Have you been to the new (ish) Wholefoods Market that has opened in Cheltenham? I was lured in by the advertising promising wonderful organic produce – and of course the need to investigate any new food outlets within a 25 mile radius in the name of the Ledbury Food Group!
First impressions? Despite attempts to make the entrance look homely & market-like, with glossy fresh fruit and veg on display just inside the door, what hit me first was the size of this operation. It is a big enterprise. Further investigation revealed that the Cheltenham store is the latest in a long line of stores – more than 340 in total – that span the USA, Canada and the UK. The company started with a store in Austin, Texas in 1980 and have grown exponentially in the intervening years. With sales in 2012 topping $11.7 billion the company is currently at number 264 in the Fortune 500 list. Not exactly the sort of place I usually shop in, but undeterred, I continued my “research”.
The variety of goods on offer is impressive. Name just about any fruit or vegetable that you have heard of (and some that you haven’t) and it will be there. And it is all perfect. Now, call me cynical, but fruit & veg just don’t grow that way, so what happens to the less than perfect crop? For those of you in a hurry or too posh to chop, there are ready chopped vegetables. Again they are all perfect, and at 4.30pm they hadn’t gone brown, dry or wizened. I asked what they had done to them to keep them “fresh” but the assistant denied that anything had been added.
So, on to the meat and cheese counters. Knowledgeable staff happily gave me samples of cheese (see how selfless I am on your behalf?) There was a wide variety on offer from around the globe, and they tasted good, but sadly not many were local cheeses. On to the meat. The beef looked good and again the staff were knowledgeable about its provenance, welfare etc. But it was from Cornwall, all of it. Similarly a glance at the drinks section revealed no local ciders.
Exploration of the grocery shelves revealed nothing out of the ordinary, indeed I don’t think there was much that one can’t get in Ledbury, and that includes the cosmetics (just think of what The Apothecary Shop offers). At this point I began to get a bit overwhelmed by the sheer size of the place and the fact that when you got up close to things, they disappointed. Take, for example, the spices. Heaped attractively in brightly coloured piles, I wandered over expecting to get the lovely smells that assail your nostrils when you go to spice markets in Africa. Nothing. Perhaps these are just for show, and the spices are packaged, I thought. But no, you help yourself from these piles which will have had as much taste as they had smell, I fear.
Looking at the company’s website http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/stores/cheltenham their organic credentials seem good, and their ethics laudable. I came to the conclusion that we are lucky to have such a wealth of excellent local produce on our doorsteps, and that I have just got rather used to shopping for local produce at local shops. But do go and have a look for yourselves. The cornucopia offers a good half hour’s entertainment and there is a café alongside, just let me know what you think.