I found myself exploring Southern California last month after attending my daughter's Family Day at UC Santa Barbara. I borrowed my in-laws spacious Camry and cruised further south, while the rest of the family returned north to San Francisco.
I now represent lines from KeenaCo to 56 SoPac Whole Foods Market stores, in addition to the 40 NoCal stores I already sell to. I also wanted to see if there's opportunity to sell some of the fait trade products I represent through 12 Small Things.
Plus I had a coffee date with a television producer in Hollywood to review my pitch for Made By Hand, a reality series pairing artisans with national retailers to produce a handmade product to sell in their stores.
Leaving Santa Barbara early Tuesday morning, I cruised down Highway 101 and pulled over at Ventura Beach, eager to wanting to check out the local surf scene and inhale some cool ocean breeze. The parking lot was pretty empty, save for a few lucky weekday surfers and young moms with baby strollers. Feeling a tad guilty about chillin' so soon in the day, I headed over to my first Whole Foods SoPac store in Oxnard. From there I made good time, visiting Thousand Oaks, then onto Beverly Hills where I ate a sushi lunch while watching women in heels walk by, Santa Monica where I walked the beach and saw body builders practicing yoga poses, and finally to Venice where the new Whole Foods store is so popular, they have police stationed to ensure the customers don't get into fights over parking spaces.
Besides the amazing displays of fruits and vegetables and all the choices of wonderfully prepared foods offered, which we've come to expect in our northern California stores, these southern stores go above and beyond food sales. One store had a beer pub in an Airstream trailer with a vinyl record collection nearby, another had a glassed-in sports bar with multiple tv screens and also a coffee roasting lounge, complete with leather couches. These Whole Foods are not just grocery stores anymore; they are a lifestyle brand offering community to their customers all seeking a quality of life experience.
I was particularly impressed with the amount of fair trade and locally made non-food products offered in the stores Whole Body departments. Blessing Basket had a number of shawls from Indonesia and baskets from Uganda, with hangtags of the artisans who made their products. They had cute little owl ornaments made from gourds by artisans in Peru. I learned about the clothing brand Rising Tide supporting fair trade artisans in India and Nepal, and Pact making organic fair trade underwear. I also found a northern California company, Gypsy and Lolo, who make products from recycled fabrics.
As the sun was setting in the Venice parking lot, I headed to my hotel with my favorite Whole Foods takeout of roast chicken, mac & cheese, a big salad and bottle of wine, ready to put my feet up and relax with tv. I was so pleased to check into the remodeled, hipster Beverly Laurel Hotel my daughter helped me find on Kyak.com. They upgraded me to a suite which was smartly decorated in mid century funster. The photo of young men hanging out by a pool with very little clothing on appealed to men and women alike I'm sure. And speaking of pools, the hotel manager turned on the pool light for me to take a night swim before dinner. I couldn't have been happier, lallygagging across short, warm laps, as young guests hung out on the balcony, talking on their cell phones to arrange the evening's plans. My plan was a hot shower and cold Chardonnay, and a delicious dinner while watching the Voice.
After a good night's sleep, I headed out to tour Whole Foods El Segundo and then their two-story colossal store in Pasadena, before my meeting with the television producer introduced to me by my artisan colleague Annie Waterman. I had worked on a pitch reel for an artisan reality series, sponsored by a different national retailer for each episode. Unfortunately the poor wifi connection at the coffee shop where we met kept me from presenting my full video, so we settled for an informative conversation. I have a lot more work to do, but was grateful for the good advice and mentoring.
I had a lot to think about as I drove up the coast back home. I stopped by the Whole Foods San Luis Obispo store and the new Alameda Whole Foods in San Jose, which was hopping with shoppers and the late lunch crowd. I made my favorite salad again and read emails (thanks to great wifi), at a picnic table outside, marveling at the sense of community created where once was none. Like Borders Bookstore, will this Whole phenomenon be a flash in the cooking pan, and replace by yet another chain? Or like Starbucks, who brought good coffee to Americans who were drinking instant powder crystals, will Whole Foods continue to flourish as Americans embrace locally grown foods and quality meal experiences as their newest form of entertainment? Me, I'm happy to be back home in San Francisco where home-cooked meals abound.