Whole Foods: Love & Haight

My first thought when I saw the solar-powered Whole Foods sign go up in my neighborhood was: My life just got a million times better. The convenience! The consistent quality! The $11 half-pint of curried chicken salad! My second thought? I am such a fucking hypocrite.

In case you haven’t heard: San Francisco’s fifth Whole Foods opened in February, on the corner of Haight and Stanyan. You know, next to the enter-at-your-own risk McDonald’s and across from the entrance to Golden Gate Park where cliques of homeless hang out. It’s a big deal, this new Whole Foods — as it’s the first full-on, glossy — and big national corporate-run–grocery store in a neighborhood long devoid of one. So, like any upstanding San Franciscan who’s always vowed to support her small-town neighborhood stores — I feel totally conflicted. And, as I pulled into the Whole Foods’ parking lot (parking lot!), less than eight hours after it had opened — like a complete traitor.

Whole Foods was shiny. It was pretty. It was huge (21,000 sq feet, which is actually small for a Whole Foods). It had Haight puns like a “Wake & Bake” sign hanging over the bakery and “Peace Out,” instead of “check-out,” by the 14 cash registers. And it had everything: a pizza and burrito bar. Kombucha on tap. Grind-your-own almond butter! Even a section devoted to San Francisco street food vendors like Magic Curry Cart and El Porteno Empanadas and locally made products like La Cocina’s Love & Hummus and Papalote’s secret salsa. Mmm. And, I took a closer look at the prices: it was significantly cheaper than my go-to local haunts.

All that, and I could finally have a butcher counter (and one stocked according to sustainable animal welfare standards to boot)? Uh oh.

As I walked past Whole Foods’ overflowing cheese selection, I thought back to a conversation I’d had a couple of years ago with Richard, one of the guys at Say Cheese, a San Francisco institution since 1976. And where I’ve been buying my Humboldt Fog for years now. (Plus, harder-to-find stuff like, say, an organic farmstead goat cheese from Pescadero’s Harley Farms, or Accasciato, a half-cow half-buffalo milk from Casa Madaio, Italy). “We’ll be out of business in three years if that Whole Foods gets approved,” he’d said, pissed off before the project was even official.

“Oh, not you guys,” I’d replied.

Say Cheese is one of the increasingly rare old-timers in the specialty shop import business. These guys have had personal relationships with artisanal European producers for decades. Today, they’re also tight with local, boutique domestic producers. They feature some 300 cheeses, with names and prices by the pound scrawled in chalk on the ever-changing board; and floor-to-ceiling shelves lined with a thoughtfully curated selection of 250 Italian, French, Spanish, and small-production domestic wines — 10 percent off when you buy a mix-and-match case. “Did you walk here?” they’ll ask. “No worries, just pick it up later.”

Staffed by the same cast of characters who know their stuff, Say Cheese is the kind of neighborhood business that draws folks from across town popping in for picnic fixings or foreigners stopping by on a tip. It’s also the kind of occasionally gruff personality-filled shop you don’t often find in happy-perky California, which is something the East Coaster in me appreciates. Where the guys might give you crap for asking them to cram every ingredient under the sun into your sandwich. Where they know your name, and that you prefer Mendocino mustard to Dijon, and won’t hesitate to hand over a slice of Havarti to keep your kid from crying.

Don’t worry, I’d told Richard. People in San Francisco are all about supporting their local shops. “No they’re not,” he’d barked back. “People in San Francisco just talk the talk.”

It’s true, agreed Say Cheese owner Roger Soudah when I ran into him the day before Whole Foods’ grand opening. Over coffee at Reverie, the intentionally Wi-Fi-free (yet still always crowded) café he also owns next door, he seemed bitter but blasé. “If people want me to sell my shop to Starbucks or Subway, I’ll do it. I’ll sell tomorrow. They want the chains? They’ll get ‘em. But they better be careful what they wish for.”

