Sunday, May 24, 2009

Whole Foods Gives Chicago Big Box Organic

Ah serendipity. After our recent resolve to go all organic, we girded our loins yesterday and headed for the new 75,000 square-foot Whole Foods that just celebrated its grand opening on Wednesday, located on Kingsbury and North Ave. We watched it go up this winter from the terrace of our gym nearby, wondering if it would improve the black hole of congestion that the smaller store caused for so long two blocks north. That it would be a stellar experience inside, I never doubted, but I have to admit this third-largest Whole Foods in the world has exceeded even those expectations.

The parking sitch: Not bad. The 400+ space facility was as full as you'd expect on Memorial Day weekend just after the grand opening (are we nuts, by the way?), but it's designed well enough that you can easily circulate until someone vacates a spot, which only took a couple of minutes.

The first impression: In Broadway parlance, it's a WOW. We entered on the second floor and descended the long escalator into a bright, airy, lofty space bursting with produce, live music, patrons sipping coffee at cafe tables, and people. Lots and lots of people.

Navigation: Maybe it's just the museum geek in me, but I wanted a map with my shopping cart. Looking south, I saw more and more store. It goes on for days. There's a mezzazine level and a diner, not to mention six other eateries tucked into various sections, only a few of which I saw on this visit. The produce section however didn't seem any bigger than the former one, and its still laid out at angles with cramped aisles - maximizing eye appeal but minimizing mobility. From there, the rest of it meanders generously around the big key landmarks, like the impressive Butcher counter and Bakery, which I swear attracted about 300 people with its free tasting stations.

Favorite surprise: Aisle Rage could have set in between Seafood and Dairy if my astute husband hadn't spotted a fellow shopper carrying a glass of beer who informed him that, "This whole store is a bar. You can get drinks at different places and carry them around." He pointed out the beer bar; my honey quickly began hunting for the inevitable wine counterpart. Which he found across from the milk, next to the large wine department. The double-sided Da Vine bar is surprisingly big, with an elevated seating area, knowledgeable staff, and a menu offering some interesting wines-by-the-glass and cheeses. A few steps away, a kid carved up giant wheels of amazingly tangy Parmigiano Reggiano for free samples. Sipping and munching, I relaxed considerably and ticked items off our shopping list. I turned to my husband and said, "Yeah. This is our store. We've come home."

The six remaining eateries are thematic to Chicago's neighborhoods: Wicker Park Subs, Pilsen Taqueria, Taylor Street Pizza, Asian Express, the retro Riverview Diner, and the Chicago Smokehouse and Rotisserie. There's also a lounge area, outdoor tables overlooking the river, and the entryway coffee and beer bar with a live music stage.

Other surprises: The seafood department offers three types of fresh wild salmon. My husband stared in wide-eyed wonder at the endless possibilities of the DIY nut butter station, not to mention the trail mixes possbile in the expanded bulk foods area that's about double the size of the previous one. In every area, selection is vast. I chose from eight kinds of European-style butters and nearly freaked when trying to decided on yogurt.

Customer service: Seriously great. They must be plying the staff with free yoga and aura massages, because we only encountered cheerful, helpful people who never forgot to ask if there was anything else we needed.

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