At a Glance
Whole Foods Market
475 Wilmington-West Chester Pike,
Glen Mills, Pa., (610) 358-1133,
Brick-oven pizza, mac and cheese, green chile pork stew, bakery items
Late on a Tuesday night, Whole Foods Glen Mills hums like a beehive. Shoppers by the dozens zip and buzz between the grid-like aisles, stopping for a moment to admire the beaming tower of acai juice bottles, or the bulk crates of yellow chana dal beans. Naturally, a few settle near the vats of locally sourced honey.
The body moves instinctively along with the hive. Almost without control, you find yourself hovering near a crate of fair trade figs and digging through the five varieties of organic beets. Soon, you’re reading the nutritional label on a bottle of raw coconut water, and talking yourself into one of the 60-gallon rain buckets you saw on your way in.
Suspiciously cheerful chalkboards direct your every motion. “Welcome to Whole Foods,” they seem to say. “Resistance is futile.”
Whole Foods Glen Mills, and its 38,000-square-feet of organic, fair trade, quinoa-stuffed sensory overload, opened in March. There was live music, beer tastings, freebies galore and much hoopla. Philly Magazine’s Foobooz blog referred to it as “the best thing to happen to grocery shopping since the invention of grocery stores.”
The store, which shares a shopping plaza with Harvest Seasonal Grill, and shares a stretch of road with a Trader Joe’s, surfed into the area on the crest of the Great Farm-to-Table Movement. And—yeah—it’s easy to get swept away.
On busy days, Whole Foods (here, in its closest location between Delaware and Philly) exudes farmers market frenzy. The shelves and coolers here contain some of the best quality grocery products in the area, from meat to cheese, to pasta and fish, pantry and sundry items—beckoning the hundreds of eco-conscious suburbanites who claw and grapple to nab them. The energy and the nuttiness are an integral part of the Whole Foods Experience, and it’s part of why the world’s largest natural food chain is so invigorating.
The Austin, Texas-based chain occasionally gets dinged for its over-aggressive marketing, and for using “natural” as a selling point rather than a social cause. But no matter the politics and lifestyle choices that drive it, natural (or “natural”) shopping is inherently more interesting and more engaging than your typical trip to the grocery store. Simply by urging customers to consider where their food comes from, Whole Foods serves as an important, if imperfect symbol for 21st century, eco-driven cuisine.
Whole Foods’ best utility is its selection. It’s uptown. It’s exhaustive. And it has a knack for showcasing those ever-elusive items you can never seem to find at your neighborhood mega mart. The kumquats, poblano peppers and green curry pastes of the world? Whole Foods has them in abundance, as well as olives, international foods, oils, and baking supplies that are all superior to that of your local big box. The store’s coolest feature is undoubtedly its bulk food filling stations, where customers can stock up on local honey, olive oils, rice, dried beans, and all the smoked sea salt they can handle.
Apart from its retail wing, Whole Foods boasts several sit-down elements: a few indoor-outdoor grazing zones, a lumberjack-inspired pub (complete with 40 stools and a rotating list of local microbrews on tap), and a seemingly endless supply of eat-in or takeout food counters. Consider this your local salad bar on steroids (or in this case, pasture-raised on B-vitamins). Fresh cut and clean veggies, grains and pre-mixed combos line the tables. There’s a hot sandwich counter, a brick pizza oven, fresh-rolled sushi, homemade pastas, a gargantuan bakery, and much, much more.
And if by chance you thought, as I did, that the selection is all quinoa-kamut salads and $10 cayenne-infused lemonades, you’d be wrong.
At the hot buffet next to butternut posole and senate bean soup, I spotted some juicy seared chicken thighs marinating in a poppy lemon-rosemary jus. Slow-cooked and tender, the chicken shredded nicely and onto a pile of Caribbean-inspired callaloo, braised collard greens and okra.
The WF veggie burger had nothing in common with an actual burger, apart from its general shape, color and the word “burger.” But this version exuded ample earthy flavor, thanks to its mushroom purée binder and kitchen sink approach to veganism. Bits of cauliflower, celery root, carrot, bell pepper, peas, red cabbage and chickpeas contributed to a fully formed, robust-tasting patty.
Bright flavors burst elsewhere. Poached tilapia, tender and firm, remained deeply aromatic and vivid, due in part to its warm bath of carrots, red onions and celery, plus a healthy dose of Old Bay. And even vegan rolls from the store’s bright sushi counter popped with crispy, veggie goodness: creamy avocado sunk into crunchy carrots, cucumber and arugula, while hidden whittles of red cabbage skulked beneath the soy wrappers, giving the roll a vivid allure.
Sadly, healthy isn’t always delicious, and it didn’t take much to realize balsamic-glazed tofu tasted about as good as it sounded. While I imagined the nutrient-rich Super Foods Salad imbuing in me the ability to lift Buicks and type copy at light speed, the mixture of organic kale, barley and red onions (plus the “super food” medley of goji berries, mulberries, cacao nibs and more) tasted bitter and unwieldy. Even generous drizzles of acai berry dressing did little to mask the leafy assault.
Melty Monterey Jack cheese should have made a wild mushroom quesadilla into a fast-disappearing snack, but the tortilla had become waterlogged, and even a few flips in a hot frying pan couldn’t recapture a crispy exterior. Similar problems of the gloppy, pasty variety befell a bland black bean burrito.
Eventually I slung my head in guilt and submitted my will to Whole Foods’ less-healthy choices, like the rich and luscious mac and cheese, where half-and-half, cream cheese, cheddar and Parmesan teamed to siege tender cavatappi pasta. Meaty turkey chili and tender green-chile pork stew proved hearty companions during a cold, rainy weekend, as did the store’s brick-oven pizzas. Done right—on high temperatures in short order—the pies arrived hot and crisp, and were perfect hosts for toppings like shallot and local mushrooms.
My nose, meanwhile, parked itself as close to Whole Foods’ prodigious bakery as societal norms allowed, and I soon found myself intoxicated by Bavarian pretzels, apple Danish, sinful sugar cookies, ficelle sandwiches and cranberry scones.
Cookies screamed the loudest—from the fudgey sandwich bites, chewy and pliable, to the fluffier, Amish-style whoopee pies jammed together with sugar-bombed pastry cream, to the homemade oatmeal cream pies. All delivered a satisfying, nostalgic rush. Deftly composed tiramisu refreshed with crisp notes of mascarpone cream, and just the right slap of bitter, barky espresso, while the resplendent root-beer cupcake provided enough sugary zing to fuel a busload of first-graders.
After enough rounds with the bakery, I felt I was beginning to lose sight of the very concept of Whole Foods—but was I? The prepared goods at this corporate-fueled health food giant weren’t always stellar, but the sheer selection and variety of choices begs exploration. And that’s what makes it great.
It may not have Acme’s fried chicken, ShopRite’s cakes or Safeway’s sushi. And I could probably spend the better part of a weekend scouring my local cheese shops, butchers and farmers markets for the absolute best in quality, local ingredients. But the sum of Whole Foods’ many disparate parts makes it a tempting, and deserving option.
And before long, you’re back in the parking lot, adjusting your yoga pants, taking a sip from a cold bottle of Guayaki Yerba Mate and thinking maybe—just maybe—this is the year you begin composting.