What’s Next After Whole Foods?

Grocery shopping, like laundry, showering, clipping your nails, and calling your mom, is one of those things you have to do constantly, and usually it's a drag. Mainstream grocery stores often seem like enormous oceans of missed opportunity: vast aisles filled with gross, corn-syrup-laden products, produce departments that seem like afterthoughts, sullen employees. I have a love-hate relationship with Whole Foods (see "10 Reasons Why Whole Foods Is Annoying"). But I know why it's a Godsend for many food-lovers: It offers a full spectrum of products a Michael-Pollan-name-dropper type might desire, from organic vegetables and dried beans to luxury nonessentials like barrel-aged beer and fancy cheese. And it does so in a spalike, tastefully designed environment that doesn't make you feel feel as if you're doing a chore.

The success of Whole Foods and similarly Trader Joe's speaks volumes about the demand for alternative grocery shopping experiences from a public that's looking for health, convenience, and a "fun" brand they can identify with. What always surprises me is that there aren't more alternatives out there.

An article by Frank Bruni in yesterday's New York Times profiles a new "temporary" restaurant called What Happens When, where diners set their places from cutlery drawers under each table, and the bar is a mobile cart with only five wines and a handful of spirits. The latest example of the new nontraditional approach to dining out, which includes pop-ups, food carts, and underground sandwich delivery, What Happens When underscores just how radical and entrepreneurial the restaurant industry has become.

So when can we expect to be blown away by similarly cool new grocery concepts?

CNN's Eatocracy recently covered a new website from the Netherlands called Tweetjemee, where ordinary people can sell food they've cooked. They include a picture of the item, the price, and a pickup time, and users can search by type of food or neighborhood. "Sometimes diners are invited into the chef’s house to enjoy the meal in the comfort of their kitchen," writes Eatocracy.

This concept intrigues me: It's reminiscent of RelayRides, the new Google-backed competitor to Zipcar, where ordinary people can put their automobile up for rental and specify when it's available, and the company takes a cut. We're in the middle right now of a boom in a DIY cottage foods industry. Like the ’70s when a massive wave of people were making macramé owl planters and copper-enameled earrings, now people are making jam and Kombucha, and entertaining fantasies or downright trying to make a career out of selling it. Why couldn't a service like Tweetjemee start in the U.S.? Or a bartering-based peer-to-peer concept? In today's crappy economy, I'll trade my growlers of home-brew for your urban chicken eggs, and we'll text each other about the pickup time and place with our Droids.

Another cool idea is Three Stone Hearth in Berkeley, California: a partially volunteer-run community kitchen that prepares a weekly changing menu following the dietary vision of the Weston A. Price Foundation. That means lots of pickled vegetables like sauerkraut, bone-broth-based soups and stews, and yogurt cheeses and eggy pies. You can check out what they have and order what you want online, then either pick it up or have it delivered to your door for an extra fee, if you live in one of a few cities. The foods are packaged in homey Mason jars. A friend of mine who works full time and has a small child says she loves the service, because, rather than feeling like she's buying a bunch of Lean Cuisines, she's getting the type of food she'd make for her family, if she had the time.

There are potential customers for more schemes like this, and there are potential sellers/workers/cooks. So where's the hot grocery action?

Image source: Flickr member ciao_yvon under Creative Commons