On November 4 at 9:30 a.m. a new Whole Foods Market broke bread rather than cut a ribbon, and opened for business in the rapidly transforming Gilman shopping district in West Berkeley. The store, and the competition it represents, has been a catalyst for at least one other local grocery chain to sharpen up its act. Early reports suggest the market will be a welcome addition to the neighborhood for local residents.
An estimated 600 people took tours of the new Whole Foods store last week in the lead-up to Tuesday’s opening at its location on 10th and Gilman streets. This is the second Whole Foods store for Berkeley (the first one opened at Ashby and Telegraph in 1990), the 41st Whole Foods store in Northern California, and the 401st nationwide. It will be open 8 a.m. until 10 p.m., seven days a week, while the Whole Foods-owned Allegro Coffee roastery in-store, its first outlet on the West Coast, will be open from 6 a.m. every day.
The 47,000 sq ft Whole Foods Market, with 85 car parking spaces, including electric charging spots, and 12 bike spaces, is employing 200 staff, two-thirds of them coming from other Whole Food stores while one-third are new staff members, said outreach team leader Kristen Tantarelli.
Whole Foods is testing some new concepts at the new Berkeley market, including a designated space and table in the specialty food section where certified cheese professionals will be on hand to cut cheese fresh from the wheel to customers’ specifications.
“Many delicate cheeses are better cut the day they are eaten,” said Tantarelli. Up to 90 percent of the cheeses come from Northern California.
Other features of the store are a full-service butcher, a bakery that will be making ten breads from scratch daily, homebrew supplies, a craft pizza bar, a Paleo cold bar, and a sophisticated bulk-bin section.
The fresh juice bar has been given a Berkeley flavor – servers are mixing mocktails using ingredients from the locally situated Shrub & Co. Its shrubs are made from organic fruit, sugar, vinegar and aromatics.
The new store has given Andronico’s the incentive to make improvements at its Solano Avenue store and to invest in a high-profile billboard campaign as the retailer reminds Berkeley shoppers that it has a long history in the area dating back to 1929.
Renwood Opportunities Fund, Andronico’s owner since its bankruptcy in 2011, is giving all five of its stores facelifts by mid 2015. It has two in Berkeley, the other three in San Anselmo, Los Altos and San Francisco. (Update, Nov. 5: Andronico’s said it spent around $1 million on the Solano store improvements and plans to spend several million more for all the other stores in 2015.) Two years ago it unveiled a revamped store in Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto.
“We will be doing things like putting in new bakeries, new salad bars, hot food bars. We are really trying to clean them up. We are also revamping the stores’ catering departments,” said the food retailer’s spokeswoman.
“Andronico’s is only in the Bay Area, so it is completely local,” she said. “We are hoping that people in Berkeley won’t change stores,” she added.
Andronico’s is particularly proud of the food it stocks from local producers, she said.
“Andronico’s bends over backwards to make sure that it is opening the door to local companies. We carry hundreds of small producers. And we will allow for a lot of flexibility.”
Andronico’s staff is unionized unlike Whole Foods, she added.
Whole Foods Gilman said 85 percent of its produce is from California. It also has a section dedicated to hyperlocal food purveyors, including Baia Pasta, which is in Jack London Square, Oakland’s Sosu sauces, Emeryville’s INNA Jam, and San Francisco’s Omnivore Salt. Some of the products are made literally a stone’s throw from Whole Foods’ doorstep, such as Fra’ Mani‘s charcuterie, produce from Local Greens, shrubs from Shrub & Co, and muffins from Muffin Revolution, the latter two being based at the Berkeley Kitchens incubator at 2701 Eighth Street.
Asked whether the store will address local crime problems and traffic congestion, Tantarelli said they were working to improve the area in collaboration with the community.
“We will have security at the store for the safety of customers and team members. We have also been working with the Police Department, requesting more frequent patrols of the neighborhood. We are also discussing options with University Village for increased security,” she said.
The food retailer has been welcomed by at least one major nearby business. Outdoor outfitter REI on San Pablo Avenue routinely works to build connections with the local community. With the stores being so close, this will increase, said Brad Bostrum, REI’s market manager of outdoor programs and outreach.
“For us it’s fantastic. REI and Whole Foods are very like-minded companies. Even on our strategies with best customer service.”
Is he worried about Whole Foods customers encroaching on REI car parking spaces? “We are more interested in how its arrival can affect the community in a positive way,” said Bostrom. “We expect a lot of our customers will overlap — for example people will grab a snack at Whole Foods before shopping at REI.”
Bostrom said he was personally excited about the early-morning coffee that will be on offer.
As for Berkeley residents, they appear keen to give the retailer a try.
Neil Mishalov, who took some of the photos included in this story, lives a 7-minute walk from the new store. “It’s fabulous. I am just delighted to have such a great food store within such a short distance from my home,” he said after visiting on opening day.
Mercelle Carlson, a local mother of two and an enthusiastic foodie, said she would be visiting Whole Foods for its wine and cheese department as well as for its café.
With a two-year old and a little girl at elementary school, Carlson is often looking to pick up a few things after school drop-off in the morning. She is frustrated by retailers like Berkeley Bowl
and Monterey Market that don’t open until 9 a.m.
“You try sitting in a café with a two-year old waiting until 9 a.m. for the stores to open,” she said. “At the moment, this earlier opening definitely give Whole Foods a competitive edge. The early bird gets the worm.”
She hopes Whole Foods’ hours will prompt some other local food retailers to change their opening times.
But Diane Yasuda, co-owner with husband Glenn of the much-loved Berkeley Bowl, said the Berkeley Bowl stores wouldn’t be doing anything any different.
“We will do what we do now. We will not be changing the hours at this point. There is business in food for everybody. We are so busy, more hours would be too much,” she said.
Berkeley Bowl is hiring at the moment with a number of long-term employees retiring. The food retailer is also looking at ways of expanding its organic produce sections due to customer demand, said Yasuda.
The Berkeley Bowl owner said she thought Monterey Market might feel the competition from the new Whole Foods store.
“It will help the area,” she added.
The Natural Grocery Company is another local retailer watching Whole Foods’ arrival closely.
“The Berkeley store will be affected by the new Whole Foods market but I still think it is a great thing if Whole Foods is actually selling organic natural food,” said Pierre Jones, store manager of The Natural Grocery Company in El Cerrito which also has a store on Gilman Street in Westbrae. Natural Grocery prides itself on its organic offerings, especially in its fresh-produce department.
Tantarelli said at this time of year the fresh produce section at Whole Foods is 65 percent organic. On average, about 50 percent of the products it carries at any given time are organic store-wide. Whole Foods Market is a USDA Certified Organic grocer.