It’s not that I like paying $5 for a carton of Carr’s crackers. Or $9 for a gallon of orange juice. Or that by the time I’m done shopping, I can barely carry my handheld basket, which is way overstuffed because Cole Valley’s Real Food Company doesn’t have carts. Not that they’d fit anyway in this 99.5 percent organic farm-stand-of-a-shop with aisles as narrow as slot canyons and creaky wooden stairs separating the produce section from the refrigerated and canned goods, making it impossible for my stroller, or a wheelchair for that matter, to pass through. That’d be a real no-no for a new food store opening today, wouldn’t it? But this shop dates back to 1969 — it was the first store for the San Francisco-based Real Food Company, which was committed to selling organic produce and natural products long before ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ went mainstream. It has, sadly, since switched ownership to a Utah-based natural health supplement company, but it’s local locally run through and through — and its unique character and commitment to organic remain unchanged.

Which is precisely what I love about it. And why I’ve been shopping here three or four days a week for the past seven years. Like its name implies, Real Food is real. It’s refreshingly imperfect. It has local roots. It’s within walking distance of my house. It has, on occasion, trusted me to pay later when I’ve forgotten my wallet. Its avocados are always ripe. Its apples are always crisp. (And they have up to 20 varieties during peak season.) It sometimes sells out of yellow onions. But that’s okay, the straight-out-of-the-’70s salesperson tells me; white onions will do just fine. With so little space and only so much selection, it lacks that overwhelming element of choice that we’ve come to expect from our supermarkets. And so, it brings me back to a simpler time. That, and it has free tasters. All day. Everyday. Little tubs filled with slices of ruby grapefruit; cubes of cantaloupe; sections of blood orange; pineapple; whatever’s in season, stuck with toothpicks — with brown paper sacks taped to the shelves for tossing rinds.

Nearby is 30-something-year-old Haight Street Market, another cluttered, nothing-fancy favorite of both Cole Valley and Upper Haight residents. It’s family-owned and friendly to the point that its staff and its customers are actually friends. It rewards regulars with member discounts. And its plans to expand from 3,500 square feet to 8,000 were recently approved. A bold move with Whole Foods now a few blocks away? Perhaps. But this market is even more loved by the locals than Real Food. Scroll through its Yelp reviews and it’s obvious its patrons are a proud, fiercely loyal lot. “A palace of perfection,” reads one post. “The best, best, best grocery store ever. . . I love you,” confesses Ms. M. “PLEASE try your best to stay alive,” pleads another. “Stay strong, little buddy,” begs Edmund C.

I mean, it takes a special grocery store to move people to post handmade “I [heart] Haight Street Market” signs around the neighborhood.

And though both Real Food and Haight Street Market are, yes, significantly more expensive than Whole Paycheck, at least they don’t lure you into spending even more money, with frivolous prepared foods like personal-sized lasagnas and containers of pre-cut watermelon.

Nor do they have security guards the size of linebackers stationed out front. Or parking attendants directing traffic in the not-so-large-lot, after all.

Still, I can’t ignore the fact that Carr’s crackers were only $3.79 at Whole Foods. ($4.39 at Haight Street Market, $4.25 at Say Cheese, comparison shoppers, just FYI.) But, if I shop at Whole Foods, I’m choosing Chain. And, I’m getting on a soapbox now, I realize, but: If we all choose chains — even the better-than-most chains — over the independent, quirky shops that make up the culinary character of our city, then Roger is right. Chains are what we’re going to get. (And, we’re actually slated to get two more Whole Foods by 2013, not to mention another Trader Joe’s, and a Target or two. I mean, it’s starting to sound like San-burbia around here.)

I’m a Four Barrel-sipping, farmers’-market-going, KQED-listening, Michael Pollan-following foodie. Which I guess means I’ll willingly pay more for quality. For local. For organic. For taste. Philosophically speaking, yeah. But on a practical, day-to-day basis? Well, I dunno… that salad bar looks awfully tempting.

I was starting to get depressed. Until I left Whole Zoo, and continued up the hill on Stanyan. The chaos slowly disappeared. The city grew a little quieter. And in the dusky sky, I spotted the woodsy glow of Real Food across the street. I peeked inside — the checkout line was as long as it always is at this post-work-pre-dinner hour. Whether or not it lasts, I had my small-town neighborhood back, and it seriously warmed my heart.

Photos by Chelsey Dyer (design)