Cereal? Aisle 2. Seared Tuna? Have a Seat.

(Len Spoden (703) 598-7427 - Freelance)
By Sue Kovach Shuman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Patty Slack of Lorton sat at the counter at Ai Laghi Osteria last Wednesday, sipping a chianti as dinner -- gnocchi with arugula and broccoli rabe -- was prepared inches away, right before her eyes. "It's like watching your own cooking show while you eat," Slack said. "It's the ultimate pleasure."

At the counter, Slack met a fellow food lover who dreams of opening a bakery. As they talked, the smell of hearth-baked pizza wafted from a hand-chiseled stone oven. At another eatery nearby, Isis Vazquez of Reston was polishing off miso soup, salad and sushi, while at a seafood spot just yards away, Daniel and Dawn Galvin of Fairfax tucked into seared tuna, crab cakes and wine.

These were no conventional restaurants. The customers were dining at the new Whole Foods Market in Fairfax's Fair Lakes area on its opening night. Right behind them, shoppers prowled the aisles, filling their carts with meat and groceries.

As at other stores in the Texas-based chain, which has become the leading natural and organic foods company in the world, the Fair Lakes Whole Foods marries old ideas with new, such as stacking abundant produce to evoke a farmers market (albeit one that carries cherries from Chile) near a wall of pre-cut, packaged fruits and veggies for the time-starved.

What's different here is the addition of five sit-down eateries, all serving wine and beer, all run by chefs who have worked at fine Washington area restaurants.

Is this the supermarket of the future?

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Joe G. Aiello, treasurer of the American Culinary Federation, thinks it started with chickens.

You'd swing by the supermarket after work, smell roasting poultry, and think, "Dinner!" Then grab a few sides -- potatoes or carrot-raisin salad -- and the meal preparation chore vanished. Later came more options: salad and soup bars, then hot entrees. Some stores added tables for the lunch bunch.

Fifteen years ago, Aiello, who owns Apropos Catering in Chicago, heard a grocery association official predict that in-store eateries were on the way. "At that time we all kind of laughed about it," he says.

Michael Sansolo, who monitors shopping trends for the Food Marketing Institute, a Washington-based trade association that represents the nation's food retailers, finds supermarket dining no surprise. "As shoppers, as people, we're all living crazy lives," he says.

A Food Marketing Institute study in 2002 showed that the average four-person family spent $93.30 a week during food shopping trips, up from $92.50 in 2005. Overall, shoppers make 2.1 trips to the store each week for food; 78 percent of what they spend is spent at one store.

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