Is the new Whole Foods a game changer for downtown Los Angeles?
Michael Leone, right, shops with his daughters, Simone, 4, left, and Lucia, 6, at a new Whole Foods Market that opened Wednesday in downtown Los Angeles.(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Whole Foods employee Gilbert Ayard fillets an ahi tuna during the grand opening Wednesday of the Whole Foods in downtown L.A.(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Park Hwa Ja checks out the produce while shopping with Penten Jong, 1, at Whole Foods.(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Cake decorators Tanya Hilaire, left, and Morena Lazo deliver finished cakes to the display counter.(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Customer Amy Zaporetsky, who rode her bicycle to the store, shops inside the new Whole Foods Market.(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Shopper Abigail Schilling, left, samples a glass of red wine from Hearst Winery during the grand opening at Whole Foods.(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
From left, Manuel Gonzalez, Maycol Thomas and Ricardo Gomez take a break while working at the store.(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Tony Rozelle, 41, left, of Hollywood samples a green veggie roll from Jason Tan inside the new Whole Foods Market on Grand Avenue.(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Puddles Pity Party performs inside the Eight Bar at Whole Foods.(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Pedestrians make their way past downtown L.A.’s new Whole Foods Market.(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
For Andrew Culp, who has lived in downtown Los Angeles for the last two years, a simple grocery shopping trip has been an expedition. So you might have some understanding of how he feels about the new Whole Foods at Eighth and Grand:
“At the risk of sounding ridiculous,” Culp said, “I think this new Whole Foods is going to change my life.”
Culp was part of the opening day throng Wednesday morning at the huge new market, located on the ground floor of a soon-to-open apartment complex, where a 500-square-foot studio starts at more than $2,000 a month.
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The store -- more than 40,000 square feet and featuring its own restaurant and bar, plus take-out food from Kogi founder Roy Choi’s Chego line -- is a big improvement in terms of grocery options in the downtown area. It also marks yet another major step in the gentrification of downtown.
But Culp, who lives three blocks away, was not thinking about the ramifications of gentrification on opening day. His focus seemed to be accessibility. “I used to have to plan out my route every time I wanted to go to the supermarket,” he said. “Lots of times I ended up going to a Trader Joe’s on the Westside.
“Just being able to walk to the grocery and back, it might seem silly, but that’s really, really major,” Culp said. “It’s open early, it’s open late, it’s got a restaurant and take-out. I don’t have to drive to Glendale or wherever. There really wasn’t even a good place to buy wine in this part of downtown. Just having that is really nice.”
The opening day crowd was substantial -- even though a sizable number seemed to be either Whole Foods employees, product reps or news media. Some of the shoppers were people who lived downtown but there were also many customers from nearby offices.
Shari Reed, who works in the Financial District, was shopping for prepared foods.
“This is going to be one more alternative for shopping for us,” she said. “Especially because where our offices are located, there aren’t that many places to eat, especially places that offer more healthy alternatives.”
Whole Foods isn’t the first major grocery store downtown -- there’s a 50,000-square-foot Ralphs Fresh Fare a few blocks away near Ninth and Olive streets and a 25,000-square-foot Smart & Final Extra at South Figueroa Street and West Eighth Place.
There are also smaller stores that feature organic and locally grown produce, such as Urban Radish in the Arts District near Imperial and Sixth streets. And, of course, there are the Little Tokyo markets -- Marukai, Nijiya and Little Tokyo Marketplace.
Of course, naysayers point out that the addition of a pricey grocery store -- and one whose parent company’s stock has fallen nearly 40% in the last year -- is something short of historical.
But because of its size and reputation, the new Whole Foods marks a significant milestone in the renewal of downtown.
According to Hal Bastian, a commercial real estate consultant who spent more than a decade as director of economic development for the Downtown Center Business Improvement District, there are more than 10,000 residential units currently under construction in the area and he says the number of people living downtown is going to grow from 55,000 to between 75,000 and 80,000 in the next two years.
“We really needed to have a full-service grocery like this,” said Bastian, who was among the first day shoppers (“I’ve got tri-tip, sweet potatoes and salad greens in my basket. Great dinner”). “I have to be careful how I say this because Ralphs was very important too, but they provided the foundation that Whole Foods is building on.
“But this is huge for downtown and attracting more people and more businesses,” Bastian added. “This is going to be like when the ketchup bottle finally opens up.”
Are you a food geek? Follow me on Twitter @russ_parsons1
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