2.17.2006

conspicuous consumption

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.

18 comments:

Marnie said...

My local Sobey's has prepared foods, but I wouldn't necessarily call them delicious, and certainly not organic or health-conscious, for the most part. I've always been surprised that my Loblaws doesn't have much beyond prepared salads and roasted chickens.

I had to laugh at "Whole Paycheque": a friend of mine calls Big Carrot "Big Wallet."

L-girl said...

I've always been surprised that my Loblaws doesn't have much beyond prepared salads and roasted chickens.

Me too. And disappointed! I've heard Sobey's are nice. We don't have one near us.

The prepared foods section at Whole Foods is kind of amazing. Chicken and salmon each prepared four different ways, all different kinds of tofu, a huge array of vegetables and side dishes, all cooked in ways most people would find too labour- and ingredient-intensive. All extremely fresh, all health-conscious, properly labeled with ingredients, etc.

An excellent way to drop way too much money.

Scott M. said...

Weston Foods has a chain called "Natures Emporium" which has many of the same things (comparable to the Yorkville Whole Foods without the chic cheese section) at a much more economical price.

In general, I find that if you know what you're looking for you can always find it 20-30% cheaper than Whole Foods at a smaller local natural food store (or a gynorma-mart who has a natural food section).

Scott M. said...

Just did a little research and apparently Nature's Emporium, while looking very much like a chain (as to be expected from Weston/Loblaw) is just an experiment and is only in Newmarket. Lucky us!

L-girl said...

In general, I find that if you know what you're looking for you can always find it 20-30% cheaper than Whole Foods at a smaller local natural food store (or a gynorma-mart who has a natural food section).

All I know is I looked in at least a dozen small health food stores in Mississauga. In each one I found 1 or 2 of the 8 or 10 products I was looking for. In Whole Foods I found all of them.

I called Noah's and Big Carrot in Toronto (thanks to Marnie) and they had more of the products I needed, but they're not at all convenient for me. It's more convenient for me to drive to Oakville than wend my way to stores in T.O.

I don't mind paying for convenience, though.

Definitely no Nature's Emporium here! Boo.

Granny said...

You bring back memories. Loblaws was our supermarket (one of two - the other was the A&P) in the small central New York town where I grew up. We split our shopping between the two. I think I knew they were Canadian but I sure didn't know they were still around.

Our supers here (central CA) have prepared meals but they're way out of my price range.

They do a great business with them. I just can't justify the expense when I'm home all day. I would have loved it when I was still working and raising kids.

Nerdbeard said...

I did not know Canadians had a reputation for being frugal. The governments have been restrained in spending for a while now, yeah, but consumer debt grows ever higher.

Loblaws is *huge* where I live. There are almost as many Zhers stores -- many rivalling "big boxes" in size -- as there are Tim Horton's around here! (In case it's not clear, Zhers is part of Loblaws.) Loblaws stores are recognisable for carrying President's Choice products. The "president" refers to Dave Nichol, who seemed to be a pretty shrewd cookie. At the time, PC provided inexpensive, premium products. I feel that their products have suffered greatly in recent years.

Nerdbeard said...

I forgot to add, Dave left quite a while ago.

L-girl said...

Loblaws is huge here, too. I don't know what I'd do without President's Choice.

I did not know Canadians had a reputation for being frugal.

I don't know if it's a reputation, but it was my own observation a while back. I mean no offense by it, but I continue to observe it.

In general - with the exceptions that come with every generality - I find Canadians more frugal than Americans. Things like the price of long-distance phone calls, parking, cable TV, and tipping, are more subject to tight-fisted-ness here than in the US.

I'm not saying this is good or bad. I'm just saying it is. (In my opinion.)

redsock said...

I don't know if it's a reputation, but it was my own observation a while back.

At which point Laura suddenly realized that her father was Canadian. :>)

L-girl said...

At which point Laura suddenly realized that her father was Canadian.

LOL. Indeed, he must have been the founder of Canada.

Ferdzy said...

Well, my family has always believed in being frugal. However, the point is to be frugal when it comes to the necessities: that means there's more money for luxuries!

Lone Primate said...

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.

