Beaton: The ‘artisan salmon’ of Whole Foods
May 28, 2017
"Charlie, they don't want tunas with good taste. They want tunas that taste good." — Charlie the Tuna advertisements from the 1960s to '80s.
I recently visited the local Whole Foods that is 21 miles downvalley. (Aspen itself has banned chain stores because customers like them more than City Council thinks they should.)
I overheard a conversation between a customer (or what they surely call a "client") and a fish monger wearing a purple earring (what they probably call a "pescateur").
Client (looking over a counter of iced salmon): "But are the salmon farmed sustainably?" She asked her question a little too loudly so that other customers could hear it.
Pescateur: "Are you kidding? This is artisan salmon. Our partnering salmon supplier — which operates off the coast of Norway using special deep water salmoniniums — harvests two salmon eggs for each salmon they sell."
"What happens to the eggs?"
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"They're at the other end of the counter."
"OK, I'll take 4 pounds of salmon."
"I'll take 4 pounds of the salmon, please."
"Lady, we don't chop these up. This is Whole Foods and we sell only whole salmon."
"Fine, I'll take two whole salmon." The woman was getting rattled, but was thankful she hadn't asked for hamburger.
"Which ones do you want?"
"Oh my, they all look the same to me." She pointed. "I guess those two."
The pescateur looked horrified. "In your anthropocentric world where you suppose you've purchased social justice and hipness with a hybrid Prius and a COEXIST bumper sticker, which you drove 21 miles to display in our parking lot, I'm sure all salmon look the same to you. But they're not. This is Olga. Her favorite movie is 'The Little Mermaid.' This is Hans. He likes 'Jaws' and he wants to become a pilot."
The woman could feel other customers glaring. And she wondered how he knew about her car.
She fished around for a little cred. "Oh, I love that diversity! But what's the story about the one that's all alone at the end?"
"That's Ralph. He's a rescue salmon. We don't know his story. They just found him swimming out in the ocean. He was floundering. He had no school, or he might have been home-schooled."
"Eww, I don't want him. OK, could I please have Olga and Hans? And a recipe for preparing them with organic herbs from my garden." She was speaking loudly again.
"Listen, lady. Olga and Hans are already well-prepared. They both swam in the best private prep schools. The question is whether you are." He handed her a bound folder. "Here's the adoption application. And we'll need refrigerator specs and two references."
She lost it. "Oh, my gosh! Enough already! These fish are friggin' dead!"
"Don't get crabby. To them, you're the one who is dead. Frankly, you have all the charm of a 3-day-old mackerel." He snatched the application out of her hand.
OK, apart from the first few sentences, this story is made up.
But this part is not. Whole Foods is actually closing some stores. This company that made groceries cool isn't so hot anymore.
Surveys suggest that it's a victim of its own success. People are turned off by its pretentious customers.
Personally, I like Whole Foods. I don't care about the pretentiousness of the customers, even though a Prius with a COEXIST bumper sticker grates on my nerves as much as those of any other red-blooded American. And I don't find their food much different than ordinary grocery store food.
But I like their employees. I'm not wild about the purple earrings, but they seem to love their jobs and want to help customers. I also appreciate that the checkout counters are usually staffed sufficiently.
You wouldn't know it from the employees but John Mackey, the founder and CEO of Whole Foods, is an ex-socialist turned libertarian. He likes Ayn Rand and dislikes unions. I imagine him chuckling about how he daily gooses the pretentious Prius drivers. But maybe not; he's also a vegan.
So he's an interesting character. And so is his company. In the next few years, we'll see whether they were a flash in the pan — an artisan salmon — or a sustainable business.
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