Tag Archive: whole foods

  1. Off the Market

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    When I lived in New Haven for a  month after my freshman year, I decided I would live as an adult. That meant no Yale housing, and no meal plan. Despite my covert attempts to cadge pizza from the Morse dining hall during lunch (“I’m just here with some of my classmates”), when I got home, I had to cook for myself.

    I was presented with the insoluble problem that faces many Yalies roughing it in the off-campus universe: Where do I buy my groceries? Although this was before shopping at Gourmet Heaven became an ethical dilemma, I still didn’t think a late-night convenience store suited my alimentary needs. So I opted for a different market that I had heard people talking about: Elm City Market.

    Elm City Market was unexpectedly hippie-dippie, with a bougie streak to boot: rows of raw milk from regional dairies; dispensers full of raw pecans and roasted pecans, walnuts, oatmeal, muesli and grains with other, obscurer names. You had to pay a pretty penny — I once bought a small bag of mini-biscotti for over five dollars — which is why I was surprised to learn that the market’s model was cooperative.

    According to this model, anyone is welcome to become a member after applying and paying a $200 fee. Applicants with demonstrated financial need may also be “eligible to have part of [their] ownership paid by the Membership Fund,” according to the membership application. Perks of membership include discounts, deals, and a small stake in the company. Since its opening in 2011, over 2,200 people have joined Elm City Market as members, which is itself a member of the National Cooperative Grocers’ Association.

    This democratic approach hasn’t stopped students like Emma Soneson ’16 from identifying the store with upscale organic markets. Soneson, who lives off campus, says: “[Elm City Market] is kind of like a mini-Whole Foods, which is good in the sense that it has a lot of organic and fresh produce, but it also comes with similar prices … It’s not really feasible on a student budget.” Several other off-campus students I interviewed shared these sentiments; only two of the dozen students and New Haven residents I spoke with said they shopped primarily or exclusively at Elm City Market.

    Maybe it’s this shortage of consistent customers; maybe it’s the pricey offerings; whatever the reasons, Elm City Market is facing liquidation in the upcoming weeks. The market is looking to switch to an employee-owned model after the cooperative dissolves. Between its uncertain financial future and Gourmet Heaven’s projected closure in 2015, markets are becoming scarce in downtown New Haven.

    * * *

    When I went to Elm City Market this week, it had the signs of a healthy market. Shoppers were milling around — some for the first time, others who had been members from the beginning. Some of the employees said they had just started working there.

    Then I noticed some things I hadn’t noticed when I shopped there in the summer of 2013. At least half of the dispensers full of grains, nuts and other dry goods were empty. An entire Dasani refrigerator was being used to preserve three corsages. The rotisserie chicken heating station was empty — either a sign of popularity or neglect, I wasn’t sure.

    Cordalie Benoit, a Wooster Square resident, is quick to point out other structural flaws of the market: a check-out line that spills into the store’s busier areas; unpriced or double-priced items; understocked staples like bread. So I’m surprised to learn that she’s a member — #359, in fact — and that she has no regrets about joining. Even though she needs to supplement her purchases with trips to other neighborhood markets like Stop and Shop, she considers it a “privilege” to have the market in her community.

    She and five other shoppers cited the mismatch between the market’s prices and its demographic as Elm City Market’s biggest problem. The store sells expensive organic, local and slow food in a poor neighborhood. Ana Keusch ’16 puts it matter-of-factly: “I think the only reason I haven’t gone to [Elm City Market] is I heard it was overpriced.” Keusch opts instead to go by car to Stop and Shop.

    Shari Hoffman, an occasional shopper at Elm City Market and New Haven native, used to do the same thing. She previously had access to a car, which allowed her to go to Stop and Shop and other markets more within her price range. Recently, however, she hasn’t had access to a personal vehicle and depends on New Haven’s public transit. She says she has now resorted to Elm City Market more out of necessity than desire.

