is certainly not a good thing.
Despite these very real negatives, since moving to Canada, I've missed shopping at Whole Foods. When we stayed at my mom's over US Thanksgiving, we visited the one nearest her and stocked up on a few things. But mostly I've missed what you can't stock up on: delicious prepared dinners. I was surprised and disappointed that suburban supermarkets here don't offer that, since I'd think busy working families would really enjoy it. But it's very expensive and labour-intensive for stores to introduce, and I guess people don't expect it, so it doesn't exist. I've had to get used to cooking more, which doesn't thrill me.
Which brings us back to Oakville. It's only 15 minutes away, a short hop on the QEW, and it made me very happy. So it seems likely we'll be supporting their healthy, delicious, spacious, corporate, anti-union, over-priced store on a semi-regular basis.