Inside the Bread: Whole Foods to Open New Location in Wellesley

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Whole Foods Market is set to open its new location in Wellesley on Monday - just one day after closing their 5,900 square foot location at 278 Washington St that's been open since 1980. The new store will offer 26,000 square feet of grocery goodness and perhaps more importantly, over 200 parking spaces.

After touring the new location as finishing touches were being applied this week I have a feeling Whole Foods loyalists will be pleased with the new location. And the store will likely attract shoppers who previously shopped primarily at conventional grocery stores. More on this in a moment, but first a little background about Whole Foods.

Bread & Circus

To understand Whole Foods' presence in the region we need to understand the history of the Bread & Circus chain they acquired in 1992. Whole Foods has grown through a combination of acquisition and organic growth - no pun intended - and Bread & Circus was one of their earliest purchases. Although the brand was retired long ago, stores in the region still pay homage to their Bread & Circus heritage. One of the first things I spotted in the new store was this stencil above the produce area:

The first Bread & Circus opened in Brookline in 1975. The Wellesley location opened in 1980 and over the years a total of six Bread & Circus stores operated in the region. They were somewhat similar to green line T stations in that they were situated in little pockets in neighborhoods as friendly little markets.


CEO: John Mackey

To understand Whole Foods you have to understand John Mackey. To understand Mackey you need to read two articles:
From around 2000 to 2005 I was a Whole Foods shareholder. I liked to invest in companies I was impressed with and each time I visited a Whole Foods location I saw long checkout lines and outstanding overall execution. Kind of like Chipotle these days.

Yahoo! Finance message boards were big at that time and I remember being impressed with the postings of  one the forum's consistent contributors, "rahodeb". Rahodeb would bust out compound annual growth rate statistics (CAGR) and familiarity with Whole Foods expansion plans with incredible clarity and accuracy. Here's an example of a typical posting - someone should really compile these into a book. When someone would question whether Wal-Mart's expansion into organics would threaten Whole Foods, Rahodeb would fire back that it was instead Wal-Mart that should be concerned about Whole Foods. Rahodeb would spar just enough with "liberfar" and "hog152" to make you think they were a regular message board nut job meanwhile planting seeds of doubt if you should be so foolish as to short Whole Foods stock.

It turned out Rahodeb was none other than Whole Foods CEO John Mackey. Rahodeb was an anagram for his wife Deborah. Looking back I'm glad Mackey's identity was revealed. I'd developed an inferiority complex over my inability to delve into the details of a company the way Rahodeb did and it actually made me feel better when I learned it was the CEO posting anonymously.

Still a Good Investment?


The chart above shows the performance of Whole Foods Market stock (WFM) over the past 20 years. Their largest acquisition - of Wild Oats in 2007 - came right before a precipitous dip 2009. But the stock has bounced back remarkably well.

Is it a good time to buy Whole Foods stock? I think it depends on their ability to continue growing - both in terms of same store sales and in terms of new locations. When viewed through this lens it becomes clear why they'd move to this new, larger location. How could they possibly eek any more dollars out of the old location? The place was bursting at the seams and had to be constantly restocked.

Competition

When Wellesley-based Roche Bros moved to its snazzy new location across Linden Street, it demonstrated that a modern supermarket could indeed be shoehorned into landlocked Wellesley. I doubt Roche Bros had much direct impact on Whole Foods, but the disparity in spaciousness between the two stores become glaringly obvious. One would have to think Whole Foods real estate management had this in mind when the opportunity to move into the site formerly inhabited by Star Market presented itself.

Star Market's departure was mostly unlamented (the situation with Tian Fu kicked up far more controversy) and by displacing another store there is one less grocery store in town. But I've always felt like Whole Foods main national competitor is Trader Joe's. With locations in Needham and Framingham Trader Joe's would make a lot of people happy by opening in the space Whole Foods will vacate. I've heard rumblings it may be just as likely to become a Panera Bread.

