Austin Epicurean Supermarket Battle: Central Market V. Whole Foods

Within months of one another, Central Market expanded and reorganized its flagship store on Lamar and 38th, and Whole Foods took it one step further in opening a posh new flagship store a bit down the road at Lamar and 6th. Both chains have expanded from their Austin roots over the years, launching stores in other major cities in Texas and, in the case of Whole Foods, across the nation. Both stores cater to foodies and the health-conscious alike, but there are philosophical and stylistic differences in their approaches that do not always seem obvious from their overlapping inventories. Where their paths diverge, Central Market inevitably goes gourmet while Whole Foods goes granola. But to characterize one store’s clientele as a mob of Audi-driving West Austin bobos and another’s as hemp-clad sandal-wearing hippies is going too far in both directions. In truth, both stores count members of each population among their loyal customers, which makes shopping at either store during peak hours unbearable. But when not overrun by herds of the self-absorbed and out-of-touch, both of these stores can be a lot of fun.

The stores share many common perks. Both have great wine and beer selections (though kudos to Whole Foods for their walk-up wine information stations, which allow you to scan the UPC code on a bottle of wine and get details and Robert Parker’s ratings on a small monitor). Both carry ridiculous amounts of quality prepared foods for those nights when you want something quick but not fast food. Each store employs helpful, reasonably friendly sales staff. And of course both stores stock fresh, delicious-looking meat and produce, with abundant organic and locally produced options. Recently, there have been overt games of one-upmanship in the high-end amenities battle. The new Whole Foods opens a gelato bar; Central Market follows suit within months. Central Market has operated a small but successful cooking school for its customers; Whole Foods finally found its own place for such an enterprise. You’d think that with so many similarities, there would be no clear victor in this battle.

Well, that just isn’t the case. This one is easy. Central Market is the better store, and it isn’t for the reasons you might think.

Much of the superiority of Central Market lies in the transparency of its image and the sensibility of its selection. Central Market is for food snobs with money to burn and it doesn’t pretend to be otherwise. Its layout is straightforward, and “extras” like the cafÃ?©, the florist, and the cooking school are carefully separated from the grocery aisles, where the real action is. Central Market holds no great pretense of being a temple of healthfulness or community service, so while you might quibble with the value you’re getting for your buying dollar, you can’t accuse the store of being hypocritical. Whole Foods, on the other hand, always struck me as the type of place that wanted its customers to think it’s really a force of good, doing a service to the community. “A people’s grocery” as it were. What a joke. Whole Foods is as much a capitalist enterprise as any major supermarket chain. Like any major supermarket chain, its shelves are lined largely with products of underpaid workers’ labor. Most of Whole Foods’ inventory is driven thousands of miles to its stores via large, gasoline-powered, pollution-making machines.

Central Market doesn’t appear to be designed to make you feel particularly virtuous about shopping there, aside from recognition of your impeccably good taste. Whoever designed these stores knew how to implicitly deliver the message to the customer. Something about being in Whole Foods makes you want to believe that you’re buying that $18 candle because it’s really, really good for you; Central Market whispers, “come on, do it because you can.” I’m not defending rampant consumerism, but I’m even less enthused about cloaking it in the disguise of self-care.

Central Market stocks a lot of “normal supermarket” foods in additional to their richer, fancier variants. Thus, although you can buy white truffle-flavored flour in the baking goods aisle, down toward the bottom shelf you can also find Betty Crocker cake mix and frosting. This is not possible at Whole Foods, which really doesn’t carry “supermarket” food, lest you suspect that its other products are also lining The Man’s pockets, or simply aren’t good enough for you. Case in point: my mission to bake a cake from scratch was complicated when I was unable to find flour at the Whole Foods Market down the street. That day I learned why Whole Foods doesn’t stock cake flour, period. Apparently the process by which cake flour is refined robs it of all its “nutritional value”. This line of reasoning spouted by the Whole Foods employee is consistent with the carefully cultivated message that Whole Foods is above selling empty calories. (Interestingly, flanking the juice and smoothie bar at the front of Whole Foods is the gelato bar on one side and a case of donuts and pastries on the other.) I appreciate Central Market for not, er, burdening itself with false concern for my nutrition.

To be honest, I’ve also had some disappointing customer service experiences in the new Whole Foods flagship store, which have soured me to the store for non-philosophical reasons as well. A couple of employees, mainly on the front end, have been plainly rude. Could it be because I don’t look like I live around the corner in a $400,000 condo, or because I don’t look like I work out in the ultra-exclusive pilates studio across the street? It wouldn’t surprise me.

Most people realize that Whole Foods’ touchy-feely, do-gooder, “grocer-for-the-people” image was just a faÃ?§ade for one of the savvier corporate entities in the food business. The new store shakes off that tired old faÃ?§ade somewhat, but replaces it with an attractive but soulless theme park for foodies. Central Market looks almost austere by comparison.

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