Whole Foods Hits the Land of Mushy Peas

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Alastair Grant / AP

Whole Foods Market in London's Kensington High Street will open next week.

Dozens of eager foodies waited an hour on line in the plush London neighborhood of Kensington, last week, to sample the wares of the first British outlet of the upscale U.S. supermarket chain Whole Foods. But winning over the epicurious is the easy part of promoting the healthy-eating oriented chain in the land of toad-in-the-hole and chip butties.

"We think we can contribute to the U.K. changing in tastes," says David Lannon, regional president of Whole Foods. "A revolution with fresh ingredients... nothing artificial whatsoever — why can't that happen here?"

There has certainly been a quiet shift underway for some time now: As London's importance as a global financial centre has soared, it now boasts more Michelin-star restaurants (43) than does New York (39). But Whole Foods wants to bring the palate revolution to a wider audience.

"The elite design the taste — the demand for traditional, artisanal, relatively pricier food — and it eventually filters down to the rest," says food historian Professor Felipe-Fernandez Armesto, of the Whole Foods phenomenon. "I suspect sensory pleasures also compete."

If eating well is deemed sexy, these days, then Whole Foods is the ultimate pleasure palace. Its London store is its biggest ever, comprising 80,000 square feet spread out over three floors offering 10,000 grocery items. These include 1,000 different wines, 425 cheeses, 40 types of sausage, 55 in-store chefs, a sushi bar, a champagne and oyster bar and a DJ-booth to play music for late-night shoppers.

The range of options can be overwhelming — a greengrocer section boasting thirty different varieties of tomato, or have a dozen different shelves stocked with teas. But the customers are not complaining.

"It's attractive — the variety and the food's fresh," says Stephanie, 27, eating a Lebanese tabouleh salad in the upstairs food court. "Hopefully we're getting more used to it."

Organic and locally sourced food is no longer the preserve of hippies and vegans in Britain, following a series of food scares such as the BSE and foot-and-mouth epidemics, concerns about GM crops and, more recently, the arrival of bird flu, plus the high profile efforts of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver to promote healthier eating. "The organic culture is very strong in the U.K.," says Lannon, which is why Whole Foods intends to eventually open as many as 40 stores throughout Britain. Although organic products currently account for only 1.6 percent of Britain's $167 billion food trade, it is the market's fastest-growing sector. While many Brits might associate the organic label with misshapen potatoes and flaccid carrots on offer at a local farmers' market, Whole Foods is trying to expand the market by offering organic food that's big and perfect.

Britain's larger supermarket chains have also begun catering to the changing appetite. Tesco, the country's biggest retailer, stocks organic meat, bread and dairy products, while Marks & Spencer, has long offered organic produce, and now sells a "Super Wholefood Salad" to compete for 'healthy' lunchtime business.

Some libertarians denounce the trend as, to quote a recent commentary in the influential weekly Spectator, a result of the unwelcome interference of "cultural commentators, celebrity chefs, nanny-state ministers and controlling wives." Other critics see Whole Foods 30 varieties of tomatoes and the like as indicators that the healthy instinct to seek organic and local produce is being channeled into American-style consumerist excess. "Whole Foods is over the top," wrote one London newspaper commentator. "It's Americanism gone mad."

And environmentalists complain of the carbon-footprint and waste involved in sourcing organic produce from all over the globe: "Air freighting is an extremely relevant... concern, with regard to climate change, because organic farming is known to have a lower carbon footprint than non-organic farming," said Robin Maynard, spokesman for the U.K. Soil Association, Britain's biggest monitor of organic farming. "Wasteage also applies to all major retailers. There are horrifying figures on what the U.K. throws away."

And then there is the British palate. Despite the excitement generated by its launch, nobody's expecting Whole Foods to transform the way Britons eat. "It's quite an experience — I'm going to come back when I want to indulge in healthy food and salads," said Lucy, a 23-year-old stylist visiting Whole Foods for the first time. "But I still like the odd fry-up."