How to Buy from Whole Foods Without Spending Your Whole Paycheck

Foodies in Hawaii have been abuzz about the September opening of a Whole Foods store at the Kahala Mall - the first of these stores in the Hawaiian Islands. Whole Foods isn't exactly known for being a reasonably-priced, value-driven grocery store. In fact, the nickname for this corporate-owned natural foods store is, as I'm sure many of you who have Whole Foods in your area already refer to it by (at least we used to in Monterey, CA), "Whole Paycheck." The nickname is not without substantiation, either. You can easily walk into Whole Foods and spend a pretty penny for a very small bag of groceries.

In Hawaii, where food is already at premium prices no matter where you shop, I was curious to see how Whole Foods would hold up against the hype, and if it would be worth the 30-40 minute drive across the island to shop there, since I live on the other side. Luckily, I have a partner in food crime, so to speak, and received an email shortly after the store opened from my friend Deb at Kahakai Kitchen to attend a "Value's Tour" at Whole Foods - finding healthy food and doing high quality shopping at Whole Foods on a tight budget. Needless to say, I was game. While we attended this tour some time ago, and I am just now [finishing] writing it up, with the economy on a downturn, I thought the information we obtained during the tour is even more relevant now, so I'd like to share. They now run these tours weekly on Saturday mornings at 11AM.

We arrived to a fully-booked tour at 11AM, given by the very pleasant marketing supervisor, Elyse. She started off by explaining to the group (I think Deb and I may have been the youngest in attendance...and neither one of us is exactly a spring chicken either) why Whole Foods is different from other grocery stores - and I learned a few things about Whole Foods that I didn't know before this. For instance, they only feature foods that are free of artificial preservatives, colors, flavors, sweeteners, and hydrogenated fats - foods they consider "pure." I was skeptical about this claim, having just finished Michael Pollan's book, The Omnivore's Dilemma (yes, I know I am the only one out there that hadn't read it yet), but every processed product I picked up off the shelves didn't seem to have any strange ingredients that I couldn't name or a "red #5" on the label.

The store also had a very large selection of organic, gluten-free and local foods. Every organic item is 3rd party certified and no herbicides or pesticides can be used (maybe obvious, but now I've been hearing about the "natural" pesticides that organic companies can use like Rotenone - read the second sentance in that link if you dare...). Most of the fish are also certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, and many come from our local fishery fleet in Honolulu. They have a large selection of gluten-free foods too - and all of them are prominantly marked and many are segregated into their own areas to help with ease in finding what you need. The local foods are what really got me though (what can I say? I'm a locavore at heart!), because it was by far the largest selection of local products I have seen here in a single place, and they are all prominently displayed and easy to find. There are little tags everywhere sticking out from the shelves identifying local products and as soon as you walk in the door, there is a huge case of all locally grown produce (the picture above this is the other half of the case):
Yes, that is asparagus on the top shelf in the picture (from Waimea) and Kahuku sweet corn in the middle, both from Oahu. Apparently, asparagus grows year round here and believe it or not it's actually good year round here too (I know, go ahead, hate me all you want to - and then come and visit!). The produce prices are surprisingly reasonable, for some things. For instance, back in September, locally grown organic mangoes top out at $3.99/lb (not bad for here). A little (#1 recyclable, I might add) plastic box of Ho Farms family tomatoes (those cute ones you saw in this salad) are $4.99 (Foodland has them for $3.99 on sale usually, but 4.99 regularly priced). Locally grown papayas were going for $1.99/lb, and organic bell peppers were running for 3.99/lb (el cheapo!).

Many other products are priced similarly to Safeway or Foodland here or PC Market in Eugene - so basically, they seem competitive. Watch out for the prices on certain items though, dragon fruit, which I just bought at Foodland a few days ago for $4.99 was a steep $9.99 at WF. Unfortunately, since September, prices have risen a bit...while not completely outrageous, many things are a dollar or more expensive now than when I was first there. I'm not sure when they did as I only make it there probably once a month these days because I don't go into Honolulu that often - or if it's only a seasonal jump in price, but that remains to be seen.

