El Paso’s new Whole Foods Market raises bar on local food choices

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EL PASO – More than 1,000 people daily are shopping at the newly opened Whole Foods Market, supporting local vendors while enjoying organic foods not typically found in El Paso supermarkets.

“Our first day open we expected to see a lot of people, but the amount of customers we’ve had has exceeded our expectations,” said Mark Heins, store manager.

Whole Foods – founded in Austin in 1980 – has more than 460 stores worldwide and opened in El Paso on Oct. 19 in the heart of the West Side near Coronado High School at the corner of Mesa and Resler streets.

“All in all we’ve been having great days, and not only was the public happy we were open but all the employee and management were happy we were open to finally see the El Paso community,” Heins said.

Heins, who sold his restaurant Greenery Restaurant in Sunland Park Mall to manage the grocery store, said: “I was always found of Whole Foods Market ever since they opened their first store in Austin.”

When he learned that Whole Foods would open its first store in El Paso, he had to find a way to be part of it. “Once it was announced that Whole Foods would open its store, I decided to sell my restaurant because of how fond I am of the company.”

Whole Foods sells honey and milk produced by local farms, Heins said. Additionally, a pizza restaurant in the supermarket is locally owned.

Jessica Olague, who heard about Whole Foods from a friend said, “I would choose Whole Foods over any other supermarket because it’s organic and it helps local stores, local companies, also their overall message is to provide more efficient eco-friendly environment or society.”

Cecilia Levine, who has shopped other Whole Foods, said she would shop at the El Paso Whole Foods because of the excellent customer service.

The 50,000-square-foot store employs 160 people and 90 percent of them are residents of the El Paso area, company officials said.

Heins, 63, said he’s always been a big fan of Whole Foods, but did not consider working for the company until he spoke to El Paso community leaders and Whole Food executives about plans on what to offer at the store.

Special touches for El Paso

The new store features several El Paso-flavored amenities not found at all Whole Foods’ locations, including a taqueria operated by Isabella Foods of El Paso and a food-court style restaurant with a beer and wine bar. Besides selling tacos and burritos to diners, Isabella Foods is also providing the store with tortillas to go. Although many Whole Foods stores include sit-down restaurants, the El Paso location is the first in the chain to have a Grillworks wood-fired grill to charbroil meats used in pizzas, sandwiches and other ready-made food sold at the store.

An 82-seat bar, Thunderbird Taproom, offers 24 beers on tap and a variety of wines. It will limit sales of alcoholic drinks to two to three drinks per customer, depending on the drink’s alcohol content, according to the store. The El Paso Whole Foods is one of 181 stores nationwide to include a Tap Room, which is connected to a two-level outdoor patio and an upper level community meeting space.

Kari McGuinness, associate specialty coordinator for the Whole Foods Rocky Mountain region, based in Boulder, Colo., which oversees the El Paso store, recently told the El Paso Times: “Communities that have Tap Rooms, love them.” She also said that the in-store bars have proven to be popular features and the company is adding more of them in locations where customer focus groups have indicated they would like one and states where liquor laws allow them to be located inside grocery stores.

A Food Marketing Institute 2012 study on wine sales in grocery stores, reported that wine sales tend to boost overall sales in grocery stores. Data over several years found consumers tend to buy a more expensive basket of goods per shopping trip when they are also shopping for wine in grocery stores, according to the study, which did not look at beer sales or in-store bars.

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Showcasing local vendors

The colorful interior has an El Paso feel, but what gets Heins, the El Paso restaurateur-turned-grocer, more excited is that the company is committed to helping local farms and businesses get their products on its shelves.

So far, Whole Foods has partnered with about two-dozen El Paso-area vendors to carry various items from aprons employees to art work custom designed for the store’s reusable grocery bags. Locally produced foods like bulk honey, pecans and fresh tortillas are sold by the store.

Bob Paluzi, who produces jeans mostly for small, upscale designers, crafted the aprons for store employees, Heins said.

“It’s part of our mission to help local vendors and producers grow with Whole Foods and to be able to produce a product that meets our standards and in enough quantity to provide it to our stores and to be able to grow with the company,” Heins said.

Katelyn Whitmore, who moved to El Paso when her husband was deployed at Fort Bliss in 2014 from New Jersey, said: “Its amazing that El Paso is finally getting a Whole Foods because there aren’t that many places where you can go to buy food that is truly healthy for you.”

“It’s good to know we can eat all the healthy food we used to eat back in New Jersey,” she said.

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