You Are Where You Eat

What your choice of grocery stores says about who you are

Twin Cities residents have a cornucopia of grocery shopping options. There's SuperTarget for the suburban three-car family; Whole Foods for elite urbanistas; Byerly's for wealthy gray-hairs; Lunds for urban singles; Rainbow and Cub for the minivan-and-lunchbox set; Kowalski's for people who mix and match all of the above; and SuperValu for those unwashed enough to care about price.

But it's no longer sufficient to just eat your vegetables; now they have to be organic. Not Wal-Mart organic, either. Real organic, grown by hippies who have thought deeply about the relationships of the Hopi to a particular strain of corn. And delivered to market in a way that consumed no fossil fuels and created no toxic byproducts.

The weekly shopping run has become inextricably bound up with the modern shopper's identity. The choice is about money, certainly, but it's also about tribe. The store tells you who you are—and just as important—who you are not.

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When Don Byerly opened his fifth store in 1980, people treated it like a curio, going there to gawk, not to buy. The Midwest was still the land of cube steaks and mashed potatoes (with cream and without peels), and the economy was decidedly lackluster. But while every other supermarket of the era leaned heavily on price, the St. Louis Park store was a study in opulence.

From the entry, shoppers gazed at an enormous chandelier dangling over rows upon rows of freezers. The aisles were carpeted so that footfalls made but a whisper. In an oceanic tank, huge lobsters clambered over one another. There was a gift shop selling crystal decanters, a sit-down restaurant, and an adjoining wine shop. At the cash registers, clerks unloaded customers' carts, then the bags were whisked away via an underground conveyor belt. Patrons drove into a bay on the north side of the store where a porter loaded the groceries into the car.

Don Byerly's timing and instincts were uncanny; the grocery industry was on the cusp of a revolution. The supermarket as institution was then 50 years old. Gone were the neighborhood grocer, the butcher, and the milkman. In their place were supermarket chains, differentiated not by geography but by demographic.

If it's hard to remember the days when coffee came only in cans, consider that Byerly's much-touted chandelier hung over tidy cartons of Häagen-Dazs, then a novelty. The first of the so-called "super-premium" ice creams to be marketed nationwide, Häagen-Dazs had just arrived in Minnesota, where the local population was eager to believe it was imported from Scandinavia, as the packaging implied, rather than being made by a Polish man in New Jersey.

The famous chandeliers were recently replaced. The new ones are round, shallow bowls of imitation alabaster. What was once elegant has become excessive. The cheese display would fill a two-car garage. There are tubes of fresh lemongrass from Australia minced into a paste. In the glass fishmonger's case are four kinds of crab, eight kinds of shrimp, and a kaleidoscopic assortment of finfish. The cooking classes haven't completely disappeared, but now they are taught by "FoodE experts"—a fancy name for the managers of various departments. For $10, student shoppers learn about locally made sheep cheese and the merits of bison steak.

"With tangible luxuries no longer atop the pyramid, intangibles like service and experiences now dominate," the Food Marketing Institute noted in a recent report on industry trends. "The mainstreaming of affluence means big opportunities ahead."

Twelve hundred miles south, the same economic forces propelled a man named John Mackay and some friends to start the Austin, Texas, food co-op that would eventually spawn the Whole Foods chain.

Mackay didn't make it long as a hippie, however, quickly abandoning the communitarian ethos in favor of a New Age blend of libertarianism and capitalism. Mackay's blog gives props to Adam Smith, Ayn Rand, and Milton Friedman for helping him see the light. And see it he did: Whole Foods' revenues grew 19 percent in fiscal year 2006, to $5.6 billion.

Stepping into a Whole Foods feels like entering a temple of sumptuous purity. Huge signs explain the company's commitment not to sell foods containing artificial preservatives, colors, flavors, sweeteners, and hydrogenated fats. Other advertisements offer mini-profiles of the artisans who grew the mushrooms or cultured the cheese. Customers are invited to sample imported, exotic salts.

Whole Foods controls its image by controlling its inventory. It's as if one dented orange box of Gain laundry detergent would cause the entire artifice to topple. Instead of Pillsbury and Minute Maid, the lower-end items on the shelves are econo brands, known in the trade as "private labels." Whole Foods' "Whole Paycheck" nickname notwithstanding, these are reasonably priced and targeted at the aspirational segment of the middle class.

But as it turns out, the signs in Whole Foods don't tell the whole story. Many of the organic products on the store's blond wooden shelves are in fact produced by big agribusiness.

In his book The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, Michael Pollan traced the sources of four very different meals. One, consumed in a car with his son, was from McDonald's. Another consisted of a chicken he'd seen butchered by the small farmer who raised it, and another of a roast cut from a boar Pollan himself had shot.

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