Emphasizing natural and organic foods, fresh produce from family farms and high quality in all its products, the Whole Foods supermarket opened Wednesday, Jan. 17 in Fair Lakes.
Located in the East Market Shopping Center, off Fair Lakes Parkway and next to Dick's Sporting Goods, the chain grocery store is open daily from 8 a.m.-9 p.m.
Customers may purchase staples such as paper towels and flour there. But they may also choose from exotic varieties of fruits and vegetables — anyone for a pomelo? — dine at five different cafes, order espresso and gelato and sample wines in the store's wine loft.
Visiting the store is more than shopping — it's an experience.
"Our core values include selling the highest-quality food, with consistent standards, and surprising and delighting the customers with our variety of food, the ideas we have for it and the service we give," said Sarah Kenney, Whole Foods' director of marketing for the Mid-Atlantic Region.
Whole Foods has 185 stores nationwide and, said Kenney, it selected Fair Lakes for this new, 65,000-square-foot store partly because "it's a great, growing community and it allows us a gateway down I-66 into areas where we don't have stores, like Manassas and Centreville."
But besides demographics, she said, "We look at psychographics — how do someone's interests and values determine how they spend money? Some people live to eat and some eat to live; so we have gourmet shoppers who want the latest cheese, and others who look to food for health and wellness."
Whole foods also attracts shoppers who "exercise their values through their purchases," said Kenney. "They care about the country an item came from, how it was made or raised and if it's a fair-trade product." So the store provides this information and hopes to eventually add environmental data, too.
"For example, based on people's palate or politics, they may not want to get grapes from a certain part of the world," said Kenney. "So we offer a wide palette of choices for all tastes and interests."
Furthermore, the store doesn't sell anything hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated — key words in items containing trans fats — and its products have no artificial flavors, colors or seasonings. "So the only conventional cereal we sell is Cheerios," said Kenney. "At Whole Foods, you can feel good about what you put in your body," said Kenney.
She said customers choose to shop there for "what our food doesn't contain. To some extent, we've edited the store for them; so for instance, our meat is all-natural, all the time, and our store-brand 365 sandwich cookies have no hydrogenated oils."
WHOLE FOODS IS also known for its variety of produce, including many organically grown items. "And we have things off the beaten track, too, such as seasonal cara cara oranges from California's Central Valley," said Kenney. "They're seedless and very sweet, with undertones of cherry and grapefruit, and will be available for the next six weeks."
Berries are hand-culled and crated at the store so customers are able to buy cartons of berries that are in as good a condition at the bottom as on the top. Displays of fruit are all hand-stacked "to allow it to remain incredibly fresh," said Kenney.
"Every night, we pull everything perishable — such as artichokes, asparagus, berries and grapes — and put it back out again, the next morning," said regional produce merchandiser Matt Lamoreaux. "And they're rotated all day to ensure the highest-quality product."
Kenney said Whole Foods also has a big commitment to local farmers, and plaques profiling them are hung in the produce department. The store also offers pre-cut fruits and vegetables for quick snacks or stir-fries, plus fresh juices squeezed on site.
Kenney said the store offers 14 types of mushrooms and 10 varieties of peppers — "and that's a testament to the way people are cooking now."
Fresh eggs come straight from the farm, instead of being packaged on a large scale, and from several different types of hens. Also available are 35-40 species of whole fish and, said Kenney, "We'll filet and cut them for people or sell them whole."
Besides being able to choose from fresh seafood such as haddock, halibut, tilapia, cod, salmon and bluefish, Whole Foods also offers restaurant-quality, prepared seafood items for customers to cook at home.
These include crab cakes and spinach-and-feta wild salmon burgers. "Our seafood is extremely fresh," said Kenney. "We get it six days a week from our plant in Maryland, so it's pretty close to dock-to-door."
The store also offers an extensive selection of wines, and Kenney describes the wine area as "spectacular." Racks upon racks of wines are organized by variety and country of origin. And some are classified as "earth-friendly."
Rob Stewart, the store's wine sommelier, said the wines are made using organic, as well as sustainable, agricultural practices. Such actions, he said, "promote the ecosystem of the vineyard and no synthetic pesticides or herbicides are used."
In addition, the new Whole Foods has a wine-tasting room featuring 80 wines on tap. Shoppers may purchase a wine "debit card" and then place it in a machine in the wine loft. It lets them sample a wide assortment of wines ranging from $20/bottle to $500/bottle in 1-, 3-, or 5-ounce sizes. For customers wishing to learn more about wine, Stewart will be conducting weekly wine classes or tastings.
Customers may purchase breads and pastries baked in house by two pastry chefs, pick up hot or cold prepared items for a quick lunch or make a salad at the salad bar. Pizza baked in a wood-fired oven is also available.
Or, said prepared-foods coordinator Michael Gallagher, for $8.99-$12.99, they can get a gourmet meal such as stuffed salmon or leg of lamb at the chef station called "Bistro 66." The Fair Lakes store includes an espresso and coffee bar, a 24-flavor gelato station and a section selling boutique chocolates, barks and toffees.
The store also boasts fresh flowers, and customers arriving at the Fair Lakes location will be greeted by a rainbow of locally grown, pink and purple hydrangeas. A trained, floral artisan will even make bouquets to order. In addition, the lifestyle area offers 100-percent organic-cotton baby clothes and all-natural soaps and lotions.
"I think people will be surprised by how reasonable our prices are," said Kenney. "Staple items are comparable in price to other stores. But artisan or premium items — such as Dungeness crab caught two days ago, or a rare bottle of wine — will carry premium prices, like anything extra-special would. I encourage people to comparison-shop with us and give us a try — we're ready for the scrutiny."
Kenney said this store is "extraordinary in terms of its size and offerings" and will be a destination. "People are used to driving past other grocery stores to get to us, so we want them to have a nice shopping experience," she said. "Then they'll tell others about it, serve them our food in their homes and tell them where they got it."
She said Whole Foods customers are willing to drive an extra mile or so to reach the store. "We make their trip worthwhile. For most people, shopping is drudgery, so here we have lots of sampling and interaction because we truly love what we sell."
Whole Foods also plans food classes, plus nutritional tours of the store. "And we look to the community to tell us what they're interested in," said Kenney. "For example, we could have classes on wellness, or food for children, or we could have an oyster tasting. We'll also do a brunch with different kinds of smoked fish and tell customers how to cook them."
She said people enjoy trying new things and the idea is to expose them to items they may have been curious about, but never before tasted. "We pair knowledge with tastings — which you can't get on [TV's] Food Network, because you can't taste the food. Here, you can," said Kenney. "The five, eat-in cafes and the wine loft are new to Whole Foods, just for this area."
The Fair Lakes store has 250-300 employees, many from the local community. Kenney said that Whole Foods acknowledged its "responsibility to give back to the environs we're in, so we donate leftover food to food banks, engage in good environmental practices and contribute to local charities."
"I think it's great being here," she said. "It's always fun to see new customers, and I think it's going to be a blast."