March 10, 2005

Austin Notes: What Decadence!

What do you demand from your grocery store? Do you demand a 1,000-space, four-level parking lot with specially designed escalators that your shopping cart can go on? Do you demand your choice of five separately themed cafes, one for salads, one for meat, one for pasta, one for pizza and charcuterie, and one for seafood with your choice of any fresh catch, your choice of cooking method, and your choice of sauce? How about a four-tiered fountain of liquid chocolate the size of a large wedding cake, into which an artsy young woman continually dips strawberries and cookies. Oh, that doesn’t appeal to you? How about grinding your own nut butter (honey-roasted cashew?) and eating it at an outdoor plaza on any kind of bread you can imagine, from blueberry pecan to hempseed to striata? I think you should also demand a walk-in beer cooler with an attendant in a ski parka, and a glass–fronted meat aging room, and a coffee roasting machine roasting varietal beans from 8 am to 10 pm seven days a week, and a cheese counter where you can taste any of 600 kinds of cheese and get a friendly, well–informed lecture on the rind–washing process or the strains of blue–veining bacteria. Do you demand chipotle–marinated buffalo kebabs, or lime–and–basil–marinated tilapia filets, or a smoked salmon sandwich as big as a softball? If you’re tired of tasting samples of mountain–grown South American papaya preserves (as distinct from mere lowland–grown Central American), do you demand a Putumayo Records listening station decked out as a red London bus? Or perhaps a natural cosmetics section that could swallow up several Body Shops. And of course you must demand a Willy Wonka–style candy factory where the kids can watch their own candy being made before they pop it into their gaping, quivering mouths. Are these among your needs?

Well, they will be, because they’re now at the 80,000–square–foot flagship store of Whole Foods on Sixth and Lamar, which opened March 3 at the base of the company’s future world headquarters building. I went there yesterday for the first time, the crowds having thinned out a little, and I’m as boggled as I expected to be. We’ve long had a flagship Whole Foods branch—plus a bigger, better, friendlier store than that, the HEB chain’s Cental Market—but this new one is the 650–pound sumo wrestler of gourmet supermarkets. It’s got the familiar Whole Foods sanitized ambience and the familiar Whole Foods prices ($7.99 for standard farm–raised catfish filets, $3.99–4.99 at ordinary stores). The parking lot traffic was brisk and well–mannered, and the store aisles were full of tan middle–aged blondes and their manicured husbands carrying baskets in an edenic daze. I didn’t notice that the cash registers were all that busy—I didn’t see any throngs pushing loaded carts out of the store, and I didn’t buy anything myself—but I’m sure that the prices and the café sales will keep the numbers up in the event of low grocery volume.

What it reminds me of is the 1984 Robin Williams movie Moscow on the Hudson, in which a Soviet circus troupe visits Manhattan. All during their journey, their loyal Communist overseer warns them not to succumb to Western decadence. Then they get a special tour of Bloomingdale’s, which opens early just for them. As the doors open, they rush forward in disbelief and wonder, and the Communist overseer pushes ahead of them all, shouting ecstatically, “What decadence!”

(And I haven’t even mentioned the new branch of Half Price Books that just opened in a defunct supermarket building down the road—a gourmet supermarket of used books, with a separate Rare Book room inside, and checkout lines an hour long on opening day last week.)