Last week, I received an email from one of Whole Foods' PR people:

After reading your [June 4] article 'The Frugal Gourmet Picnicker' we'd like


Whole Foods Challenges Me to a Duel

Last week, I received an email from one of Whole Foods' PR people:

After reading your [June 4] article 'The Frugal Gourmet Picnicker' we'd like to offer you a challenge! We'd like to invite you to come into Whole Foods Market and have a cooking lesson with our Chef, and cook up a meal for 4, spending the same amount as you did for your picnic -- $7.50 per person. We'd really like to show you and your readers that we can do value too!

You should see what they have to say, said my editor, and I scheduled a time to meet with Shannon Herman, the chef/lead cooking instructor of the Roosevelt Square store, and Mary Hernandez, its marketing specialist. What I didn't realize until I walked into the demonstration kitchen was that this wasn't a corporate PR stunt: The women were taking this challenge personally. Turns out, the kicker -- "Who can afford Whole Foods anymore?" -- under the title of my article about seeing what kind of picnic I could compose from ingredients I found at food outlets got the Roosevelt staff riled up. ("What was the carbon footprint for that meal?" was another one of the complaints.)

Not only are the Whole Foodies getting a testy about the "Whole Paycheck" nickname, they're starting to fight back.

Shannon -- a funny, quick woman who taught at SSCC and PCC prior to coming to the store -- presented me with the day's menu as well as a receipt showing me she'd spent less than $30 on it (basic pantry items like spices, oil, and vinegar didn't count in their challenge, since I used my own for my picnic):

  • Grilled onglet (hanger steak) with arugula salad and blue-cheese vinaigrette

  • Grilled peaches with smoked duck breast (from the deli), balsamic reduction, and honey

  • Garbanzo-bean salad with toasted cumin oil, parsley, and mint with greek yogurt and warm naan

  • Warm bread and Callebaut chocolate with olive oil and sea salt

The onglet was an inexpensive cut of high-quality beef (at $8.99 a pound), the duck and cheese were small amounts from the deli -- $2.20 for the paper-thin-sliced duck, $3.08 for the Terre des Volcans cheese -- and the chickpeas and naan (olive oil, too) were Whole Foods' house brand.


I was asked to demonstrate my chops help out. The three of us cooked up the meal -- grilling off the peaches and steak, shaving chocolate to sprinkle on the baguette slices and melting it in the oven, dressing the arugula and the chickpea salads in their bowls. The food was easily prepared in 30 minutes. (My picnic for 8 took two hours to one guy to prepare, plus, oh, 8 hours of shopping? 12? But time wasn't the point of the exercise.)

As we chopped and stirred, Shannon immediately wanted to know: "What did you really think of Grocery Outlet?"

Well, I told her, I love Groce Out for the sheer novelty of some of the products (Spam Singles are always in stock), but I had to expend more effort making the products I found there tasty. However, I did find decent things to cook with. I also told her that I believe that food media people like me and food retailers like Whole Foods focus too much on the quality of prepared ingredients, deemphasizing basic cooking technique.

Since I get to expand on my answer in this blog, I have to add: Of course selecting the freshest produce and good-quality meat is critical. However, I think shoppers have decided that if we buy a $30 olive oil at Metropolitan Market that we read about in Bon Appetit it won't matter so much that we don't know how to make a kickass vinaigrette with it. I'd rather have a properly pan-roasted "natural" chicken breast served plain -- with golden, bacony skin and clear juices that run out when I cut into the meat -- than overcooked Smart Chicken with a $6 dab of hazelnut-mango-Vietnamese-cinnamon relish on it.

My question to them: Is Whole Foods finding, as the economy slows down, that perceptions of the market as expensive are hurting sales? Sales at the store haven't gone down very much at all, Mary replied, and she thought that was because of its loyal customer base.

We sat down to eat, accompanying the food with an $8 bottle of rosé. The food was smartly composed and tasted as good as it looked, and I'm definitely going to add to my list of tricks Shannon's method of heating up whole spices in oil and using both to make a warm dressing. Here's another closeup:


As we talked and ate, it did slip out that Shannon had tried out these dishes the night before, and even later that some higher-ups had looked the menu over. And I have the faintest suspicion that they did some very careful measuring to make sure the price tag for the products we used came out at $29.96. But it was a good amount of good food for a reasonable price, and I conceded the Whole Foods staffers had made their point.


What, then, are your tips for shopping at Whole Foods on the cheap? I asked Mary and Shannon. Their response: Buy what's at the height of the season and look for the Whole Foods house brand. To those, I'd add: Stick rigorously to your shopping list. One of the problems I experience is that I always walk out of Whole Foods with $25 extra of delicious-looking cheeses, pastas, and packaged products that I know I can't use in the immediate future.

One more step that Whole Foods is taking to combat the "Whole Paycheck" image: Every Sunday at 10:30 a.m., a Roosevelt Square staff member leads a "Market Secrets and Values Revealed" tour of the store, pointing out where the bargains lie. That's a service that Safeway and Grocery Outlet definitely don't provide.

Correction: Jeebus! Shannon was originally referred to as "Donna" in this blog item.

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