Toronto's buzzing over Whole Foods, the Austin-based feel-good grocer that's just opened in chi-chi Hazelton Lanes. Critics call it the Home Depot of health food stores, a jumped-up interloper designed to put smaller fry out of business.
Others are taken by the one-stop shopping that only Whole Foods can offer organic food lovers -- and all of it in the downtown core.
Almost everyone wonders why the American health food chain has launched its first Canadian outlet in one of the most exclusive locations in town if, as its mission statement claims, its strategy is to attract conventional shoppers to the wonders of organic food.
Judging by the prices, it's no stretch to imagine Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, who summers in nearby Yorkville, sending John Ralston Saul for a 10-buck box of organic granola.
The ambience at this subterranean temple of all-natural noshing, while not big-box impersonal, leaves something to be desired.
I arrive at the Avenue Road entrance not by stretch limo but by bicycle. An anonymous corridor takes me past walls painted with Whole Foods' Quality Statement ("We provide food and nutritional products that support health and well-being"). The first thing I see at the foot of the escalator that takes shoppers to the store entrance is a security guard seated at the parking-validation counter.
Though this NASDAQ-trading supermarket wows them back in the heartland, there's little here that Toronto hasn't seen before at gentrified supermarkets like Pusateri's or Shay Gourmet uptown. Even the recently overhauled Dominion at Crawford and College rates.
Here, you'll find mountains of pricey produce and a strangely limited selection (only 30 per cent of Whole Foods' goods are remotely organic) next to in-house kitchenettes where pizza and sushi chefs whip up healthy, unexciting dishes.
Fare from familiar local suppliers -- Ace Bakery baguettes, Dufflet retro cupcakes, Vegetable Kingdom frozen veggie entrées, a veggie pie from Montreal's Le Commensal unappetizingly dubbed Tourtière de Seitan -- vies oddly for shelf space with cans of Green Giant niblets and Heinz ketchup.
The bulk-food area in most variety stores is larger than Whole Foods', and even so it's stocked with snacky things like chocolate-covered almonds and food-colouring-free pistachios. Somehow the Wonderbread genius behind this operation has missed the fact that the rich want quality, not quantity.
Formerly an acclaimed culinary star at upscale Roxborough, chef Elaina Asselin oversees an extensive line of prepared foods.
Unfortunately, none are from her own signature recipes, and instead come from U.S. counterparts.
Most are more than edible: saffron-poached pears, kamut-and-wild-rice salad, chili-lime-basil tofu. Which explains the feeding frenzy this early Monday morning as counter staff hand out Dixie Cups full of free samples. When I'm eventually served -- I've politely made way for an impatient shopper waving her last-season Louis Vuitton wallet at the help -- I ask the poor girl behind the counter what this convenience store for the privileged is like on weekends.
"A zoo," she sighs, rolling her eyes.
Staff try to accommodate as best they can, but they're misused.
Three clipboard-carrying clerks stake out the customer-free paper products section, while a sole server works the sliced meat counter for a grumbling and growing queue.
To correct any missteps, management has erected a suggestions board, where complaints like "The constant PA announcements are annoying" get answered with responses like "We'll look into some better choices for you!"
At the checkout, shoppers are offered a choice between plastic and heavy-duty handled paper bags silk-screened with the Whole Foods manifesto to "Protect Future Generations," "Support a True Economy" and "Promote Biodiversity" to carry home their swag.
Two hours and $120 later, I'm unconvinced. Will I be back?
Perhaps for the dollar-apiece poached pears. Otherwise, I'll continue shopping on a first-name basis at owner-operated spots across the city.