In mid-September at the annual Groceryshop convention in Las Vegas, Whole Foods’ new CEO, Jason Buechel, highlighted a Manhattan Whole Foods Market that encompasses the elevated in-person shopping experience the grocer is focusing on as it looks ahead.
“I consider it to be sort of an oasis within Manhattan,” he said during a keynote speech at the conference, noting that the company is focused on bringing “the theater of retail” back to its stores nationwide nearly three years after the pandemic hit.
That store, located alongside New York City’s High Line elevated walkway at 450 W. 33rd St., caters to the bustle of New York City life through its amenities and dining experiences, from designated grab-and-go prepared foods sections to full-service bars to seating areas with direct access to the High Line.
The High Line location opened in July 2020, at a time when in-person shopping wasn’t a priority for many customers. But at 60,245 square feet situated next to a modern New York City landmark, the store at 450 W. 33rd St. now embraces its identity as a retail destination.
Beyond its usual product staples, the store includes an additional 500 products from 200 local suppliers.
“We hand-selected every table, every case, every paint color. Everything was designed very thoughtfully, and very strategically so that it would fit beautifully into the Hudson Yard community right on the High Line,” Nicole Wescoe, the company’s Northeast regional president, said in an interview.
For your convenience
Upon entering through 33rd St., customers walk directly into a convenience market spanning the entire first level, Wescoe said. This section offers a wide range of prepared foods and is targeted at shoppers who don’t have time to fully venture through the upstairs store — like busy city workers on lunch.
On that ground level, customers can find a full-service bar offering matcha lattes and other matcha-infused goods from Matchaful.
Matchaful is one of three vendors and supplier partners — or “Friends of Whole Foods Market,” as the company calls them — that have retail space inside the store. The other “friends” are Café Grumpy and Jajaja, a vegan Mexican street food vendor, and are located on the second floor, where the main destination-fueled elements of this store are located.
Whereas the store’s first floor is focused on convenience and quick shopping journeys, the second floor aims to foster community gatherings, said Wescoe.
Quality and quantity
The second floor is decked out with a meat cutting room, cheese department, cocktail bar, coffee bar and five individual food bars.
West Side Corner serves local beers, wine by the glass and specialty cocktails and also works with the store’s expansive cheese department to curate Charcuterie boards for customers to enjoy along with their drinks.
That cheese department, referred to as the specialty department, according to Wescoe, is designed to make shoppers feel like they entered small local cheese shop.
To further enhance the customer experience, this section is overseen by Joe Laird, a Whole Foods employee and American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional. His role is to direct shoppers to the best local cheeses, arrange samples and give customers insight into what they are buying, Wescoe said.
Another store feature meant to educate and display — quite literally — what Whole Foods offers is the meat cutting room.
“There’s a butcher working in the [meat cutting] room, and there's a window that the customer can literally lean in and say, ‘You know, I'm thinking about having a roast tonight, how thick do I need it?’” Wecoe said.
The prepared foods section encompasses a majority of the market space and includes vendors such as Black Top Stir Fry, a customizable stir-fry station and arguably the most frequented by customers, according to Wescoe, as well as Jajaja. Wescoe also listed off vendor stations where customers can order and enjoy sushi and made-to-order sandwiches, as well as select foods from a salad and hot bar.
A chef’s case serving home-cooked dinners such as salmon and chicken breast can also be found among the vendor stations. Everything prepared there is run by Manhattan Wets Whole Foods’ own “chef de partie” Bernadette Davis. Davis’ role is to oversee this chef’s case, as well as the rest of the prepared foods section, to ensure everything is prepared with the highest quality and upholds the company’s standards, Wescoe said.
Each section of the store has seating areas, some of which have views or even direct access to the High Line, while other elements pay homage to the historic Hudson Yard neighborhood.
One way the Manhattan West Whole Foods encompasses the New York City neighborhood is through a film reel that plays behind West Side Corner, the store’s craft cocktail bar, showing old footage of the area where the store is located.
“It’s [garnered] a lot of feedback from the customers because when they see it, especially the folks that have a connection to the area, it reminds them of what it used to be,” Wescoe said.
In his keynote, Buechel said Whole Foods wants to bring more of these sorts of interactive dining and shopping experiences to its stores. Wescoe said the company is implementing some of these theater elements in other stores — however, there are no new stores in the works to rival what the Manhattan location has to offer simply because no new location can match its high foot-traffic volume and size, she said.
The way the Manhattan West Whole Foods is able to encapsulate the energy of its teeming New York neighborhood is, according to Wescoe, key to what makes it resonate with shoppers.