    “I’m buying certain things that I really can’t afford,” Hoffman says, “because they’re convenient.” For a person like her, dependent on disability benefits and without reliable access to private transportation, Elm City Market becomes the only viable option.

    The viability is self-evident: the store is near a heavily frequented bus stop on Chapel Street, and the even busier central zone along the New Haven Green. Other than Edge of the Woods and Stop and Shop, there aren’t many comparable alternatives within walking distance downtown.

    In spite of these advantages, Elm City Market has failed to resolve its persistent financial struggles. The co-op defaulted on its $3.6 million loan from Webster Bank in May. Benoit chalks up the market’s financial woes to an identity crisis: “They’re trying to be everything to everybody, and that’s always a recipe for failure.” Hoffman agrees: “They don’t know who they want to be.” She adds, “We can’t afford to shop in a store like this, so I don’t think it’s appropriate that they plop themselves in an area where most people can’t even touch the products because of the prices.”

    The precise future of the market’s structure remains unclear. In an email sent Aug. 23, the Board of Elm City Market notified its members that imminent liquidation (“friendly foreclosure”) was a strong possibility, but that there was an alternative of “restructuring” debt. The National Cooperative Grocers Association would “loan [Elm City Market] an additional $700,000, and a group of member-owners and others [would] put up an additional $300,000.” This $1 million in capital would be used to pay off the market’s immediate creditors. Then, once it got back on its feet, it would have to pay off the NCGA and the secondary creditors.

    But this alternative was not compelling to the immediate creditors, Webster Bank and Multi-Employer Pension Trust (the landlord), who ultimately had control over the market’s future. The plan recommended by the Board depended on the optimistic notion that, after another loan and some assistance from the NCGA, the market would go from being in the red to in the black, despite years of financial insolvency.

    The market’s creditors opted instead for a plan of their own devising, which involved the United States Department of Agriculture. The Elm City Market Board of member-owners was given no advance notice of the plan, which they said had “deeply disappointed” them. In short, the market and its assets will be liquidated under what’s colloquially known as a “friendly foreclosure.” The money recouped from liquidation will be deducted from the $3.6 million loss and apportioned to the creditors; 80 percent of the remaining loss will be paid off by the United States Department of Agriculture at taxpayers’ expense.

    According to the Board’s email, under this plan “the market will then be sold, debt-free and without members, to a private investor, a nonprofit foundation that plans to continue operating it as a grocery store to preserve jobs.” Once this plan was finalized, the Board issued another statement Sept. 11 bemoaning the move: “Member-owners, other investors and creditors,” read the email, “all will lose.” American taxpayers will also lose by this plan, in which whatever of the $3.6 million isn’t recovered will be paid for by the USDA, a federally funded (and therefore tax-dependent) department.

    Jennifer Lerch of the USDA explains that this is no extraordinary occurrence. Lerch, director of business and cooperative programs for Southern New England with World Development (the branch of the USDA that deals with loan guarantees for new businesses and cooperatives) says, “Nothing that’s being done now is unique. It’s all being done in conformity to U.S. standards for a government guarantee.”

    In spite of the Board’s dissatisfaction with the course of action taken, parties on all sides have expressed a shared desire to keep the market open. Nedra Rutherford, a Bridgeport commuter-shopper unaware of the new developments, says she plans on becoming a member in the future. None of the members I spoke to expressed regret at having joined. They all point to the value the market brings to a community that is sorely lacking in supermarkets.

