I went into the belly of the beast this past weekend. I went to Whole Foods.
Whole Foods has come to Columbia, Maryland folks. The anticipation has reached a fever pitch across the county over the summer. It finally opened a few weeks ago, the reviews from some so far have been, “it’s great,” “overwhelming,” “great quality,” and “overpriced,” so I wanted to figure out for myself how it stacked up.
I’m not a regular grocery store person anymore, I get most of my stuff from Friends and Farms because the value is way better, but I understand that it’s not for everyone.
Whole Foods or “Whole Paychecks” as some derisively call it, is known throughout the country as the premiere grocery store for organic foods. It also has all sorts of different kinds of unique food items that you can’t typically find at normal, run of the mill grocery stores.
So let’s begin. Being in Howard County, a refreshing part of this store is that it’s pretty devoid of hipsters and crunchy granolas that can make a place like Whole Foods cringe worthy. Thank god for Howard County pricing out the hipsters.
You step onto the Whole Foods campus and you are met with your standard grocery store items for the fall. Mums, pumpkins, and other fall garden items litter the front of the store. You immediately notice there is no good place to pick up your cart, so you are immediately scrambling to find one. Not a good start Whole Foods.
Then you step into the store and you are bombarded with a sensory overload of fruit and veggies. This is good and bad. My overarching sentiment that I took home from Whole Foods is that it’s overwhelming.
For all the hubbub about the fruits and veggies being fresh, I was underwhelmed by the quality. I was immediately put off by the fruit flies on much of the fresh fruit. I know that sometimes it’s unavoidable but it’s not exactly appetizing.
The price of the produce itself was expensive, but not prohibitive. But I was going to let that slide because you can talk yourself into paying more for “better” ingredients.
After you make your way out of the overwhelming deluge that is the produce section, you make your way to the cheese/pasta/dairy section. This was my favorite part of the store. They carry awesome products here. You can find every brand of Applegate deli meat product which is the only brand I buy for deli meats. Their products are nitrate/nitrite free, organic, and free of any harmful chemicals. They carry all of La Pasta’s product line which is super exciting too.
Their pasta bar was impressive as they carried Ricotta Gnocchi, which we could not resist buying, 1 lb. was only $6 which we felt wasn’t that bad. You’ll see this in a future post, it was good quality.
This aisle seemed reasonably priced in comparison to buying the same products at other stores in the area. So well done Whole Foods.
The other pleasant surprise was that their cheaper store brand still was organic and harmful chemical free which makes shopping at Whole Foods possible (if you want to buy everything there). The cheese collection was impressive and seemed to be of good quality. They also had a olive/antipasti bar which was tempting but I moved onto the next major aisle, the meat counter.
So far during my excursion through Whole Foods, I was semi-impressed. I’m thought to myself that these guys have it figured out and the rest of the grocers should watch out. The meat & seafood counter had a nice variety of fish and beef. The meat costs were higher than your standard grocer, but you are paying for a higher quality product. The store brand chicken breast and thigh ran about $17-20 for a large 6-7 pack of chicken. Which is on the higher end, but not prohibitive.
We made our way to the middle aisles to take a survey of what the store had. We were ecstatic to find that a local company, Michelle’s Granola, was carried in bulk by the store. But much to our chagrin, when we tried it when we got home, the entire 2 pounds of granola we bought was stale. We get the same brand in bulk from Roots and it’s never stale, so that was a big let down.
As we made our way through the middle aisles, I saw jerky, which was a pleasant surprise. It was all reasonably priced, free of any harmful colorings or chemicals, and it had a wide variety of choices. This was exciting, jerky is a key office snack for me, so I was pumped. (I tried it in the office, superb, well done Whole Foods.)
At this point, my sentiments are riding high. I got primo quality jerky, awesome deli meats, and sweet fresh Gnocchi. Then it all fell apart.
The Kitchen & Deli Counter area.
Let me begin by saying, the Deli counter area looks promising. It carries all Applegate products in bulk but I didn’t really peruse that area.
I went straight for the kitchen, it was late on a Friday and I wanted to get some dinner with my beautiful companion.
