Nevertheless, in my particular neck of the woods-- which is near a major city and certainly has more grocery options than most places-- the local Whole Foods just has some advantages over other stores. It's pretty close to one-stop-shopping, so for a really big trip it's one of a limited number of choices. It certainly has more natural foods and gourmet foods available than the Safeway or the Giant or the big international groceries like the New Grand Mart. If I need a special cheese or cut of meat I know I will find it there. But there is one advantage Whole Foods appears to have that I have found largely illusory. And that is its vast variety of beautiful, colorful prepared foods, arrayed in multiple hot bars and cold salad bars and deli cases. Everything looks amazing (and costs an arm and a leg). And very little of it actually lives up to its promise.
In my experience, assembling your own salad is safe, as is ordering a pre-fab sandwich or wrap from the deli. The pizza is okay, and I've had a few other great items: quesadillas, a vegetable dish or two, things I can't remember now. And this discussion is in no way meant to cast aspersions on their bakery, which I view as a separate entity and is terrific. But, there have been also many disappointments, including:
- blah rotisserie chicken
- bland soups galore
- meat curries and vegetables on the hot bar that look great but are seasoned poorly and just don't taste good
- undercooked vegetables in hot and cold dishes
- salad dressings/marinades that, again, are seasoned in such a way that they don't taste good
- extremely dry and underseasoned roast beef, chicken and salmon from the deli
- sushi rice that is underseasoned
- deli salads that are colorful and beautiful and don't taste good
What Whole Foods says: "All of our prepared foods are created by trained Team Members under the supervision of an experienced chef, or two, or three, depending on how big the store is and how many dining areas it has." Vague. Also vague: "Our chefs prepare your delicious salads, soups and sandwiches from scratch every day."
The Washington Post alludes vaguely to third-parties who are involved. "Wegmans and Whole Foods Market are among the leaders in prepared foods: They hire chefs and prep teams for their stores and occasionally contract with third-party vendors to fill their massive collective of steam tables; together, the in-house and outside crews prepare dozens of dishes daily, breakfast through dinner." This story includes a table which actually contains a few details about my local store: "Most [dishes on the hot bar] produced in-house. The Greek, Cuban and South African dishes are made by local, third-party vendors." They make the same comments about a different area Whole Foods, so we can perhaps assume this is the usual scenario, at least regionally.
The Whole Foods response to this post is quite similar, reiterating the mostly made in the store, some things made by a local vendor meeting our standards line. However, rumors (true or not) fly around too, such as "Almost all of the prepared foods come from Sysco, not the sales floor. The only time you'll be eating anything even remotely similar to organic romaine in your $9 caesar salad, is if they had bunch of it on spoil in the produce department." (I will clarify that I believe this commenter means the ingredients come from Sysco, not the prepared foods themselves. Also, the fact that unsellable food is repurposed in-house for prepared food items is, to me, good news, not a scandal. This is certainly what took place when I used to work in a natural foods co-op deli.)
So why does so much of the food suck?
I don't know.