When you get down to the granular level, Canadians and Americans are really, fundamentally pretty similar. But this is one of the few genuine cultural differences I've observed between Canadians and Americans on a daily-living level: Americans don't cook; they don't even eat at home if they can avoid it. I don't mean that absolutely, of course, but far, far more than I notice to be the case here. Canadians, in my experience, typically have their favourite dishes and prepare them at home; they might eat out one or two evenings a week, and often it's something social. Ditto lunch: I've found most of my co-workers, who aren't poor by any means, generally brown-bag lunch, and go out as a group about once a week.

But my experiences in the US are entirely different. Some time ago I spent about a month with various friends in Los Angeles, and all the time I was there, I could count the number of home-cooked, even home-eaten, meals on both hands. At one place, it amounted to once. At another, "home cooked" consisted of broiled chicken breasts... period. Well, and beer. That was the side dish. :)

Other visits to other places or on business have convinced me that while my LA experience was probably extreme, it's not that far from the norm. I've also noticed that most US supermarkets have terrible selections of produce. And yet, most of ours this time of year comes from the US. My only conclusion is that in the US, producers are selling mostly to restaurants and food preparation places, and dumping the dregs on the supermarkets, since cooking is becoming a rarity in the US. I'm at a loss to explain the difference in cultures in this aspect, but to me, it's a real indicator of what side of the border I'm on. Well, that, and the fact that people in the US wear their shoes in the house. Man, that's like Invasion of the Body Snatchers weird. :)

L-girl said...

Welcome back, LP :)

Your observations definitely apply to NYC and L.A., but I don't know if they do to the rest of the country. They might - I'm not sure.

New Yorkers and Los Angelenos are notorious for hardly ever cooking, and both cities have lousy produce in supermarkets (although excellent produce in speciality markets).

But in smaller cities and throughout suburbia, the supermarkets are rich with wonderful produce. I don't know about cooking, though. There is a lot of restaurant going, that's for sure.

Shoes in the house? Funny! We always wore them in NY - but we had hardwood floors. Here we have carpeting, and we wear slippers. But we noticed that everyone who comes over - the landlord, the heating oil guy, the next-door neighbour - all take their shoes off as soon as they walk in. Is it living in a country with a lot of snow?

L-girl said...

I've found most of my co-workers, who aren't poor by any means, generally brown-bag lunch, and go out as a group about once a week.

This is definitely different. When I worked in an office, I usually brought lunch to save money and eat better - food is SO expensive in midtown Manhattan. But I was a rarity. Most of my co-workers went out to lunch every day. I was amazed at how much ordinary office-workers would drop on lunch every day.

Lone Primate said...

Shoes in the house? Funny! We always wore them in NY

First time I can remember being aware of this was watching The Brady Bunch when I was about five. I noticed Bobby wearing his sneakers as he came down the stairs. To me, this was like wandering around in a snowsuit. But even at that age, I was grasping for explanations, and I decided it was because it was a TV show: that Bobby was wearing shoes because he was an actor on a set. But no, later on, I realized it's typical for people in the States to just wander through the house with their shoes on... There's a line in Huey Lewis and the News's song Bad Is Bad that still makes my eye twitch: "There's a strange pair of shoes underneath the bed." How the hell did shoes get all the way upstairs? You might as well sing "There's a strange garden hose underneath the bed." :)

I really don't know what the essential difference is, but I suspect you're right; it's probably to do with the weather. Whatever it is, it sets its mark, though... my first impression someone's low class is if they traipse through someone's home with their shoes on, and I don't think I'm alone in that in this country.

L-girl said...

"There's a strange pair of shoes underneath the bed." How the hell did shoes get all the way upstairs? You might as well sing "There's a strange garden hose underneath the bed." :)

This is so funny! Those lyrics draw from a long tradition of blues and R&B songs that note whose shoes are under the bed. Shoes under the bed, obviously, equal who's in the bed. It's like "How come my dog don't bark when you come around?"

Women will say, "He can put his shoes under my bed anytime," as a semi-risque-without-being-graphic way of saying mmmmyummy.

Now it turns out this is not universal. Who knew!

my first impression someone's low class is if they traipse through someone's home with their shoes on, and I don't think I'm alone in that in this country.

OMG. Thank you for warning me. I may have already looked like a hillbilly! Hopefully I will not do it again.

Let me ask you this, then. Does everyone wear slip-on shoes? What do you with big lace-up boots?

L-girl said...

Btw Lone Primate, I was hoping you'd weigh in on the anti-hate-speech discussion that devolved into the anti-porn-laws discussion. It was here.