Kensington’s Whole Foods Market

organic-farmer-farm-produce-harvest-retro-illustration-female-basket-crop-fruits-vegetables-facing-front-fields-31404913When I first started writing this, I was full of enthusiastic zeal for this vast organic superstore. I went on the opening day and was totally taken in by the piles of shiny apples and hoards of helpful staff.  But has it survived the test of time? There had been so much hype that I was pretty sure I’d get sucked in.

Yes, I was mourning the loss of Barkers and the only decent department store for miles, but I soon got over it. Any good marketing ploy, especially one that appeals not only to my greedy side, but also to my ‘green’ side, was bound to be a winner. But I expected to have a poke round, think it was fabulous and then rarely come back, convinced a banana would cost £400. In fact, I loved it.

I wandered around tasting cheese, olives, strawberries and dim sum, bought two Yorkshire fishcakes to have for supper and left ready to take on the cynics with full force; ready to defend this gastronomic haven of eco-produce. Yes, it’s undeniably American – mainly in the sheer size of the place (with three floors and 80,000 square feet, it is VAST), but yet somehow it didn’t seem overbearing; it doesn’t offer you so much choice you start to feel dizzy and have to sit down like you do in the big Topshop in Oxford Circus.

The millions of minions (decked out in organic cotton shirts and recycled polyester aprons, obviously) running around the place were plastered with smiles and practically said ‘Have a nice day’, but they know their stuff – they’ve been well-trained and are well-informed, and the service is excellent – or so I thought.

My second trip, this time for lunch with a friend, was a damp squib and left me feeling just cynical as, if not more than, the rest.  Although lunch was tasty, it was rather uncomfortable.  The second visit to the food halls was disappointing. Spoilt for choice on the third floor, the sort of restaurant department, we opted for Lebanese mezze. For about a fiver, I had a plate of moutabal, a tomato-y stew and a barbecue salad, served with pitta, and it was delicious. You can also have Spanish tapas, something from the salad bar, a pizza, a vegan curry or sushi and dim sum. For pudding, there are crepes, brownies, muffins and homemade ice cream, as well as smoothies and coffee.

But though the food was good, the canteen style restaurant, with school tables and garishly green plastic trays is a bit of a turn-off. The only place you can sit and actually be waited on is the sushi bar, and the queue for that is usually around fifteen to twenty minutes at lunchtime. Otherwise it’s communal seating in the refectory – not exactly chic and I can’t believe it will wash with Kensington’s ladies that lunch. Yes, there are some things you can’t fault. As you walk into the ‘Provision Hall’ (very Fortnum and Mason), you are confronted by the bakery department, which offers every type of bread imaginable, all baked on site throughout the day. There are also tables groaning with goodies like flapjacks, fudge brownies, cakes, cupcakes, croissants, chocolate croissants, not to mention a whole counter of proper big cakes for birthdays, parties or just a huge afternoon treat. Having been bombarded with cheese and resisted buying the entire lot (I limited myself to some punchy Montgomery cheddar for my cheese-worshipping boyfriend) I went downstairs to the ‘Market Hall’ and here I was truly lost. As if the ‘muesli bar’ wasn’t enough, where you can make up your own with lots of raisins and nuts while leaving out the coconut bits that look and taste like toenails, I arrived at the ‘peanut butter station’. What could be better than that? Containers of nuts, lined up in front of you. Press a button, and hey presto: peanut butter, cashew butter, almond butter, macademia butter. Amazing. But the fish and meat counters that I had been so enamoured with on my first visit had somehow lost their sparkle. The sausages looked a bit dry and the nothing looked as fresh as it had on the gala opening. Although still teeming with people, there were far FAR fewer members of staff and those that were there suddenly seemed completely clueless. Having been so taken in by the lads in the cheese room who really knew their cheddar from their Gruyere, I was faced with a couple of morons who had literally no idea what they were selling. I left thinking the whole thing had been a con – a clever marketing ploy to convince us this store was brilliant and different. Now, I’m really not so sure. It has been described as the “starbuck-sification” of the supermarket. It is – you’ll either loathe it on principle or decide you can’t live without it, the ultimate ‘one stop shop’.

To me it seems overpriced and overdone; too slick, too sterile, too smug. And thank God – because where would the little local butcher be without people like me?

Lucinda Baring

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