Whole lotta love for Whole Foods in Basalt | AspenTimes.com

Whole lotta love for Whole Foods in Basalt

Lynn Goldsmith Special to The Aspen Times

BASALT – Roaring Fork Valley residents showed their enthusiasm for Whole Foods Market on Wednesday when wave after wave of shoppers rolled through the store starting at 10 a.m. and easing only slightly by midafternoon.

The long-awaited natural and organic grocer opened at Willits Town Center in Basalt with a bread-breaking ceremony that replaced the traditional ribbon cutting. While the groundbreaking ceremony was well attended – with 250 or so gawkers – droves of shoppers came after the doors opened. The wait in checkout lanes was at 15 minutes by 11 a.m., but shoppers maintained a festive mood.

“It feels vibrant and alive and is obviously teeming with people today,” midvalley resident Jennifer Lane said about the new store. “Nobody minds waiting. Everybody’s excited. I’m thrilled.”

An informal survey of a handful of shoppers indicated they liked what they saw and will come back for more – often.

Patty Phelan, of Carbondale, was enthused enough to attend a breakfast outside the store that raised funds for the Buddy Program. She had to leave for work in Aspen prior to the opening, but she vowed she will be one of the best customers at the new grocery store.

Phelan said she already shops at Whole Foods in Superior when she visits friends. She takes a huge cooler and packs it full.

“I’ve been doing that for three years, once a month,” she said.

Now she will visit Whole Foods Roaring Fork frequently to the exclusion of other grocers. She touted the chicken, fish, meat and vegetables at Whole Foods.

“This is my everyday store,” she said.

Chris Butler, of Carbondale, was one of the first customers to check out of the new store. He grabbed juice and a healthy snack on his way to work in Aspen.

“I’m super excited. I never thought we’d see the day,” Butler said.

Whole Foods reached an agreement in 2005 to open at Willits Town Center, said the grocer’s regional president, Will Paradise, in a short presentation at the grand opening. He said his daughter, who was standing next to him on the flatbed of an old pickup while he addressed the crowd, was then a 1-year-old. Now she is 8.

“I’m fully aware how long this has taken,” Paradise quipped.

Financial difficulties caused by the recession sank the efforts of a previous owner of the Willits Town Center development from building the grocery store. Mariner Real Estate Management, of Kansas City, acquired the property and resurrected a deal with the grocery store. The long history, as dramatic as a soap opera, is now academic.

“Today the dream becomes a reality for us,” Paradise said.

The town of Basalt anticipates a bump in sales tax revenues from the opening of the 26,000-square-foot grocery store. It will “cannibalize” some existing sales of City Market and Clark’s Market, said Town Manager Bill Kane. Nevertheless, the town anticipates a net increase of $300,000 to $400,000 annually in sales tax revenues from Whole Foods Market, he said.

Whole Foods also has created a total of 101 jobs at the grocery store thus far. Staffing could increase based on demand. Store team leader Bree Lindsey said 75 positions were filled by local residents and 26 from transfers from other stores in the company.

Whole Foods appears to have the ability to draw shoppers who otherwise might not buy groceries in Basalt. Claudia Balderston, a second-home owner from Philadelphia who said her family spends eight to 10 weeks per year in Snowmass Village, was among the first shoppers.

“I love my Whole Foods (in Philadelphia),” she said. “I’m there almost every day.”

She said she followed the goods news and bad news over the years of the plight of the grocer at Willits Town Center.

“I’ve been very excited and eagerly anticipating this moment,” Balderston said. “I’m real thrilled because the only thing that was missing from the valley was Whole Foods as far as I was concerned.”

Healthy food is important to her and her family. She does most of her shopping at Whole Foods, along with farmers markets and community-supported-agriculture buying programs. She feels confident in the high quality of food from Whole Foods.

“My favorite thing is when they have a special, it’s really special,” Balderston said. “They’re not trying to unload the stuff they’re trying to get rid of. They see something wonderful, they buy it all up, and they pass on the savings.”

Whole Foods also will be in the competition for midvalley residents’ regular expenditures on groceries. Jacy Allen, of Willits, checked out the store with her two young children and said she is eager to compare prices with City Market, the larger grocery store less than one mile away. That research will help her determine where to spend her dollars, to some extent, but Allen also credited Whole Foods for its variety of products, quality, personal attention to detail and customer service.

“I will still probably shop at both for different things,” Allen said. “I would say the majority of my time will probably be spent here (at Whole Foods).”

Whole Foods Market faces a widespread reputation for being expensive.

“They are called ‘Whole Paycheck’ for a reason,” Butler, the early shopper, said.

Company officials counter that their 365 in-house, private label of products offers excellent quality at a price competitive with any grocer. Butler said he will check out that private-label line of products. Allen said she will compare 365 products with the generic brands at City Market. If they are similar, she will choose Whole Foods, she said.

Price wasn’t a deterrent to Dr. Gerald Alpern, of Carbondale, who has shopped at Whole Foods in Denver and Boulder.

“I’ve been waiting for this place to open forever,” he said.

As a vegan, he said he appreciates the chance to buy prepared meals that are clearly marked vegan so he doesn’t have to “figure it out” from the list of ingredients. Alpern said if he proselytizes for anything, it’s for Americans to follow a healthier diet. Whole Foods can help with that goal, he said.

“It’s a little more expensive, but that’s not as important as the nutritional value,” Alpern said.

Several shoppers interviewed said they appreciate that Whole Foods carries products supplied by local vendors and that the company has so many programs that contribute to local nonprofit organizations.

The success of the store’s grand opening came as little surprise, and no conclusions can be drawn from one day. Nevertheless, City Market’s parking lot was less than half full at 11:15 a.m., a time when it would typically be busier.

“It’s pretty quiet,” said City Market shopper Jane Mitchell, of Brush Creek, as she departed the store. She was surprised to be able to park so close.

Mitchell said she would have checked out Whole Foods on Wednesday except she had to get a specific cleaning product for her son, who lives in Shanghai, China. She is preparing to visit him and he cannot get that particular product in China, she said. City Market carries it.

“I’m really looking forward to shopping there,” Mitchell said in reference to Whole Foods.

She is eager to compare the 365 product line with prices at other grocery stores.

“Certainly price is an issue,” said Mitchell, who said she will likely shop at both stores.

That was the same sentiment of Connie Orcutt, of Basalt, who was shopping at City Market on Wednesday morning. She said she will support the local vendors whose products are sold at Whole Foods.

“I will keep it as local as possible,” she said.

Orcutt will continue to shop at City Market for such staples as milk, flour and sugar.

The competition already has forced changes at City Market.

“Totally. No one can say otherwise,” Orcutt said.

City Market is now better stocked and has made improvements to its decor.

Consumers are already benefiting from the competition.

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