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A Look at the South Loop Whole Foods

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Aug 8, 2007 4:15PM

2007_08_wholefoods.jpgHold your tongues and stay away from the keyboard. Yes, we here at Chicagoist have levied more than our share of criticisms at Whole Foods. We're also familiar with the taste of crow, and have to give them credit where credit is due. When it comes to mission statements and core philosophy, Whole Foods walks the walk.

We were joined by our markets writer Lisa Shames and primary food news writer Laura Oppenheimer Monday night for a preview of the now-open (as of 8 a.m.) 55,000 square-foot South Loop Whole Foods. This location, the third Whole Foods to open in Chicago this year, is also one of the most anticipated for South Loop residents who, until today, only had Jewel at Roosevelt and Wabash and Dominick's on Canal as grocery options. For folks who believe in buying natural and organic or shop at Whole Foods because, well, it's Whole Foods, this is a godsend. In keeping with the company's core mission, Whole Foods South Loop is also a LEED (Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design)-certified building. In lay speak, the building is about as green and energy efficient as a building can get.

We split up the store's features into three sections. Lisa will give you the rundown on meats, bulk products, and odd tidbits. Laura will take care of prepared foods and seafood, and we'll give you the rundown on beer, wine, and cooking classes. Stay with us; it's all after the jump.

Meats and Bulk Products

2007_08_whsmokedmeats.jpgUsing their own meat smoker with mesquite, oak and hickory woods, this Whole Foods will be slow cooking their own briskets (for 10 hours, the sign says), sausages (a fellow field-tripper swears by the pineapple bratwurst), snack sticks and jerky. “We’re like an all-natural gas station,” said our perky tour guide. We were a bit confused by the bags of hardwood charcoal that were written in French — mon dieu! — and English, but a sample of the chipotle-seasoned pulled pork cleared our heads.

Bulk is back and in a big way at this store with roughly 180 bins of items planned. (Our guide told us that bulk items vary from store to store depending on demand.) We’re still debating if the sign promoting the purchase of bulk items as environmentally friendly — “Because there is minimal packaging, you help reduce landfill waste” — is overkill.

2007_08_wfsavewater.JPGJust how serious is this Whole Foods about its impact on the environment? Just take a look at the water-saving toilets, which have a dual-function handle depending on whether you go “#1” or “#2.” We laughed, too, when we actually saw that on the sign, but hopefully they’ll be less giggling and more using down the road. More warehouse than market, we hope they’ve planned for a lost-kids section because we’re sure there are going to be a lot of them.

Prepared Foods and Seafood

2007_08_wfchocolate.JPGWhole Foods customizes each store to its surrounding neighborhood which means the South Loop store has a ton of prepared foods; almost a third of the store is the deli/bakery/take-out section. An on-site bakehouse whips up breads, sweets and other delectables every day. We were impressed to see that it also offers a variety of grains and types of breads, meaning our friends with celiac disease can still find something to chow down on. Next to the bakery is the chocolate section. Yes, you heard correctly, chocolate. And not only that, but it is organic. We didn't get a chance to try any of it, but from the satisfied faces of surrounding patrons, the chocolate appeared to be a winner.

2007_08_wffresca.JPGIn addition to their standard deli, salad bar, and hot and cold prepared-food sections, we also spotted a panini grill like the one in the Gold Coast store, a sushi and noodle bar, and an aqua fresca bar. The sushi we sampled was OK, but nothing we would go out of our way to try. Look for a minimum of five freshly squeezed juices a day, as well as natural smoothies made with juices instead of yogurt, and aqua fresca.

Since Whole Foods owns their own seafood marinas, fresh seafood arrives six days a week at the South Loop store. Seafood available at the store is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council as being environmentally sound. How does it taste? Since we were there for a preview, there actually wasn't any fish in the case (it wouldn't be fresh for today's opening). The shrimp we tried came dipped in a surprisingly robust tartar sauce; we enjoyed the texture, and the size, and were informed that these exact shrimp would be available in both the seafood section and at the salad bar across the store.

Beer and Wine, Cooking Classes

As with the recently opened North Halsted location, the South Loop whole Foods also has a "Vin-O-Pass" machine that allows customers to taste wines as varied as Toasted Head Chardonnay to the ultra-pricey Opus One. Beer geeks will appreciate the selections here. There's a good selection of Unibroue, Rogue, and even rare small batch selections by Brooklyn Brewery in stock.

Whole Foods' wine department has a lowest price guarantee. If a customer finds a bottle of wine Whole Foods stocks for sale at a lower price elsewhere, they'll match the price. So if the Osco Drug down the street is selling the previously mentioned Toasted Head Chardonnay for $8.99, Whole Foods will match that price.

Reflecting the increasing family demographics of the South Loop, Whole Foods is offering a wide array of cooking classes for folks who want to better their kitchen skills. Of particular interest to us was the monthly four-course dinners for fifty dollars where participants do everything from pick the menu to serve the finished meal.

All photos courtesy of Lisa Shames.