We ventured into the kitchen/restaurant side of the store. Many in HoCo have said this is where Whole Foods is way better than Wegmans and the other grocery stores that have buffet style/counter stands for meals. I’m going to have to disagree with them. *(MAYBE because it was on a Friday around 7 or 8PM this is why some of it fell flat, but no excuse really)*
First let me start and say, “Hey Whole Foods! How about you stock some plates to get the food?!”
I know it’s a really novel idea of having plates for food, but the Whole Foods staff was not paying any mind to refilling them. We ended up using the salad containers to get the food, which is not the end of the world but when you are just trying to make your plate it’s pretty annoying.
This leads me to the food itself (at the buffet area). It runs $8 per lb, which is not unreasonable (Wegmans is the same price) it came out to be 20 bucks for two people. The food options were diverse, an inordinate amount of wings for some reason. We hypothesized that may be they were trying to make money off of the weight of the bones since the food is weighed, but that’s purely conjecture on our part.
We picked up a piece of meatloaf (mistake, dry, and too sweet), Southwestern Chicken Thighs (these were delicious and a solid item), Mac & Cheese (really delicious and would definitely get this again), roasted green beans (also great), and spicy Thai tofu (also pretty tasty). This seems random, but the water dispensers in the food court are idiotic. Numerous people had trouble trying to figure out how to get water from these laser guided dispensers. They tried to get fancy and it falls flat.
I had no real complaints about the food itself, I wasn’t expecting gourmet food at the buffet side. It was solid and for a weeknight meal it would definitely be good enough. Also I’d like to add they carry Organic/Free Range Rotisserie chicken which is great. The ones carried by the grocery stores in the area are always pumped full of hormones and flavoring.
The counter items seemed to be of good quality. They have brick oven pizzas, gourmet sandwiches, entrees, and a Korean rice bowl counter. Again all the food looked and seemed delicious, although the pricing was slightly high ($17 for a large Pizza).
My biggest pet peeve about this area is that there is no clear place to pay for your food. When I went to go ask where I pay, they just said anywhere. This is where a place like Wegmans destroys Whole Foods. Wegmans restaurant side has a clear direction and flow. It also has way more options, that are affordable. Whole Foods just seemed slapdash and thrown together without any vision or direction.
*I’d like to note that they seemed to have a counter full of cash registers near the area, but all of them were empty, again maybe because of the time, but again why not at least staff ONE of them.*
Again, no real gripes on the food itself. But the service…. My god the service at this Whole Foods is underwhelming (to put it kindly). Throughout the entire Whole Foods none of the staff exudes any confidence or expertise about what food item they are selling. In comparison when you go to somewhere like Trader Joe’s (one of their main competitors) the staff is cheerful and responsive to your questions. It seemed like the staff already hated their lives at this place. I’m not saying I need everyone wearing 50 pieces of flair, but some opening month exuberance would be nice.
The staff just seems clueless. They are not helpful and not really present anywhere other than at the registers and behind the counters. This was disappointing and annoying. After making it through the kitchen side we went to the bakery side. The bread looks great and looks to be devoid of weird chemicals. The variety and quality looks encouraging and seems ideal for any future recipe ideas.
We wanted to get some pastries to wrap a little bow on our Whole Foods adventure, which led to another surprising turn. The staff was clueless about what products they had and didn’t have a strong idea of what passion fruit was (seems inane, but you work in a grocery store, educate yourself on some of the things you carry). We got some cookies (tasty), chocolate tart (delicious), and a Carrot Cake Cupcake (horrendous, why would you put that much amaretto into a cupcake!).
Our Whole Foods journey was coming to an end, and unfortunately we were left with one last underwhelming moment. Their cashiers, like the rest of the staff, seem disinterested, again this seems stupid but it makes a big difference on your end user experience. Also the conveyor belts are stupidly short. So there was that.
Another random note. Why the hell was Whole Foods not crawling with samples?! Samples are key to a great experience (especially in the early stages). One thing of carrots and crappy ranch dip does not cover it.
It seemed that the Columbia Whole Foods doesn’t know if it wants to be Trader Joe’s or a real supermarket.
Overall: Grade B. The food and products are good. The convenience factor of this place weighs heavy on my review. What brings the grade down really is the lack of good service and logistics in the store.
I wasn’t impressed, I wasn’t unimpressed. Life changing, it was not.