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An Inspiring Visit at the Whole Foods Market Flagship Store in Austin, Texas

In 1980, a small grocery store selling natural and organic products opened in Austin, Texas. Today, this small store has grown into an empire that manages over 300 stores in the US, Canada and the UK, counts over 54,000 employees and is publicly traded. The company is called Whole Foods Market, Inc. (WFM) and its stores have become lifestyle destinations. I have heard and read people questioning the company’s practices, but to me, WFM stores are still a shopping destination whenever I visit a city where they are located. There are plenty of other smaller, independent stores (as well as farmers’ markets) selling natural foods – and I do shop in those stores and markets since there is no WFM in Quebec City – but I see WFM as a leader that is carrying the organic and locavore movement forward.

Austin’s flagship Whole Foods Market store and the company’s headquarters right behind.
Austin's flagship Whole Foods Market store and the company's headquarters right behind.

While I was in Austin to attend the IACP conference, I visited the company’s flagship store in Austin and saw firsthand what makes WFM so popular: the highest quality products, an impressively large offering, warm customer service and lots of good ideas. The Austin store is especially inspiring to visit: it’s larger than most grocery stores I’ve ever visited and it features many different areas of interest – from sit-down restaurants to a bar (!) – which makes it a place where a food-lover like me can spend (or waste?) hours.

Entering Austin’s flagship Whole Foods Market store.
Entering Austin's flagship Whole Foods Market store

It would be impossible for me to list everything that impressed me at this store (visit the store’s webpage and you’ll probably want to head there too when you visit Austin), but here are five of the Whole Foods Market flagship store’s best features:

1) Healthy Convenience
Let’s be honest: we all need a break once in a while, but prepared foods have gotten such a bad reputation that it simply doesn’t seem like a viable option anymore. Not so at Whole Foods Market: strong on its “Eat whole, unprocessed foods” motto, Whole Foods Market goes beyond individual prepared dishes and offers a variety of take-out “Dinners for 2”. Each dinner is composed of a main dish, a side and a salad. All dishes are made with simple, healthy ingredients like those I would use myself at home, and the whole meal is sold in an easy-to-grab paper bag for $15 to $18.

Healthy, ready-made dinners for two offered by Whole Foods Market in Austin, Texas.

2) Inspiring and Informative Displays
Whole Foods Market is close to being unbeatable in terms of the selection of different grains, rice, cereals and spices it offers – most of which are sold in bulk. I liked how each and every product on offer is accompanied by educational information: origins, tasting notes and cooking suggestions all motivate the customer to try something healthy and new. If it had been legal for me to bring bulk foods back to Canada, I probably would have bagged 20 pounds of grains and legumes I never tried before.

The impressive bulk aisle at Whole Foods Market Lamar, Austin, Texas

Informative displays topping bulk legume bins at Whole Foods Market Lamar, Austin, Texas

3) On-Site Culinary Education
Although they offer plenty of prepared food options, Whole Foods Market also wants to educate its customers to cook better foods. To that end, it offers a variety of educational options: in the bulk section, a nutritionist is available to provide advice and menu suggestions; in the produce section, a chef demonstrates healthy cooking techniques and answers customers’ questions; dotted around the store are computer stations displaying educational and nutritional capsules; and the Austin flagship store even hosts a “Culinary Center” that offers a range of cooking activities, from classes for kids to international cuisine demonstrations.

A nutritionist offers advice in the bulk section of the Whole Foods Market Lamar store, Austin, Texas.

A chef answers customers' questions; a preview of upcoming cooking classes at Whole Foods Market Lamar, Austin, Texas

4) Local Beer and Wine Tastings
Over the past 18 months, Whole Foods Market has started opening small bars in its stores where customers can taste a range of locally crafted beers and wines. These intimate bars, which offer fewer than 20 seats at each location, are currently operating in a dozen stores and the company hopes to add seven more by 2012. Experts say that this move may not only bring more customers into the stores, but it will also keep them there longer and boost the highly profitable sales of wine and beer. Would you linger in a grocery store that offers you a glass of wine? After a long day of work, I know I would.

Yes, it's true! Whole Foods Market now hosts Happy Hours! Austin, Texas

The Lamar Bar at Whole Foods Market, Austin, Texas

5) Highlighting Local Cuisines
Whole Foods Market stores offer many on-site eating options, from cafés to their famous, expansive prepared foods counters, but they also offer localized options such as the barbecue counter in Austin (complete with a flat screen TV displaying sport channels), where one can enjoy good old Texan ribs, chicken wings and baked potatoes. The Austin store also featured an appealing grilled fish and seafood counter with tables, pendant lights, menus and fresh cut flowers. The fact that all the food prepared in Whole Foods Market stores is made with natural and organic ingredients is a big plus, as is the fact that the use of artificial flavors, colors, sweeteners, preservatives and trans fats is banned.

Whole Foods Market barbecue counter in Austin, Texas

If you go to Austin, don’t miss this store. Whatever your culinary background or views, I’m sure you’ll come back with at least one good idea or a unique ingredient that will help you prepare a delightful meal back home.

Whole Foods Market
Flagship Store: Lamar
525 N Lamar Blvd.
Austin, TX

Also: A Round-Up of IACP Conference Posts

Well, it seems that the IACP conference in Austin has left many people changed. I found it so very interesting to read everyone’s unique point of view that I thought it would be great to gather all the links in one place. If I missed a post, tell me in a comment and I will gladly update my list!

Links presented in alphabetical order.

You can also, of course, read my own recap of the conference.

If you missed the conference, a video pass is available to allow you to watch 34 of the best sessions online for $69.99.

Yum

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