My plan, in driving to the grand opening Friday of the region’s newest and biggest Whole Foods, was to give you a Wild-World-of-Animals-type dispatch from the suburb whose name wrongly suggests it has a town center of any kind: Newtown Square, Delaware County.
Would the people of this affluent quadrant in Philadelphia’s western suburbs be found trampling one another while racing from their parked Range Rovers, BMWs, Hondas, and Subarus toward the automatic sliding glass doors separating them from the mound of dragon fruit selling for $3.99 apiece inside?
Would I find, on this corner of West Chester Pike near the former estate of chemical-heir-slash-murderer John du Pont, a Walmart-like frenzy of thrown elbows and crazed energy near the sushi bar?
My mission was to be snarky.
A 49-year-old retired mortgage executive (“Can I have your life?” I asked when Nicole Falcone told me she had clocked out of the workforce for good) was beyond thrilled to finally have this mecca of organic food just a mile from her house.
To be exact, Nicole put the arrival of her very own neighborhood Amazon-owned Whole Foods this way: “Oh. My. God.”
A 69-year-old Drexel Hill woman (“call me an unidentified customer“) presented a different variety of mammal entirely. She was less impressed by the pricey organics store and more perplexed overall: Why are the steaks at places like this cut as fat as a medical dictionary?
“I’m not going to cook a steak that thick," she said. "I’m from the suburbs.”
Bright lights, shiny floors of burnished concrete, a bar with local beers on tap. Prepackaged deli meats called “charcuterie.” Drinkable yogurt under a “Kefir” sign. Jars of sauerkraut in the “Fermented” section. Canisters of “Amazing Grass Protein Superfood” selling at discount for $27.99 next to bananas.
I was certain, as I walked out just before lunch, that I had an Onion-worthy storyline: Affluent Suburbanites Who Already Have Other Supermarkets Nearby Treat New Store Like Desert Oasis.
Then I took my notebook across the street to a place called Luigi & Giovanni’s. And I experienced a welcome lobotomy.
“Are you with the FBI?” owner John (aka Giovanni) D’Alessandro asked when he saw me talking to a group of Italian-accented women working the prepared-foods section of his 41-year-old specialty food shop.
“Why?” I said. “Is there a better story in here that I should be writing about?”
This market, he told me, has been around since John and his butcher/partner Luigi Lemme, 73, bought it in 1978. And let me tell you, it’s been no picnic keeping it going, but these are hardworking people. That was the story he began to tell.
Luigi & Giovanni’s is in a low-slung and dated strip of stores on a quiet roundabout near the Pike, just off St. Albans Circle. For years, it has been the only thing resembling a town center of any kind out here. There’s a dry cleaner, a rug store, a barber, a dance studio, a vape shop. You get the picture.
Beyond grocery shelves and meat cases in the center aisles is a back room full of men working on butcher blocks. One, Italian-born butcher Artur Serano, 72, offered me a few slices of his own homemade capicola, a chianti-red delicacy that melted in my mouth as I tasted it on a fresh roll with a drizzle of olive oil.
“I don’t have anything organic in here” is how John handled my question about whether he was worried about the new Whole Foods. “We’re eaters. We get it. We put it out. It’s food."
I laughed. That’s a good line, you gotta admit. In other words, their niche is NOT protein superfood. And that may save them.
He and Luigi showed off two enormous roasted pigs just out of the oven. The pork will be part of the store’s Saturday and Sunday smorgasbord, in which they serve homemade food out of heated trays placed outside, even in freezing weather, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The store also has a big catering business.
“What am I gonna do?” John said. They’ve survived decades of competition from now-defunct Genuardi’s, Giant, Acme, Wawa, and Primo’s hoagies up till now.
The food industry is so tough, in fact, that John wonders if Amazon owner Jeff Bezos underestimated just what kind of a “son-of-a-b---- business” it can be.
“Amazon doesn’t know what they got into,” he said.
There it was — the fight I’d imagined I would find at the Whole Foods — but instead, a block away and down the street.