It used to be that we went to the grocery store to shop for ingredients to make dinner. But lately, we've actually been eating dinner at the grocery store, too, hanging out with friends over hummus and dumplings after work, and washing it all down with craft beer, wine, and cocktails. Not to mention there's a stellar skyline view.
Welcome to one of Center City's buzziest new dining hubs ...Whole Foods Market. Or rather, more like Whole Foods and its food-hall friends Dizengoff, Cheu Noodle Bar, Wiz Kid, and Severino Cucina Rustica.
When Whole Foods opened its massive new store on Hamilton Street near the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in the fall, it came with many things one might anticipate from its flagship store in the Mid-Atlantic, from a juice bar for turmeric-spiked tonics to a fresh guacamole stand, a big coffee shop with a robot doing pour-overs, and a full bar like the ones that have also been a transformative feature in some of its other regional stores. But it's the novel addition here of kiosks featuring four independent restaurants that has been a game-changing wrinkle in the modern grocery store paradigm.
Though Whole Foods has had in-store partnerships with independent operators before, this is the first time it has clustered them into a food hall. And, now, it's not just a retail destination anymore. It's a destination in its own right to linger at, eat, and socialize, reflecting current trends toward both food halls (like the new Chinatown Square) and the continued blurring of the home-vs.-public food experience.
"People are looking for more entertainment when they're shopping," says John Stanton, professor of food marketing at St. Joseph's University. "And we're seeing more of a convergence of supermarkets and restaurants in the same place. It can be a food hall or a 'grocer-aurant' (with lots of store-prepared foods), but you can go there, eat tonight's dinner, and then shop for tomorrow night."
That handy multitasking opportunity is one my family has already taken advantage of, allowing for an easy dinner followed by a grocery-shopping mission on a mellower midweek school night rather than braving the weekend crowds. And the variety negates any potential arguments over what to eat.
The trend may be current, but this particular concept was partly inspired by an institution that dates to 19th-century Philadelphia: the Reading Terminal Market.
"I'd get stuck in Reading Terminal for hours and think, 'How can I build a store like this, with this feeling of market and entrepreneurs?' " said Jesse Morgans, Whole Foods' prepared foods coordinator for the Mid-Atlantic. "How can we expand the experience for our customers?"
There's irony, of course, in that detail, as Reading Terminal has been challenged to keep its market share from competitors like Whole Foods. But it was that brainstorm that inspired Morgans to reach out to the owners of several well-known local restaurants to consider running the food stalls that line the front of the windows of this airy space ringed by stools and communal seating just beyond the store cash registers.
The draw, of course, is the allure of quality food associated with some established star chefs, like Michael Solomonov of Dizengoff, Rich Landau of Vedge, and Ben Puchowitz of Cheu. To be sure, this Whole Foods still has an enormous prepared-foods operation of its own, with 90 employees baking bread, roasting chickens, hand-tossing pizzas, and smoking meats for a steam table in the self-serve salad bar area. A stand for Genji sushi -- one of Whole Foods' earliest restaurant partnerships, with a presence now in 150 stores around the country -- is also there. But nothing Whole Foods' own kitchens produced came close to most of what I ate from those independent restaurants, from bowls of snappy ramen glazed in rich pork-miso broth to silky swirls of fresh hummus topped with daily-changing market-driven garnishes and a fresh pita baked on-site.
"We get a lot of opportunities, and most of them we say no to. I'm also pretty skeptical about food halls because everyone wants to do them now," says Steven Cook, co-owner of Zahav and Dizengoff, the Center City hummusiya that also has a location in the New York food hall at Chelsea Market. "But when Whole Foods calls, it's a different level. So we kept talking."
That sentiment was echoed by Landau and his partner, Kate Jacoby, who used the Whole Foods opportunity to launch the first branch of their new fast-casual concept, Wiz Kid, serving vegan cheesesteaks and Korean-fried tempeh sandwiches, rather than a mini-size version of V Street or Vedge, which might damage their brand. ("We've heard horror stories about downsized versions of bigger restaurants," says Landau.)
The downside of launching a new venture, as opposed to the established concepts at Cheu or Dizengoff, is that "we've got a lot of explaining to do" to customers who don't yet know the menu. But the recipe development has continued since the store opened, as Landau has been through umpteen rolls in search of the perfect fit for his cheesesteak ("it should still have a crust, but you shouldn't have to fight through it"). And the clear improvement since my first taste early on of that steak, an earthy blend of shaved mushrooms and seitan drizzled in a Whiz-like rutabaga fondue, will benefit Wiz Kid's standalone store when it opens near Rittenhouse Square this spring. For Cheu, a requirement to use only Whole Foods-approved antibiotic-free proteins (vs. the less expensive meats used in its own restaurants), has resulted in a cleaner, more flavorful broth, says Puchowitz.
But working in the shared space of the much larger market, including tiny prep areas and a sometimes chaotic dishwashing process, has also resulted in some challenges, says Jacoby, who's lost some special pans for her hemp-infused "pothole" brownies: "It's been a struggle to keep things separate from the Whole Foods pans," she says.
"It took a while to get used to the lack of boundaries and space," agrees Puchowitz, though he notes a broader sense of community has definitely taken root. "We all actually like each other now."
The pull has been somewhat magnetic to others in the food industry, even beyond those who actually work there -- though you're likely to find them in the bar. For example, chef Scott Schroeder and Pat O'Malley of Hungry Pigeon in Queen Village were spotted at the market's pub, day-drinking last Thursday on a break from some "vegetable shopping."
"This is hallowed land already, totally an insider secret," said Schroeder, sipping a $6 glass of boxed French chardonnay. "You get sick of drinking at your own restaurant."
"It sends the wrong message to your customers," agreed O'Malley, lifting his Beaujolais Villages in a toast. "Though there's nothing like a glass of gamay with all the lights turned up."
The bright supermarket ambience, to be sure, may never qualify as one of the city's most romantic settings -- though a secret hideaway nook tucked just above and behind the bar has one of the city's best skyline views around. But as the world of retail and restaurant meals continues to blur, mixing our shopping needs with our dining schedules and a steady desire to eat expertly crafted local food in the process, Whole Foods' new food hall has created something new and special.