Grocery Store News

by The Design of Things


The big news in our town is that a Whole Foods is opening around the corner tomorrow.

This event has generated mainly two reactions. The first was dismay at the closing of the original grocery store, part of a depressing and yet oddly comforting local chain called Johnny’s Foodmaster. The stores reminded me of at store where my Granny might have shopped. You could definitely find Crisco there, and Christmas napkins for cheap.

The real outrage came from some people at the idea of Whole Foods coming in – old people wouldn’t know how to shop there, it caters to the rich, the town soon wouldn’t be recognizable. An outright class war was brewing, a partisan brouhaha as bad as when Carol Band proposed banning leaf blowers in the summertime.

The other reaction was excitement, which if you think about it is equally outsized. Yet people have been talking about it, and tonight two of my neighbors called to ask if I wanted to go by tomorrow, on opening day. I said yes, even though I already go to a Whole Foods nearby and I tell myself it is mainly to buy olive oil – which, at Whole Foods, is cheap.

Of course Whole Foods has worked to generate this excitement. Communicative and cheerful during construction, they used the wait to create a buzz about being Arlington’s locally sourced grocery store. The papered over windows were plastered with descriptions of local businesses in working class towns who would be involved – the bakery in Medford, the fishmonger in Gloucester, the distributor in Everett.

So tonight I walked the dogs over, just to see.

I found a sparkling new grocery store, all ready to go. It’s beautifully designed with pretty colors, stenciled signs over the deli and seafood, and a seating area in front with butcher block tables and retro metal chairs enameled in a ‘fifties pistachio green. Pumpkins and chrysanthemums lined the sidewalk outside the front door just to remind us it’s a grocery store like any other in New England this time of year. Chalkboard signboards with the latest sales and specials drawn on stood ready to put out, along with one that said “Whole Foods: Now Open!”

The whole effect was endearing – like the kids had gotten everything ready for the big production tomorrow. It was also filled with little messages that could definitely provoke disdain. Scrawled on the wall above the seafood were the words “100% Traceable”. At the front of the pretty produce I could see a sign for “eco-apples” – apples that hadn’t been treated with pesticides. Small carousels of reusable grocery bags topped the registers.

But they pulled it off, design-wise, without it looking like a Whole Foods. It kind of looks like a cheerier Johnny’s. Very clever.

A young policeman came walking up from the parking lot. I assumed he was there to protect the pumpkins.

“I’m just looking,” I said.

“Oh, no,” he said. “I was just wondering what time they were opening tomorrow.”

He peered in the window.

“Aw, it looks nice in there.”

After we compared notes on Stop N Shop (“They’re awful,” he said. “So expensive. And you never know where their stuff is coming from.”) I had to wonder about this grocery store class divide and whether Whole Foods might be aiming to change it.

Whenever I find myself starting to be impressed by a corporation, I imagine a rich guy with a cigar in his mouth and his feet on the desk laughing that I fell for the chalkboard signs and the eco-apples.

I know many environmental activists who call any corporate efforts on this front “greenwashing”. And I don’t want to know all the people who have to eat quinoa. But there is power in purchasing and marketing basic ideas of sustainability, and being places where these products and values can become normalized. (I do wonder about all the stuff they sell, but that is another post.)

This Whole Foods, like others popping up in the area, is small for a grocery store these days. They kept the Johnny’s footprint – didn’t try to make it enormous or reject the in-town location because it couldn’t be made bigger. They’re bringing us eco-apples as if we asked for them, and maybe someone who never thought about pesticides might begin to (as long as the apples don’t look wormy, which I couldn’t verify from squinting in the window).

One of my neighbors is just hoping there will be a cookie bar.