Inside Track by Peter Martin
If you are in London this week, get down to High Street Kensington – and go shopping. Last week saw the much-anticipated opening of Whole Foods Markets first UK store. The world’s biggest natural-foods chain opened for business in the old Barkers department store with typical American pizzazz, promising nothing short of a food extravaganza. It didn’t disappoint. The sight throughout the week of crowds busying around all three floors of the packed emporium, and then leaving with carrier-bags full of goodies, me included, suggests that this is a US import with a future, even in sceptical London. Its main retail competitors are certainly taking it seriously. Marks & Spencer had staff out on the pavement down the street trying to entice shoppers into its own Kensington food hall. Whole Foods Markets simply has to be seen and sampled, which is the first reason why anyone with even a passing interest in food should make the trip to W8. It is much more than a food retailing business – it is a total food and drink experience. Despite its organic, natural and fresh food tag, this is no quirky cottage industry, but mainstream big business. Much will be familiar to the seasoned UK shopper; it is the scale and scope of the operation that really impresses. The Market Hall on the lower level has over 10,000 grocery lines, fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and fish. The ground floor Provision Hall has the in-house bakery, cheese “ageing” room, coffee bar and extensive self-service salad bar and hot food counters for the takeaway market. But, for anyone in the eating-out market, the first floor will be the magnet. The entire floor is a giant up-market food-court with 13 different dining choices, including a tapas bar, champagne and oyster bar, sushi and dim-sum counter, creperie, salad bar, ice-cream counter, freshly-baked pizza bar and mezze bar. There’s even an organic vegan counter and a pub bar, called The Bramley, serving organic wine, cider and beer in bottles and on draught. If you work in the Kensington area, why would you eat anywhere else for lunch? It will certainly keep you busy for a week or two. It will be watched for consistency and quality, both in terms of product and service, in the coming weeks, but no-one can question the promise and the ambition. Is this the fast casual future we’ve been anticipating, where food retailing really bites into the takeaway and casual dining business? Marks & Spencer is already a pioneer of the crossover between retail and foodservice; Whole Foods Market is now taking it on another step. The new arrival in Kensington definitely gives us a view of what the future might look like, where consumer tastes may lead and the scale and complexity of what is possible to deliver. It will certainly give individual operators plenty of ideas about what they might try back in their own businesses. For that alone the arrival of Whole Foods Market in Britain will be a good thing. So get down to Kensington and see for yourself; go stimulate the taste buds and the imagination. Peter Martin is the co-creator of the M&C Report and founder of the Peach Factory