The grocery world has been abuzz about 365 by Whole Foods Market since the concept was first announced a few years ago. The first stores opened outside Texas, but last week Whole Foods opened its first 365 by Whole Foods Market in Central Texas with a 30,000-square-foot store in Cedar Park.
Opening day was busy with a packed parking lot, aisles teeming with shoppers and lots of excitement about what this new store means for the local grocery ecosystem. Last week, I hosted my weekly Facebook livestream from the store, which you can check out at food.blog.austin360.com, and after buying a few things for my own pantry and fridge, I discovered 10 things I think you should know about the store ahead of your first (or second or third) visit.
1) Not everything in the store is a 365 product. Early reports indicated that these new stores would be predominately stocked with Whole Foods’ private brand — that number turns out to be about 40 percent. The rest of the goods are from national and local brands you’d find at a traditional Whole Foods.
2) Most of the produce is priced by the each. That means an apple costs 85 cents or a banana 19 cents, much like at Trader Joe’s. Some of the irregularly sized produce items, such as potatoes, are priced by the pound, and customers weigh out the produce to print out a sticker, similar to Central Market.
3) Good luck finding a reasonable amount of cilantro. Two small nits, but ones I wanted to bring up. For the most part, I was pleased with the store’s grocery options, shopping flow, vibe, etc., but I had two memorable hiccups. I went to buy cilantro, and the only option was a 10-pack of cilantro for 95 cents that was so huge, I couldn’t even wrap my hand around the bunched stalks. The roots are attached, so it’ll last longer, but I certainly didn’t need all that cilantro. I mentioned to the produce guy that this was way too much cilantro and that I wasn’t going to buy it because I knew most of it would go to waste. He said, “Well, that’s how the local supplier gives it to us,” and didn’t seem to care too much about getting the feedback. That rubbed me the wrong way. It’s opening day. Customers are going to give you feedback. It’s your job to take that feedback, even if you can’t do much about it. (Also, I imagine if the farmer who labored to grow this cilantro knew that 90 percent of consumers thought it was too much to eat without wasting most of it, he/she would probably appreciate that feedback and could adjust packaging accordingly.)
4) The small selection isn’t too limiting, until it is. My other nit: The 365 stores have about 8,000 products, a small number compared to the 30,000 or so in a traditional store. I didn’t mind having fewer options in each category, but that changed when I went to buy tortillas, and the only flour option they had was rustic flour tortillas from California for $2.59 for a package of 12. Maybe I’ve been living in Texas for too long, but I want several different options when it comes to tortillas. They had corn and other gluten-free tortillas, too, but I wanted a couple of different sizes to choose from — or at least tortillas that hadn’t been on a truck for a few days before getting here. They were also pricey for a store trying to sell itself on value.
5) The loyalty/discount card is promising. I am usually not a huge fan of loyalty cards. At Randalls, for instance, the loyalty card pricing annoys me because only after the membership discount are the prices even close to what you can get elsewhere. I also don’t use the gas rewards program for that store, which I hear is a game-changer for people who do. (I promise to try to have a more open mind about it going forward.) At 365, members get 10 percent off products on display at the end of most of the aisles, as well as permanent discounts on some of the meat and seafood. The card also acts as a punch card for deals, like buy-5-get-1-free berries. The day I shopped, they had an additional 40 percent off some of the marinated chicken and rib-eye steaks for people with the card, so I stocked up. With those discounts, I spent $44 on my groceries, including nearly 7 pounds of meat/fish. They were also offering $5 off your first $25 purchase with the card.
6) Easy Tiger breads, pretzels and other treats are for sale. Juiceland products are available, too, but that’s not quite as unique to the area as Easy Tiger’s baked goods. (There are several Juicelands just down the highway; Easy Tiger is located downtown.) Both Austin brands are part of the Friends of 365 program, so they have satellite stores within the grocery store.
7) You’ll find a large selection of hot prepared foods, priced at $7.99 a pound, just like a traditional Whole Foods. You can also order tacos, burritos, tortas and bowls to go from the back of the store, and there is a sit-down area in front of Easy Tiger, where you can order off their (nearly full) menu.
8) They have a nice selection of fresh pasta. It’s sold in a freezer case, but at about $2.99 per package, that’s a great deal. Also in the freezer case nearby: mochi ice cream balls, a brightly colored Japanese treat that you can buy individually or by the pound.
9) How to get there. I got lost on my first trip to the store because it wasn’t yet in Google Maps. Going north, you’ll exit off the toll road in Cedar Park at New Hope Drive and then take the U-turn under the toll road. The store is north of Whitestone, south of New Hope and sandwiched in between the old U.S. 183 and the toll road.
10) The overall experience is great, but not enough to draw customers from very far away. Austin is a grocery lovers’ paradise, but if you live in the Northwest region of the metropolitan area and like a good baguette and Meyer lemon chicken, I imagine that 365 will be part of your grocery circuit. Even though I really did enjoy the entire shopping experience at 365, with other similar competitors, including Sprouts, Natural Grocers and Trader Joe’s, much closer to where I live, I can’t imagine that I’ll be driving up to Cedar Park to shop. Jeff Turnas, president of 365, says they are looking at other locations closer to Austin, and when those stores start to open, Whole Foods will really start to attract the urban millennial consumers they are seeking with this new concept. Right now, it feels attractive to suburban families who are otherwise driving into Austin for their Whole Foods shopping.