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.
Twenty years ago, Sansolo says, people did most of their shopping at a supermarket; now, only 50 percent do. Twenty percent say they do their primary food shopping at "a supercenter" such as Wal-Mart, which combines supermarket goods and other merchandise. And more shoppers today are drawn to other types of stores, including clubs and discount retailers.
"Americans love to shop, but not for food," Sansolo says. "They do it as a chore."
Some Washington area Asian supermarkets, such as the four Lotte stores in Virginia and Maryland and Super H Mart in Fairfax City, have offered in-store dining for years. New York-based Wegmans brought dining to Sterling in 2004 and to Fairfax in 2005. The 130,000-square-foot Fairfax store's Market Cafe seats 220 over three levels, including a private upstairs room. John Emerson, Wegmans' regional chef, says 3,000 to 3,500 meals are made daily in Fairfax. Although store manager Michael Gorski says Wegmans doesn't know how many shoppers also dine, weekends at the cafe are busy.
For Ricardo and Ximene Bosnic of Falls Church, Wegmans' restaurant was a pleasant surprise. "We are a little bit behind our schedule," Richard said over a recent lunch. "It's practical."
Two months ago the store installed its nine-seat Seafood Bar near the fish counter. Cooked-to-order, dine-in or takeout meals include crab cakes and pan-seared fish, $9.99 to $12.99. But the main hook has been $1.99 oysters.
The eateries in Lotte and Super H are owned and operated not by the store, but by tenants. In the Fairfax Circle Lotte, Suzie Park says she has leased space for her small restaurant, Palace, for 16 1/2 years. It's a good deal for both store and owner; Park says about 95 percent of the food she serves comes from Lotte. A month ago GoEun Lee and her husband, Chunki Lee, opened their first restaurant, Yummy, next to Palace, partly because of an assured clientele for Japanese and Korean food.
That means people like Glen and Lee Yeager of Lorton, who ate dinner there recently. "We come here once a month," Glen Yeager said. "We do shopping here and like to eat. It's very easy."
This is Whole Foods' second store to feature ambitious dining; the first opened two years ago in the flagship Austin store.
The Austin Whole Foods is on a high-traffic corner, but its 65,000-square-foot Fair Lakes counterpart is in the new East Market Shopping Center, next to Dick's Sporting Goods and Kohl's and across the street from the under-construction Elan condominium at East Market (where prices range from $252,200 to $645,700).
Whole Foods studied the area's population density, percentage of college graduates and income level before building, says Ken Meyer, Whole Foods' mid-Atlantic region president.
"Demographics can help understand what people do, but not what they need," says Bruce Silverman, a vice president at the company. He says Whole Foods looked to Berlin's KaDeWe, which has about 20 sit-down venues, for inspiration.
The Fair Lakes store hired chefs who have worked in some of the area's best restaurants. Dale Stirzel, a Culinary Institute of America grad, worked at the Inn at Little Washington. John Campbell was executive chef at Restaurant Nora in Washington and at Falls Landing in Great Falls. Pat Busby was chef-owner of Mooring restaurant. Annette Cuellar, a graduate of L'Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda, worked at Zola and Maestro. Veteran sushi chef Kevin Ly is a native of Vietnam who has worked in Japanese restaurants worldwide.
Jimi Yui of YuiDesign, based in Takoma Park, designed open kitchens so customers can talk to chefs. Chef Todd Gray of Equinox also had input. The result: communal spaces, some with seats circling counters. "It's designed to rub elbows with your neighbor," says Sarah Kenney, Whole Foods regional marketing director. Together, the restaurants seat about 150; booths at the front bring the total to 275. A separate wine bar has even more seating. The store is still experimenting to decide restaurant hours, officials said.
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In the mid-1960s, says Sansolo of FMI, about two-thirds of all meals were consumed at home. "Now, it's close to 50-50."
The National Restaurant Association predicts that sales in "retail-host restaurants" -- in supermarkets, drugstores, gas stations and convenience stores -- will reach $25.1 billion in 2007, an increase of 5.3 percent over 2006. That's slightly higher growth than in the industry as a whole.
The association considers grocery store restaurants "in stiff competition with quick-service restaurants," places where there is no wait staff and you pay before you eat, spokeswoman Annika Stensson wrote in an e-mail.
That confirms what Aiello of the American Culinary Federation says: that sit-down restaurants might not have as much to fear from in-store eateries as takeout and delivery places do. He cites a Chicago supermarket that advertises an extra-large pizza for $5.99 on Friday nights, undercutting even chain-delivery prices.
It's not enough for stores to make dining convenient, Sansolo says. They also must provide a varied menu, be clean and attractive, and focus on "why we're good, special, and why you should come back."
Still, he thinks none of that will be the deciding factor when a customer is mulling whether to eat amid the aisles. "In a supermarket," Sansolo says, "whether you buy in or take it out, it's the price."
On that count, Whole Foods may be on to something, at least judging from opening night. Sushi bar customer Isis Vazquez, who pronounced her miso soup "the best one I've ever tasted," thought it a good value, too; soup, salad and sushi cost her $10. Daniel Galvin's meal at the seafood bar came to $13 for tuna plus sides. "It's a pretty good price for a meal," he said.
Perhaps the biggest difference from other sit-down restaurants? No tipping allowed.