Ausgabe 27/2007

Whole Foods Arrives in Europe: Paying a Prince's Ransom for Potatoes

By Thomas HŁetlin in London

The world's most luxurious organic food store has opened a branch in London's posh Kensington neighborhood. What used to be said about Rolls Royce cars now holds true for potatoes: If you have to ask the price, you can't afford one.

The organic food chain Whole Foods has come to Kensington, one of London's most expensive neighborhoods.
Getty Images

The organic food chain Whole Foods has come to Kensington, one of London's most expensive neighborhoods.

Valerie has large dark eyes. Her hair sways like that of Claudia Cardinale in "Once Upon A Time In The West" and she pushes her shopping cart as if she were floating over a catwalk. She stops in front of the 12-meter-long (39 foot) fish counter and orders a pound of squid, caught last night in the North Atlantic. "Don't forget," reminds the fish vendor, who seems to be accustomed to women with plenty of money but no idea about cooking, "to heat up the frying pan properly first."

Valerie is French, and she knows how to cook. Still she is grateful, too. She used to spend half a day going shopping by taxi -- from the cheese store in Marylebone to the butcher in Holland Park, from the wine store in Knightsbridge to the green grocer in Notting Hill. Always in search of what she calls "French quality." Now she has found them in a store called Whole Foods, in Kensington. Valerie tosses several bundles of wild French asparagus, strung together in 200 gram (7 ounce) portions, into her shopping cart.

One kilogram (2.2 lbs) of wild asparagus costs €25 ($34). "I never look at the prices," says Valerie, shaking her Claudia Cardinale hair. "It's no use." Her husband is a banker, she says, adding that wild asparagus sprouts in the garden of their country house in Aix-en-Provence.

Most people here have similar backgrounds. They don't have any reason to be concerned about the price of their groceries. They just want to be able to feel as if their purchases came directly from their own garden or some other place they trust. "It's the feel-good factor," says Alex Philpott, who is responsible for public relations at Whole Foods.

If the size of a store and its range of stock are important standards, then the new Whole Foods branch is the best organic food shop in the world. It boasts 7,430 square meters (79,976 square feet) of sales area and more than 10,000 different products -- one can find everything here from Baby Alcamara potatos (1.5 kilograms or 3.3 pounds, normally available for €10.30, which is on offer for €7.30, to an ostrich egg for €40.

Globalization's Winners Reap Its Fruits

This may all sound expensive, but it's actually cheap for Kensington, the playground of Russian oligarchs, Indian software millionaires and other globalization winners.

The £9 billion (€13 billion) London's financial sector poured out over the city last year in the form of bonus payouts mainly rained down on the inhabitants of this neighborhood. That prosperity is the likely reason the US organic food chain Whole Foods chose the area for its first European branch. As supplier to the progressive US elite, Whole Foods boasts an annual turnover of $5.6 billion in the United States.

Now Whole Foods has decided to cater to the United Kingdom, Europe's No. 1 financial center, where the prosperity of the past 10 years has created a luxury organic culture that is many bonus billions removed from the sandal-wearing globalization critics. When Whole Food's Kensington branch opened, AA Gill, probably the best-paid British restaurant critic, said that "food has replaced class." According to Gill, "the poor are fat and the rich and sophisticated are thin." In one of the most expensive neighborhoods of one of the world's most expensive cities, globalization's winners are consuming its fruits.

They don't just go shopping. They visit Whole Foods as if it were foodies's equivalent of high mass. The food reaches, altar-like, to the ceiling. The parmesan, at €34 a kilogram, is stacked in large yellow wheels, like many of the other 425 varieties of cheese. Between them are colorful hills of fruits and vegetables, including 21 different varieties of tomatoes alone. A shelf 30 meters long and filled with dairy products has been set up here, its shape arched to accord with the principles of feng shui, "in order to preserve the energy." Seventeen varieties of soy milk can be found on the shelf, but also small, nostalgic half-liter bottles from the time when the milkman still personally brought the milk to the door. The glass bottles have the advantage of allowing customers to bring them back for re-use. "It gives them a good conscience," says publicist Philpott. But it's a selective good conscience, as Philpott readily admits. When the time of year does not allow for stocking the store with British products, the customers demand the shelves be replenished with foods transported by plane from New Zealand, Kenya or wherever the weather happens to be warm at the time. "People in Kensington want asparagus in October and strawberries in December," she says.

A women wearing a blackberry-colored coat is now standing in the foyer. She picks up a box of strawberries. It's a special offer: Four strawberries for €3 ($4). "These prices are completely ridiculous," she says. "There's never been anything like this, not even in Kensington."

She would know. Shirley Hyams, is 74 and she has spent her entire life in the neighborhood. She earned money through real estate and night clubs in the West End, where Sammy Davis Jr. performed.

Hyams stays in the store for two hours, buys a 50 gram piece of gouda cheese aged two-and-a-half years and steps out of the door resolved never again to enter the organic store, which many take to be a paradise.

But Hyams is the Kensington of yesteryear, the royal neighborhood where the old motto of the British aristocracy held true: "If you have to ask the price of a Rolls Royce, you can't afford one." Thanks to Whole Foods, the same can now be said about potatos.

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