Union Square's Whole Foods Megastore Opened to Mixed Reviews

By JELISAVETA *********
Published: Hunter's the Word (2005)

It is a beautiful Saturday afternoon and the north side of Union Square is crowded with people browsing organic products on the green market. The smell of fresh apples, home made breads, pies and a variety of cheeses fills the air at New York City's largest greenmarket in Union Square.

Since its founding in 1976 by Barry Benepe, the market has offered the enjoyment of outdoor shopping. Sprawling across the northwest side of the square, it attracts shoppers from all over the city eager to buy its organic foods from local farms.

Ironically, the farmers' success has attracted a major competitor, one with such deep pockets that critics fear it could drive the greenmarket out of business. After over a year of construction, the nation's leading grocery chain, Whole Foods, opened a gigantic store March 14 on the south side of Union Square.

But the Union Square's Business Improvement District insists that the Whole Foods store is intended to complement rather than replace the greenmarket, even though it offers a wider variety of products. "It is BID's goal to create a mental link between food and Union Square," said Henry Choi, BID's director of public affairs. "Having Whole Foods plus the greenmarket will benefit both, making the area even more of a food Mecca and destination."

Choi and Whole Foods spokeswoman Ashley Boynton said they planned to use the greenmarket farmers to supply some of the store's produce. If so, the supermarket chain could actually help boost the farmers' incomes, according to market spokeswoman Gabrielle Langholtz. "The greenmarket can serve only specific size farmers and with Whole Foods, more farms can stay in business," she said.

At the 7 p.m. grand opening of Whole Foods in March, the sounds of live classical music spread throughout the first floor as guests sampled crab cakes, fresh seafood salad and pastries while sipping champagne. Wall-length glass windows allowed them to view the colors of the Empire State Building as patrons climbed to the second floor to listen to live jazz.

It was a dramatic contrast with the greenmarket's wooden booths and boxes set up on concrete earlier in the day. Yet, said Ashley Boynton, a Whole Foods associate who was dressed for the occasion in a little black dress and holding a champagne glass, "We are not here to take greenmarket's business. We support them. The first five percent of our profit is going to the greenmarket."

Such largesse was news to the greenmarket merchants. Many said the next day that they had not even been informed of the Whole Foods opening the preceding night. One at Coach Farm, who was busy cutting the samples of fresh goat cheese, was surprised but unworried by the news. "This is the most organic you can get," he predicted with confidence, while inviting customers to taste the products. "Nothing can affect our business."

Zeb Millet of Hawthorne Valley Farm echoed that confidence. "People like the idea of outdoor shopping, especially during nice weather and no store can compete with that," Millet said as he sold farm-fresh green vegetables, homemade breads and cheeses. "Whole Foods might be a good supplement for something we don't have, but people will still enjoy to shop here because our food is fresher."

Copyedited by Meredith D.