For many months, we watched the building work progress - incredibly slowly as it seemed at the time. A self-confident interview on Radio 4 with the Whole Foods CEO - over a year ago now - promised great things. As the opening date approached, the PR machine swung impressively into action, and articles appeared in The Economist and The FT, and all the national press had coverage of the celebrity opening. Beyond all the fanfares and the excitement, though, it was difficult to see exactly what all the fuss was supposed to be about. A range of organic produce.....and a large Cheese counter......and a restaurant or two above the shop - didn't per se seem to add up to a winning competitive formula. Most of the press comment after the opening seemed focused on the stratospheric pricing, which implied that there must be something going on to justify the exorbitant price tags...
So, yesterday, we wandered along to Ken High Street, to take a look. And it was a strangely disappointing experience: neither impressively good, nor impressively bad - merely poor. On the basis of the hype, I started out by looking for things that are sometimes difficult to find elsewhere - with absolutely no success: no Chervil or Sorrel amongst the herbs, no Citrus Oils, no Artichoke Hearts, no Rose Petal Jam, no Whitebait on the fish counter...... And it was only then that I began to realise that it wasn't just the hard-to-find stuff that was missing, but a whole lot of 'normal' things weren't available either: not only no Ossobucco amongst the meat, but no Veal whatsoever, nor any Calves Liver or Offal of any kind; no Potted Shrimps; no Dried Pears.....and although they had something they called 'risotto rice', it was impossible to tell if it was Arborio, or Vialone, or Carnaroli. Quality seemed fairly patchy as well - presumably as a result of goods not shifting quickly enough - some extremely woody asparagus (OK, it's the end of the season, but if it's not good, why carry it?) and the meat, without looking actually dry, seemed a little tired.....
Without looking at the figures, it's clear that the whole project is a retail disaster in progress. At midday on Monday, nobody was buying anything. There were people wandering around, but a lot of them seemed to be doing as we were - just taking a look. Nestled at the foot of the escalator was a phalanx of shopping trolleys, but I only saw one actually being used in anger - by a woman who seemed perturbed that the shop didn't stock Organic Gelatine (it takes all sorts!).
Nobody was making any attempt to disrupt the glistening pyramids of fruit or vegetables, or to make inroads into the serried ranks of pies or chocolates or beefsteaks. The excessively large wine section was deserted, as was the Traiteur, where the staff all looked bored to tears. And at 12.45 on a weekday, too, when you'd expect local office workers to be queuing three-deep for that sort of thing for lunch......To show willing, I bought some Sausages at the meat counter, but otherwise left empty-handed. The only place in the entire shop that seemed busy was the pick'n'mix salad bar, where you could fill up a box for £1.79. - apparently, this compares quite well with either M&S or Waitrose, just along the High Street. It doesn't look to me like much of a basis for a winning business strategy, though....
So much for all the hype and the PR puff! I suppose one could agonise over exactly where they've gone wrong - but without going into too much detail, it isn't too difficult merely to proclaim that sure as eggs is eggs, this Emperor is well and truly naked!
And the sausages?
I had a sneaking suspicion that I'd find they were delicious beyond description, and would find myself beating a path to Whole Foods door on a regular basis hereafter. Well, you can put away that particular 'B' movie scenario, as well. I can truthfully say they were the worst sausages I have ever eaten in my life, mealy and dry and just this side of inedible. In fact, I didn't finish mine, and donated the remainder to the four-footeds - who wouldn't eat them either!! Which, believe me, is saying a lot.
Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic; Vichy Carrots
Tartes aux Pommes, with Creme Chantilly.