Friday, October 1, 2010

Whole Foods vs. Fairway

Or should it be “Whole Paycheck vs. Fair Pay”?

Whole Foods apparently is feeling the pinch of the recession, touting its stores and wares as (I’m serious here) not expensive. The chain does have a certain reputation, so I get the feeling they’re trying to garner a new customer base, or lure back those who may have left. And that’s fine. Advertise. It’s a free country.

But the radio spots kill me: “I go to Whole Foods for value and fair pricing.” “Every penny counts.” Really? When I think of Whole Foods, an originator and now behemoth of the organic marketplace with 100% market share, I don’t think of “every penny” counting. I think of every penny, nickel, dime and dollar being leeched out of my wallet. Or, rather, their customers’ wallets.

I go to Whole Foods only periodically to stock up on grains and bulk goods. I think I’m the only person I know who can get out of there for under $20 and still have a full bag of groceries, including an esoteric cheese that might strike my fancy. If my husband and daughter come, the tab surely rises, and quickly.

I went there recently for a short list of specialty items to bring for a last-minute beach weekend: Baguette, three cheeses, water crackers, fig or date cake, and cerignola olives. One cheese had to be Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog, a default and house favorite; the two others would be chosen on site to balance out the acidity on both ends. I went to Whole Foods that day because it’s geographically closer and we were in a rush to leave.

Baguette: Check. Water crackers: Check. Humboldt Fog: Check. Olives. Hmm, Olives. Check the olive bar. Slim pickings. Don’t want jarred. Don’t want the mixed. Check jarred. Nothing. Skip the olives. Trek back to inquire about fig cake at the cheese counter. The cheese monger tries to send me to baked goods. “No, it’s compressed, dried fruit, sometimes with nuts. It also comes in apricot.” He asks a pair of other employees. They escort me to the bakery. “No, it’s not a cake, per se.” Bakery sends me to dried fruit section in produce. I knew it was a fool’s mission to hike all the way back to the other end of the store. I did. Not there. Time to cut my losses and check out.

I should’ve gone 10-extra minutes out of the way to Fairway, because in the end I spent 40-minutes going in a circle with my daughter in tow, looking for things that used to be stocked but now don’t exist there. Fairway, I knew, had it all, and I knew where the items would be in the store.

Don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against Whole Foods. It’s a neat adventure when you’re in the mood. But I fail to see “value pricing” in organic heirloom tomatoes that cost $6.99 per pound. I don’t even spend $6.99 on the seeds I grow in my backyard for plants that produce by the kilo. But if you’re in the market for tomatoes and don’t grow them yourself, then be my guest. Knock yourself out.

Now, onto Fairway. I’ve spoken of this small, regional chain before, since it opened a store in my county. The prices are good, competitive. The offerings are vast: it is nearly impossible to just zip in and zip out, much less stick to your list. You’re tempted at every turn. Fairway has the Humboldt Fog cheese as well, but it’s pricey, so $27.99 vs. $28.99/lb won’t send me to one store over the other. When I want it, I know I’m going to pay. As for the “on site selection” of companion cheeses, the word “choice” barely scratches the surface: imagine a wall, floor to ceiling, of cheeses from around the world, in addition to those in the front case to choose from and the pre-cut selections just behind you in their own chilled section of the store.

The Fairway baguettes far beat the one I picked up at Whole Foods in both taste and chewy texture. One costs $1.49, sometimes on sale for 99-cents – that’s when you buy four and stock the freezer. The Whole Foods baguette was $2.59 and didn’t compare. My olive experience sealed the deal, though. Fairway offerings – and this is a small store by comparison – are lined up in a two-tiered ring around a large island of shelves. Cerignola olives (they’re the really big ones) are standard and come in four colors: green, black, pink and mixed. There are a number of blends to choose from, herbed, spiced, mild, lemony, Thai-chili infused and otherwise. Kalamata, Nicoise, Picholine – they’re all there. And, at eye level on the island you’ll find accompaniments, condiments and yes, fig, date and apricot cakes sliced into wedges.

Whole Foods has large hot and cold bars of prepared foods, if that’s what you shop for. Fairway does as well, but Whole Foods wins in the number of items offered. However, I don’t buy prepared foods. Fairway has both conventional and organic produce, meats, baked goods and other grocery items. The prices are definitely better than Whole Foods. Don’t even get me started on olive oils: Fairway wins hands down on quantity, quality, plus regions and countries of origin. And a tasting bar, no less! Fairway also has a lot of grains (and my black lentils), but they’re pre-weighed and not all that cheap. Whole Foods bulk goods beats them by a nose on that front, also because of the number of grains and rices offered.

But when I needed snails to make Escargot a la Bourguignon for Valentine’s Day, where did I actually find them? Fairway. I picked up a fresh octopus ($3.99/lb!) on impulse over the summer to grill, and he was huge, glistening and smelled only of sweet sea brine. It’s hard to find anything other than frozen pulpo. And the price was right.

I can’t quite imagine doing my regular shopping there, since I regularly need things ranging from Cheerios to cat litter to Kiwi shoe polish. I know some people who do at Fairway and swear by it. I could not imagine doing a regular, weekly shopping at Whole Foods, although I know people who do. Appealing radio spots, “value pricing” or not, it would take my whole paycheck.

When I passed a Whole Foods billboard for its “value” ad-campaign over the weekend, I laughed to myself in the car. I was on my way to Fairway at the time.

Apparently, I’m a convert. It’s Fair Pay all the way.