Think Whole Foods is for Those With Fat Pocketbooks? Think Again

Whole Foods is a great place for shoppers on a budget. Really!

Lurking beside the Bleu d’Auvergne and the Chilean sea bass is a supermarket ripe with deals ready for hard-working individuals wanting a little more bang for their buck, company officials say.

And they can prove it.

Perhaps hoping to combat the store’s “Whole Paycheck” nickname, Whole Foods branches in Santa Fe and other cities, under a directive from the company’s Austin headquarters, recently began offering weekly tours on how to “value shop” and affordably stock a pantry.

“We cater to a whole variety of people, from

gourmets to those feeding families on a reasonable budget,” said Tom DiRuggiero, marketing director of the Santa Fe Whole Foods. Organized tours in the City Different run every Wednesday afternoon and will continue at least through February. While the Casual comparison

idea hasn’t exactly caught fire yet — a Journal reporter and photographer were the only participants during the Cerrillos Road store’s second tour Jan. 30 — guides DiRuggiero and Jeremiah Schultz, chef de cuisine, are eager to spread tidings that Whole Foods budget shopping is not an oxymoron. Their advice boils down to two rather simple suggestions: Buy generic and shop the sales. The company’s private-label 365 Everyday Value brand, which offers a multitude of items, is “probably the greatest value we have to offer in the store,” DiRuggiero said. In addition to 365, Whole Foods carries two other private lines: 365 Organic and the somewhat more expensive Whole Kitchen and Whole Pantry. “Compare the prices and it’s really not out of line with what you see in other stores,” DiRuggiero said. Founded in 1980, Whole Foods has ridden a wave of popularity to become the world’s largest organic and natural foods retailer, as it bills itself. The company now has more than 265 stores in three countries and earned sales of $5.6 billion during fiscal year 2006. But Whole Foods has come under some mockery for its “Whole Paycheck” reputation. The distinction, Schultz said, was earned because stores do carry a large selection of high-end, expensive products — part of the reason people come to the store in the first place. Pointing to a $8.99 can of tuna fish (sitting near 365 tuna selling for $1.49) during the Santa Fe store’s value tour, he asked, “Who the hell is going to spend $8.99 for a can of fish? But they do and then complain about it.” Whole Foods’ claim to be friendly on the wallet may not just be hot air. An unscientific price comparison conducted by the Journal of a few Santa Fe supermarkets revealed that many of Whole Foods’ kitchen staples are priced competitively with generic brands at Albertsons and Trader

Casual comparison

Joe’s. Among other discoveries, the Journal found that canned beans were the same price at all three stores and Whole Foods’ prices beat out the other two on items including eggs and some frozen fruits and vegetables. A “Basic Pantry” Whole Foods shopping list compiled for the tours and consisting of 31 non-perishable kitchen basics rings in at $78.33. “Even the team members that work here were surprised to see that,” said Schultz about the list, which includes diced tomatoes, oats and peanut butter. About 40 percent of the items are organic, he said. But if it’s the high-end items that constitute a large part of the Whole Foods allure, what’s the motivation to buy the 365 brand? The products don’t contain ingredients such as artificial colors, sweeteners, preservatives and hydrogenated oils, DiRuggiero said.

And the company has a quality standards team that checks items regularly and pulls those that aren’t up to par, he noted.

“When you purchase something at our store, you should have a certain amount of confidence,” he said.

Also, the food tastes good, at least according to DiRuggiero and Schultz. To test for themselves, people can take advantage of a store policy that allows customers to sample any item in Whole Foods — with the help of a crew member, of course — without having to make a purchase.

Keep to the center

Customers should also keep in mind that, while it may bring little joy, shopping with restraint when it comes to “fun” items is key. “The perimeter of the store is not where the value is,” Schultz said, referring to the outer areas of Whole

Foods that offer fresh fruits and vegetables, ready-to-go foods, alcohol and fancy cheeses. “If you want value, you’re not buying this stuff,” Schultz noted as he grabbed a $7 pre-packed styrofoam container in the produce section that contained two large mushrooms and one sliced bell pepper. For vegetables and other items, stick to the sales. At any given time, at least one or two items in each department are discounted, DiRuggiero said. Bulk foods aren’t a featured part of the Whole Foods value tour, although the Santa Fe store does have an aisle where shoppers can buy rice, herbs, beans and other items at often cheaper price than their packaged counterparts. DiRuggiero admitted that products in that section “are going to be some of your best deals.”

Here is the Journal’s unscientific price comparison of selected private label products at three Santa Fe supermarkets: 12 oz. cornflakes: $2.49 24 oz. French roast coffee beans: $9.99 15 oz. canned garbanzo beans: $0.69 16 oz. frozen mixed vegetables: $1.29 16 oz. frozen blueberries: $3.99 half gallon reduced fat milk: $2.29 12 cage-free large white eggs: $1.99 18 oz. cornflakes: $2.79 39 oz. French roast coffee beans: $6.99 15 oz. canned garbanzo beans: $0.69 32 oz. frozen mixed vegetables: $3.49 16 oz. frozen blueberries: $4.99 half gallon reduced fat milk: $2.49 12 jumbo eggs: $2.59 15 oz. cornflakes: $2.29 13 oz. French roast coffee: $4.99 15 oz. canned garbanzo beans: $0.69 16 oz. frozen vegetable medley: $2.29 12 oz. frozen blueberries: $3.29 half gallon reduced fat milk: $1.69 12 large cage free white eggs: $2.29 How Whole Foods’ Prices Compare With Others’