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Whole Foods sees a natural fit

Times Staff Writer

Britain’s culinary reputation has always been locked in the infamy of mashed peas and gray roast beef. But it is no secret that Londoners, for all their pretensions to blandness, are foodies.

Forget the gastro-pubs -- just go shopping in London for Sunday dinner.

At the Borough Market, a cook can find a nice feathered pheasant and redolent disks of Double Gloucester cheese. Then there’s the clotted Devon cream and jams at Fortnum & Mason, the farm-fresh produce at green grocers on the road to the country house, and the savory take-home curry at the Marks & Spencer on every major street. Of course, there’s the decadent sprawl of the food halls at Harrods.

Into this superheated eat-fest comes Whole Foods Market Inc., the company that has made a multibillion-dollar splash in the U.S. with its up-market emphasis on organic and natural foods. But will London be impressed?

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This month’s debut of a three-story, 80,000-square-foot Whole Foods on fashionable Kensington High Street got a largely admiring reception from the London papers, which are accustomed to raising a snooty eyebrow at anything big, overdone and American. And the BBC proclaimed it “green gone gorgeous.”

The Austin, Texas-based retailer hopes to cash in on a robust and still-growing British market for healthier foods, locally raised meat and produce, and fair-trade foods in a country whose booming economy enables many shoppers not to blanch at paying $16.03 a pound for a dry-aged T-bone steak or $6.84 for a Mediterranean salad mix.

The company already had a toehold in the British market, having acquired the Fresh & Wild chain of natural foods markets in 2004. Those remain open in two areas of London, along with Clapham, Bristol and Stoke Newington.

Whole Foods’ move comes as British supermarket giant Tesco is paddling the other direction across the Atlantic, preparing to open an estimated 100 neighborhood markets in California, Arizona and Nevada this fall.

Jim Sud, executive vice president for growth and development at Whole Foods, said Britain was a logical choice for expansion, considering that “the knowledge and acceptance of natural and organic in many ways is greater in the U.K. and other parts of Europe” than in the U.S.

British customers may be used to organic, he added, but perhaps not to the merchandising and visual presentation Whole Foods brings -- elaborate shop windows, sample tables of delicately sauced fish, and classes on skin care and growing sprouts that just don’t happen at Sainsbury’s.

Florence Menzis, a Frenchwoman from Chelsea who was shopping in the new Kensington store last week, was impressed.

“Their selection is wonderful. There’s a lot of wild fish, which is very hard to find around here. If I want wild salmon, I have to go to Harrods or go three or four other places looking at the fishmongers,” she said.

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But with nowhere to park -- real estate in Kensington is too pricey to relegate to cars -- Menzis said she wouldn’t be making any big purchases until Whole Foods launches a delivery service in the next few weeks.

The market for what international food and grocery market research firm IGD calls “posh nosh” -- premium products such as organic, locally produced foods, premium brands and specialist fine foods -- has reached $25.5 billion a year in Britain and is forecast to hit $37.6 billion by 2011.

Whole Foods’ arrival can be expected to accelerate what is already a substantial move by mainstream British food retailers into organic and fresh local foods. Half the revenue at hallmark British retailer Marks & Spencer is now in food sales, with organic food sales up 47% over the last year to $196 million, and fair-trade food product sales up 450%.

Marks & Spencer in January announced plans to go green in a serious way, pledging to “change beyond recognition the way it operates over the next five years” and become carbon-neutral and send no waste to landfills by 2012, Chief Executive Stuart Rose said in a statement.

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“Clearly, there is a market there, but Whole Foods is coming a bit later to it in the U.K. than it was in the U.S., and that’s a bit of a challenge,” IGD analyst Gavin Rothwell said.

On the other hand, the high-concept nature of Whole Foods, the sheer splendor of its towers of glistening tomatoes and 100 different kinds of olive oil, may be enough to get a leg up.

“With such a high profile as a whole food market, it has a potential to raise interest across the consumer base,” Rothwell said.

The other challenge to the Texan company is real estate, if Whole Foods is serious about plans to open 20 to 30 stores in Britain and more elsewhere in Europe.

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“Finding real estate is very challenging in the U.K,” Sud said. “We’re looking for stores in the 30,000-50,000-square-foot range. Finding that size of store, particularly in central London, is very challenging ... and it’s definitely very expensive.

“But we had a similar experience in New York with our first store in Chelsea. We looked in New York for five, six, seven years before we found the right location.”

kim.murphy@latimes.com


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