Two bars, a high-tech coffee bar, a juice bar, four food stands operated by Philadelphia restaurateurs - and groceries - are the draws at the new Whole Foods store which opened Friday, Oct. 14 at 2101 Pennsylvania Avenue, just off the Parkway and behind the Rodin Museum.
It's a two-block move for the store formerly at 20th and Callowhill Streets, which opened in January 1997. The new store, at 62,000 square feet nearly double the size, is set on a property that previously housed a Best Western hotel. The Callowhill store closed Wednesday, and all remaining food was donated to three charities.
Whole Foods is billing this store as the flagship for the mid-Atlantic region, and it opens as the company, founded in 1978 in Austin, Texas, is trying to find its way in a now-crowded marketplace for natural and organic foods.
The chain seems to be banking on prepared foods, an obvious profit center. In addition to its own prepared foods, Whole Foods has contracted with four Philadelphia-area food companies to set up luncheonette-style counters equipped with bar stools.
CHeU Noodle Bar's chef Ben Puchowitz and business partner Shawn Darragh (who also have Bing Bing Dim Sum and another CHeU planned for this winter in Fishtown) are selling pepperoni pork dumplings, black garlic wings, miso ramen, mushroom yakisoba, and coconut curry noodles at this branch of their Washington Square West bar.
Severino Cucina Rustica is a spinoff of the 45-year-old Westmont pasta company, and chef Marc BrownGold sells plates of $11 and $12 pasta plus Italian sandwiches, salads, and desserts.
Dizengoff has chef Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook (Zahav and Abe Fisher) selling hummus and pita in this offshoot of their Center City and New York City hummusiyas.
At Wiz Kid, Vedge chef/owners Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby are selling a few vegan sandwiches, salads, and fries. Wiz Kid also will open as a shop next door to the couple's V Street restaurant near Rittenhouse Square this winter.
The new store's coffee bar lining the front window along Pennsylvania Avenue will open daily at 6 a.m., an hour before the store does. There probably will not be a line for pour-over coffees, despite its lengthy prep method; the store has a robot that can prepare five at once. At 11 a.m., the counter adds wine, beer, and coffee cocktails.
Cheeses, organized by style (Goudas next to Alpines, soft-ripened next to blues), have their own room. Cooking is done in truly open kitchens; there are no counters between cooks and customers. The fish counter, while not self-service, allows customers to walk up to a salmon for close inspection. A meat room behind glass allows people to observe whole-animal cutting and drying. There's a cart for soft pretzels.
Whole Foods knows Wall Street is watching. Analysts have been tepid lately about the retailer, whose share price has dipped 13 percent over the last year.
"Fifteen years ago, they built this" market segment, said Brian Yarbrough, a consumer-research analyst with Edward D. Jones & Co. in St. Louis, who tracks the industry. "The proliferation of competition is exploding."
"What you're seeing in [the sector of] natural foods and organics are double-digit growths every year, while the rest of grocery industry is 1, 2, or 3 percent," Yarbrough said.
Besides smaller rivals such as Fresh Market, conventional supermarkets, and even big retailers such as Costco, Walmart, and Target are stocking organics and more heathful foods - though there's not much of a customer overlap.
"Other people have caught up with them," said Jeff Metzger, publisher of Food Trade News.
Like Yarbrough, Metzger believes that Whole Foods' long-term prospects are sound. Still, Metzger said the company could not "override the whole `Whole Paycheck' image" and said that perception was an impediment to faster growth.
The company recently launched smaller stores in a few cities, branded as 365 by Whole Foods, in an attempt to woo less-affluent shoppers.
Emily M. Moscato, a professor of food marketing at St. Joseph's University, said the larger, fancier store has the potential for commensurately higher sales.