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Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 June 2007, 17:22 GMT 18:22 UK
Whole-istic approach draws shoppers
By Victoria Bone
BBC News

Greens Wall at Whole Foods Kensington
The "Greens' Wall" at Whole Foods Kensington looks fresh and inviting
Whooping staff, hordes of photographers and a symbolic bread-breaking aren't usually associated with the opening of a supermarket.

But this is no ordinary supermarket - this is Whole Foods, the all-American brand that has cornered the market for all things organic, natural and, well, wholesome, across the pond.

Today it officially arrived in the UK, in Kensington, west London, to considerable fanfare.

The company's motto is "Whole Foods, Whole People, Whole Planet", but some shoppers in the US call it "Whole Paycheck" on account of its prices.

The decision to set up shop in 80,000 sq ft of prime retail space in Britain's wealthiest borough should perhaps be no surprise then.

Hollywood A-list

Whole Foods began in 1980 in Austin, Texas, and now has more than 190 stores, including its first foray into Britain when it took over five Fresh & Wild stores in London and Bristol.

But the Kensington branch is the first of up to 40 purpose-built stores planned across this country.

Bread breaking at Whole Foods Kensington

Spread over three floors, it is a temple to all things foodie. No sackcloth, Hessian or dirty vegetables here, this is green gone gorgeous. No wonder it is so popular with the Hollywood A-list.

After the bread breaking and very un-English cheering by staff dressed in organic aprons, the eager crowd surged into the provision hall.

The first thing they are confronted with is an enormous pile of strawberries and raspberries with signs screaming "UK Grown".

Elsewhere, the in-house bakery has 35 varieties of bread, the huge salad bar offers treats like "iceberg wedges with gorgonzola" and there is also a wine department, a cheese room and an Indian takeaway section and even an in-store pub, The Bramley.

Shoppers can make their own muesli, grind their own peanut butter and choose from one of 44 varieties of sausage.

But if Whole Foods is a feast for the eyes and the palate, the prices might be a little high for some to stomach.

Customers arrive at Whole Foods Kensington
More than 50 people queued up outside before opening time

The lunch choices, in particular, ranged from pricey to astronomical - 7.99 for a Caesar salad, 4.99 for a salami sandwich, albeit with added rocket, red onion and white bean spread.

On the other hand, a pint of milk, sourced from within an hour's drive of London, is a reasonable 49p.

Green credentials

Whole Foods say they take the hard work out of eating well and shopping with a conscience.

Bread selection at Whole Foods Kensington
Try before you buy

Certainly, the environmental credentials of the new store are impressive.

The lack of packaging on many products compared to British supermarkets was striking.

Customers are paid 5p for each carrier bag they supply themselves and can also bring their glass, tin, paper and plastic for recycling.

The store has partnered a wind power supplier to offset 100% of its electricity and even offers shoppers its waste coffee grinds to use on their gardens.

Whole Foods also professes to be a humanitarian company, contributing at least 5% of its net profits to charity and encouraging staff to do community work.

The marketing gushes: "We believe in a virtuous circle entwining the food chain, human beings and Mother Earth: each is reliant upon the others through a beautiful and delicate symbiosis."

Apple pie idealism

Nevertheless, much of the green movement in the US has turned against Whole Foods.

Proud staff at Whole Foods Kensington
Proud staff showed off their wares at every counter

Partly they resent its size, but they also question some of its policies.

As Amarjit Sahota from Organic Monitor told the BBC, only about 50% of the produce in Kensington is organic. In the US, it can be as little as 20%.

Instead it promises "natural food", but what exactly does that mean?

To an American, where the use of chemicals in farming is much more widespread, it simply means minimally processed.

But to the savvy and demanding UK consumer used to Waitrose, Marks and Spencer and farmers markets, that may not be enough.

It is also not all unprocessed either. "Natural" TV dinners make an appearance, as do other items like oven chips, onion rings, pizza, and microwave meals.

And it is also far from entirely local. Food miles mount up on every shelf, despite posters extolling the virtues of buying locally. I came across crisps from Italy and bottled water from Austria, to name just two.

British supermarkets were ready for Whole Foods, launching their own organic brands, mostly much cheaper. Tesco even cheekily trademarked its own Wholefoods range.

Some analysts say the Kensington store will become a must-travel-to destination store, while others warn that it faces an uphill battle to gain a foothold in an already crowded market.

But whatever it stocks, it is clear that what Whole Foods really sells is idealism - in spades. The feeling of apple pie cosiness and affluence is palpable. One shopper, Kathy Street, put it simply: "I'm blown away, I love it."

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