    * * *

    When I was 16, our neighborhood market, Hows, announced that it was closing. Part of me knew the market was simply not doing enough to attract and keep customers. Its prices were middle-range, its produce mediocre, its selection limited. Part of me felt a sick sense of justice knowing that an overpriced establishment wouldn’t be making a sucker out of me anymore. But then I thought of the people who were losing their jobs. I thought of the enchilada sauce we could only get at Hows. I remembered the time we found out Michael Jackson had died and all of us in the checkout lane looked at each other and said, “Can you believe it?” And although I’m not native to downtown New Haven or partial to Elm City Market, I know exactly what Caroline Sydney ’16 (a columnist for the News) means when she says, “It’s nice when you’re going through checkout and you see your professor’s face on the wall, and there’s this maybe real, maybe not real sense of community. “

    Sydney, who lives off campus and generally cooks for herself, prepares farro niçoise while I talk to her — in layman’s terms, a grain-based salad. Although it’s a simple dish, the ingredients have come from all over. The lemons Sydney bought in bulk from Elm City Market; the farro online from nuts.com; the tomatoes from a local farm called Waldenfield; the eggs from the New Haven Farmers’ Market; the canned tuna from New York.

    Rumors have been circulating that Whole Foods has its sights set on New Haven, with plans to move into the construction site on Howe and Chapel Street, next to Miya’s Sushi. Work on the over 6,000-square foot construction site is underway, but the status of the future building is unclear, and it is unknown whether Whole Foods will build there. A sign posted in front of the site has the following suggestive, tantalizing tag line: “Preserving New Haven’s past for a sustainable future.” The job-listing aggregator Simply Hired includes multiple entries under “Whole Foods Market, New Haven” on its website, including cashier, cashier assistant and meat production team member, all of them posted within the past nine days.

    But Public Relations and Public Affairs Officer for Whole Foods in the Northeast region Michael Sinatra denies any immediate plans for Whole Foods to enter the area. “While we are a growing company and are consistently looking at additional opportunities throughout the country,” Sinatra said over email, “there are no plans to open up a store in New Haven at this time.”

    Although she says a nearby Whole Foods would prove convenient, Sydney concedes that it may not be the best thing for New Haven. “I have mixed feelings, [as] with all the upscale chains that are coming to New Haven,” she says. “For me, personally, yeah a Whole Foods would be great.”

    She pauses. “Is it what New Haven needs? I don’t know.”


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    You’ve had a cold for a week. A website has told you that you have a sinus infection. You will not go to a doctor.

    You’ve lost all sense of smell, of taste; you can barely hear — if you lower your head your whole face seems to swell and grow heavy. As you stumble down the hallway, deciding finally to appease the phone that has been ringing all morning, you feel as if you are swimming through sludge. You pick up the handset and offer a greeting. Through the receiver, your mother’s voice informs your hot ear that you sound horrible. You quickly tell her that you’re sick, but that it’s fine, and she recommends Ancient Secrets® Nasal Cleansing Pot, what she calls a Neti pot (“It’s Hindu. Or maybe Zen. Something-or-other, anyway”). She learned about it in this great new yoga class she’s taking at the fitness center, which she is now begging you to try.

    You’ve heard of Neti pots before. Your short-haired high school Spanish teacher from Eureka used to swear by them. For 20 minutes she would try to describe the strange porcelain object in a language that the class did not yet understand before defaulting to English, which she would then use to gush about her strong and handsome Yogacharya (se dice “un hombre fuerte y hermosísimo”) for the remainder of class.

    Mass-marketed Eastern medicine has always struck you as stupid, so you’ve tried to keep your distance. But over the years this distance has rendered it obscure, mystical and, somehow — secretly — right. You hang up the phone, and in the haze of silence that follows you feel that everything, at one time tossed up and confused, is now settling. It is as if all of your restless hatred and sadness and uninformed smirking is sloughing off of you and drifting onto the ground just as

    thin and broken leaves

    wobbling down in autumn breeze

    find home in red dirt!

    Suddenly, you are considering the possibility that throughout your entire life, so thick with trouble and frustration and now with mucus, all you ever needed was an alternative. And here it is. Here is the answer. It is speaking to you, offering you control.