Perhaps the real competitor hasn't arrived yet. Rochester New York-based Wegman's regularly appears near the top of Fortune's Best Places to Work list and is planning to open in Northborough, MA in October with rumors of additional stores in Westwood and Burlington over the next couple years.

I've always felt Whole Foods was uniquely positioned. Yes they have a lot of organic and natural foods but they sell food that's flat out delicious while maintaining standards I haven't seen other grocery stores come near matching. They've always said "It's about Whole Foods, not Holy Foods" (link).

Some might say it's more like "Whole Paycheck" but in my experience if you like the product assortment at Whole Foods their prices are as good or better than other stores.

New Wellesley Store Photo Tour

The main store entrance places you squarely in front of the produce section. It was 5 days before store opening so perishable items hadn't been stocked yet:

Just behind the produce is the seafood section - soon to be stocked with fresh catches from Pigeon Cove.

Behind Seafood is the Butcher Shop. I learned that the unique signage you see in Whole Foods locations are custom made for each location.

The location mixes rough-sawn signage with polished concrete floors. Very cool.

Dry aged steaks make their first appearance at a Whole Foods in Wellesley.

The cheese section is large as a percentage of the square footage of the store. It offers a combination of pre-packaged and hand-cut gourmet cheeses in an alcove similar to one at their Dedham location.

Baked breads are available as well as fresh-made pizzas available by the slice or whole pie to take out.

Coffee - just one part of one tiny aisle in the old location - finally gets respectable treatment:

A special feature near the adjacent little league fields is a take-out counter offering refreshments, gelato and coffee. Taking advantage of the store's adjacent to the ballfield location. Nice.

Here's what the take-out counter will look like from the outside:

Next to the take-out counter is a community room where cooking demonstrations will take place:


Whole Foods are starting to become more like restaurants than grocery stores. The prepared foods section is massive as a percentage of the store. I'm particularly looking forward to the burritos made to order...and the free Wi-Fi.

The salad bar/hot foods section looks to be as large as those found in larger Whole Foods locations.

Will The Old Location be Missed?

I have a feeling we'll look back on the old location much like we do the Bread & Circus brand: With nostalgia. But overall we'll be pleased with the changes. It was sometimes nice to be able to buzz through the tiny store and pick up things in a hurry. But when the store was crowded it was nearly impossible to navigate. Parking was challenging. Feast your eyes on all this beautiful free parking:


Although the new location isn't huge (26,000 square feet compared to around 60,000 at their Dedham location) the aisles are relatively wide. Kiddie carts are set to be available - another Wellesley Whole Foods first:


A small kids play area is near the registers and, I presume, where some tables are soon going to be for shoppers to eat prepared foods.


Conclusion

The opening of the Wellesley Whole Foods Market has been highly anticipated. I think people are really going to like it. If you haven't shopped at Whole Foods in the past I'd encourage you to give it a try. As I toured the store I got the sense I'll enjoy shopping here with my family for years to come. It's a nice space they've created and I'm looking forward to seeing the store with its shelves fully stocked and staffed.

The store is offering a sneak preview this Friday, August 19th, 2011 from 8 am to 6 pm. Click here for more information.

They're also holding a "bread breaking" ceremony at 7:30 am right before their 8:00 am grand opening on Monday August 22nd, 2011. The first 500 shoppers get a reusable Whole Foods shopping bag. More info on their website.

Wellesley doesn't allow wine to be sold at retail. Even if the town did allow it, the state currently allows a maximum three liquor licenses per retailer. Check here for a list of grocery stores in MA that do sell wine. 

Check 'em Out:
Whole Foods Market Wellesley
442 Washington Street
Wellesley, MA
Hours: 7 am - 10 pm daily (except holidays)
@wfmwellesley
On Facebook

Further Reading from Casa Dwyer:
A Fresh Look at Wellesley's Whole Foods Market

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