You know that joke about how Whole Foods should be called Whole Paycheck? It seems the corporate poobahs have heard it, too. This year, the company plans to roll out more of their new lower-price-point supermarkets called 365 by Whole Foods Market.
Sound familiar? Whole Foods' longstanding, dependable house label 365 Everyday Value is the centerpiece of these stores, which promise to be an economic alternative while adhering to Whole Foods' ideals of hormone- and antibiotic-free meat and milk; no hydrogenated fats, artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, or preservatives; cage-free eggs; and sustainably caught fish.
I shopped at the 365 in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, one of three existing stores (the others in are Bellevue Square, Washington, and Lake Oswego, Oregon) to get an idea of what you can expect if you live in Bloomington, Indiana; Decatur, Georgia; Akron, Ohio; or one of the 11 other places where Whole Foods is building a 365 store. (The next opens its doors April 26 in Cedar Park, Texas, right outside Austin, where Whole Foods is headquartered, followed by a 365 in Santa Monica, California, this summer.)
Here's what I learned. In a locally sourced, organic nutshell: It's kind of like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's had a baby.
1. It feels more like a farmers market than a supermarket.
Each store will be site specific, but don't expect to be greeted by an impenetrable-looking block of high grocery store aisles. With lots of waist-high bins and low-slung freezer chests, the Silver Lake outpost's produce and ready-made food area have the breezy, open-air feeling of a country farm stand.
2. There's no reason to shop on an empty stomach.
In addition to the usual smattering of dining tables outside the checkout area, every 365 will be partnering with some type of onsite eatery, which will occupy its own distinct space. In Silver Lake, it's the first California branch of the New York City vegan burger and salad joint by CHLOE, a restaurant named for one of its partners, vegan chef and cookbook author Chloe Coscarelli. Lake Oswego has a place called Next Level Burger.
3. The store brand is front and center.
Much like my other favorite bargain gourmet store, Trader Joe's, 365 overwhelmingly relies on its store brand. In some cases, the store stocks a wide choice of brands (your coffees, teas, yogurts, for example). In other product categories — like rice, frozen fruits and vegetables, and pasta sauces — the 365 brand is the only brand on the shelf. No complaints here, though, as the stuff is quality and I'd happily buy it than have to spend time comparing other brands.
4. It's very self-serve.
This is not the place to get a piece of fish custom cut or "Happy Birthday, Madison" piped on a cake. Again, like Trader Joe's, with few exceptions, 365 is a help-yourself store with pre-wrapped portions of meat, poultry, and fish (most hovering around a pound in weight), and no deli for custom sandwiches. (Exceptions so far: You can order a pizza, taco, burrito, burrito bowl, or hot dog made fresh in Silver Lake. And the Texas store, which opens in April, will have a meat cutter.)
5. The salad bar seems like a steal.
The center of the Silver Lake store is given over to four long islands of serve-yourself prepared food, including hot dishes like chicken tikka masala, basmati rice, lasagna, pizza slices, and a big variety of soups. There is a raw food island and traditional cold salads. It's priced by the container's size, not the pound, so a small container will cost the same whether it is weighed down with lasagna or just a few lettuce leaves. I know because I did it!
6. There are plenty of prepared options to pick from.
There are cases of prepackaged prepared sandwiches, sushi, and salad. I tried the New England clam chowder (delicious), a turkey sub (perfectly adequate), and a tofu noodle salad (meh). The center of the store also has a plethora of items to make dinner prep easier, including rotisserie chickens, frozen baked pastas (lasagna, mac and cheese, manicotti), pizza dough and sauces, as well as precut or spiralized veggies. Regular Whole Foods may have most of the same stuff, but 365 has it all centrally located, making it easy to come in, grab a few containers from one spot, and have dinner on the table very quickly.
7. It's a fully stocked grocery store — with some surprises.
You could conceivably do an entire grocery shop at 365, unlike Trader Joe's which inevitably lacks that one ingredient (cornstarch!) or household item (a pot scrubber!) you desperately need, necessitating a second stop. For adventurous cooks, they've even sprinkled a few on-trend usually hard-to-find ingredients throughout the store like duck fat and pig lard for cooking and baking, and five kinds of bitters for the cocktail connoisseur.
8. It's worth signing up for the rewards club.
Like CVS and many other retailers, shoppers can sign up and become eligible for various money-saving schemes. Give your phone number every time you check out and receive 10 percent off a selection of products, which change weekly. There are also various buy-five-get-one-free electronic punch cards on products like pre-washed salad greens and grab-and-go soups, as well as other specials.
9. It's also a bar.
There's wine and beer for sale at the Allegro coffee and muffin concession. This will vary according to local liquor laws, but in Silver Lake, a clerk said the $6 beers and $7 wines are most popular with lunch-time visitors.
10. There's a tea machine (that's better than a kiddie ride.)
Old-school grocery stores used to have coin-operated carousel and horsey rides on site — 365 has the TeaBOT, a machine where grownup tea-lovers can chose from up to three of its 18 varieties of tea for a custom-blended $3 cup. If you ask me, it's so much more fun than bucking around on a fake pony!
Here's where you can save: 10 Things That are Cheaper at 365 than Whole Foods
Have you been to a 365? What did you learn?