    “And if I am to partake in this journey into the East, into clear sinuses, into wellbeing and wholeness, what better point of entry than the [b] Ancient Secrets® Nasal Cleansing Pot?” you ask yourself. Its small, portable design will make it easy to stash when your friends come to visit, saving you from ridicule. Even if the nosy ones discover it resting among embarrassing creams in the medicine cabinet, the thing so closely resembles a teapot that you’ll be able to explain that no, this is not what it looks like (that is, an ancient artifact of a lost but now reemerging art form, a product of eons of trial and error and mystic revelation, a beautiful ceramic pot complete with an ergonomic handle and a slender proboscis for maximal intra-nasal saline delivery) — no, this is a minimalist, “arty” teapot that you found at a flea market and, gosh, how the heck did it get in there, anyway?

    There is another reason why, as far as spiritual starter-kits go, Ancient Secrets® Nasal Cleansing Pot is probably your best bet: unlike Sundance What’s-Her-Name, the beginner’s yoga instructor over at the fitness center, a Neti pot won’t demand in a cooing voice that you contort your spine and tie up your limbs into unimaginable knots.

    Snot gurgles deep inside your skull. Look: it’s you, clutching your head and pulling your hair, brooding on a black and white screen. The frame is shaking, the shot zooming steadily in, the pressure mounting. Everything is vibrating and painful — hopeless. Suddenly, the camera slows its jiggle, righting itself. You crack a smile. Rich Technicolor floods the screen. A bold catchphrase spirals into view, obscuring your face and most of the picture: Neti to the rescue!


    * * *


    In the parking lot of Whole Foods, second thoughts. Ladies stroll past one by one, leaning into their shopping carts, some glancing at their cell phones, others squinting in the afternoon sun. Most of them are wearing a variation of the same outfit: sneakers, ludicrously tight yoga pants (butt cheeks tensing, relaxing, tensing again), a synthetic shirt, and huge sunglasses apparently meant to eclipse the face. At the other end of the parking lot, the pavement shimmers in the heat. The highway roars.

    Look at these people. Why do this? Who decided? Neti? Lies seem to linger overhead; they thicken the air like crop dust. Think: Hope like this has only ever proven itself to be a fiction. What mystical cure could possibly be found there, in that building, sitting in the company of granola, grass-fed beef, linoleum floors and rich suburbanites? Why not just go to a doctor’s office? The needle smell, the nice, clean carpets, the reassuring diplomas, proudly framed and mounted on the wall — what do you think you’ve been —

    But now you are stepping out of the car and walking across the parking lot. Now the automatic doors are sliding apart, a pimply teenager in a green vest (nametag: Jared) greeting you. Now you are sheepishly but excitedly making your way towards the health section, now inspecting the aisles, now passing the fish-oils and flax seeds, the antioxidant infusions, the aloe drinks, the rows and rows of soy. Now you are numb, struck with awe: The parking lot is worlds away, the asphalt almost inconceivable now that your eyes are filled with waxed tiles and soaring ceilings and endless objects. And here — right here, in aisle three — you are extending your arm and pulling a box off the shelf, relishing its weight as the concept of Neti becomes something tangible, like a lofty wish materializing at the nod of a genie’s head. For a second you imagine that the box is covered in lines of Sanskrit, but soon the label comes into focus — no, not Sanskrit, just a smartly chosen typeface (Papyrus, to be exact). It spells out, for the first time, the savior’s title in full: Ancient Secrets® Nasal Cleansing Pot (Original Ceramic Model For The Cleansing And Moisturizing Of Nasal Passages According To The Traditional Practice Of Neti)!

    You stand in a stupor for a minute or so, staring at the cardboard box that has appeared in your hands. You are paralyzed. Yes, your limbs are giddy with the memory of your dreamlike march through Whole Foods, but the world seems to have slowed down. Something’s happening, everything is rising up into a sneer. Anger and ridicule wash over you. For a moment, you are transported back to the parking lot. You can feel the yuppie women strutting past, unseeing; you can feel the sun making you sweat.

    “Ohhh, Neti pots are great!”

    Not one of the women from the parking lot. Not the short-haired high school Spanish teacher from Eureka, either. No, this one has long hair, brown, not gray, with some strands of gold flickering in the fluorescent light. Pretty. And, Jesus, how long has she been standing there?

    “Sorry if I’m intruding or whatever, but if you’re unsure about trying it out you can take my word for it.” She points at the box in your hand. “I know it seems kind of, I don’t know, perverted to stick a teapot up your nose like that, but it actually feels so good!”

    Is your distress really that obvious? You look at her wide set eyes and wrestle your mouth into a smile. Might as well say something to reassure her, make her think: uncertain? Who, this guy? No, he couldn’t be more sure of himself if his life depended on it.

    “Oh really? Well, my mom told me I should get it for this cold I have, and I mostly just want her to stop nagging me about it. Gotta appease her every once in a while … you know what I mean … I might not even use it, just have to prove to her that I took her advice and bought it.” Throw in a scoff for good measure.


    She’s looping her hair around her finger, her delicate lips parted into a withdrawn smile. You idiot, it’s the look. It’s the look of confusion — confusion with traces of pity and ridicule and fear — that often falls across a woman’s face when you open your mouth. It’s as if you’re speaking in a strange accent that’s hard for her to place. And just look at her; she’s so heartbreakingly pretty, standing there, uncomprehending.

    “Well, feel better! You do sound pretty terrible. Hopefully that thing helps. I think it will; it worked for me!”


    To keep things from getting any worse, you turn and walk back down the aisle. The stupid box clings to your hand, a trophy for your failure.

    But stop for a second, think: Why sweat the little things? Her image lingers at the backs of your eyes, and you feel stupid, but there’s a chance here to get back on track. Her beauty, though painful, is a confirmation. It is. You imagine her cheery face hanging over you, nodding at your every move as if to say:Yes, what you are doing is right.

    And, really, why shouldn’t you take her word for it? She seemed normal enough. If you were to introduce her to your friends at a party, they would probably nudge you in the ribs when she turned her back, say something like “how’d you land that one?” And of course they’d all laugh at that, and you wouldn’t able to come up with a retort, but it doesn’t matter — you see the jealousy in their eyes as they inspect her backside and drink deeply from their cups, all of them wondering about the future, wondering whether you’ll have room for them in it. Look at this: In a miraculous turn of events, you have become the one who tolerates them. They are dispensable, insignificant; the Girl from Whole Foods is the only one who seems real to you anymore. She is the one who loves you for who you are, the one who has nuzzled your shoulder in the empty hours of the morning, the one who has coaxed out your innermost thoughts and treated them tenderly, as if they were her own.

    At the cash register, the conveyor belt whisks Ancient Secrets® Nasal Cleansing Pot over to “Stacy,” who scans it. The beep, high and quick, is like a bell going off. You think, “the Girl from Whole Foods appeared before me like a spirit, recited her truest, most honest testimony, and demonstrated a kindness that I’ve never felt before — a great lotus flower of kindness that is now opening up before me and inviting me into its bloom, taking me into its glowing petals, dousing me with its cosmic nectar (a mild saline solution that, when warmed and deposited into the nostrils by way of a minimally intrusive proboscis, moisturizes and cleanses the nasal passages) and, at last, carrying me across ancestral waters towards a beacon of promise in the East. She has given her blessing unto me, and —”

    You mutely shove a fistful of bills into “Stacy’s” palm. Before she can hand you the change, you’re grabbing Ancient Secrets® Nasal Cleansing Pot and shooting past “Jared,” fighting the urge to clap him on the back and thank him for his service. The sliding doors part, and the parking lot spreads out before you. You inhale deeply. Snot collects at the back of your throat. The cars whip past on the highway. For once, for once, the world is within your grasp.