One thing going for WF is that they definitely know how to make food pretty and it does help sell their products no matter how much it costs. Check out the coffee selection...feel like you're at some kind of Colombian farmer's market (or, perhaps, Hawaii since we do produce our own coffee here)? And not that you can read it, but their in-house coffee is locally grown - complete with a big sign to tell you exactly which island it came from. You have to admit, that's pretty cool.

And if the coffee station doesn't sell you, the fish case will (check out that moonfish/opah in the top picture!). All the fish had pretty eyes and pretty scales (yay - fresher!) and we even learned that you can pick out your fish, decide how you'd like to cook it that night, go off to do your grocery shopping - and heck, while you're busy picking out your Veggie Booty, they'll even cook it for you - free of charge! They smoke meats and fish in-house and don't even get me started on the glorious cheese and charcuterie sections and the enormous (and quite tasty) deli area. The meats, however, are not local, which I happen to find a good thing...our one local grass-fed beef supplier, North Shore Cattle Company, can barely keep up with the farmer's market...but when I asked, the guy behind the counter told me that WF is attempting to work with producers on Molokai and the Big Island to get some local meat later on.
Okay, so enough already about what it looks like, how can you save money?? Elyse gave us 7 ways to save and I'm passing them on to you:

  1. Shop the Sales: Like most grocery stores, every other week WF begins a new sale on certain items in the store. The sale items are identified by the bright red "SALE" tags sticking out from the shelves - just like the green, local tags. You can simply browse down the aisles, looking for red tags and buy up what you can. But then you've got to be able to cook with whatever you can get on sale...we're used to using this strategy here because we practically only buy what's on sale anyway!
  2. Search for Values: WF has another way of showing you how to save money by marking products that are already good values even without a sale price attached to it. For these items, WF is passing along to the consumer savings they've gotten from the producer of the item through partnership or by buying in bulk. These are labeled by another green sign (this one is dark green - the local foods tags are light green) that says "Best Buy!" or "Value!"
  3. Buy 365 (WF Brand) Items: Similar to Trader Joes (Oh TJs - how I miss you!), WF arranges with a specific producer to make a product that is specifically for them at a set, nearly unbeatable price and which they can put under their own label. These are often the cheapest brand in the store and the producer has to follow all the other WF requirements of good, clean, pure food so you're still getting a high quality product, even if you don't know the name of who actually produced it (or so they say).
  4. Bring in your Manufacturer's Coupons: WF will accept manufacturer's coupons - you know the ones, from all your favorite health food magazines - so bring them in and use them to save money!
  5. Buy a Lot of One Thing: If you really like papayas, buy yourself a case! Or how about boxes of Peace maple pecan cereal? Similar to how wine stores give a 10% discount if you buy a case of wine, WF offers a 10% discount off cases of your favorite foods.
  6. Oh, and if you like wine as much as I do, did I mention they also have a special rack of $10 or less wines too? So that even if you're in a hurry, it's easy to find the cheaper vino.
  7. Buy in Bulk: As any self-respecting crunchy individual like myself knows, bulk foods are a great way to save money and you can buy as much as you want to. WF has a fairly decent selection of granolas, beans, pastas, dried fruits and other bulk items. It's far better than many of the other grocery stores here and many of them are organic.
So, while I won't be trudging over into Honolulu every week to do my grocery shopping, in part because of the cost of food and gas (driving over there and back takes nearly a 1/4 of my gas tank and I drive a ford escort), the more I hear of WF working with local farmers and fisherman from the local farmers and fisherman, and the better variety of local foods and food in general, I have to say I'm happy to patronize this big organic chain store on occasion. I go over and stock up on essentials (and the occasional fun goodie too) when I want something healthy, organic or specific (they are the only store I've been to on the island that carries broccoli rabe!), and heck, armed with value savy information from the tour, sometimes I even save a few dollars too.

12 comments from you:

Morgan said...

I am delighted to read your entry this morning because I have a Whole Foods trip planned for later this afternoon. I allow myself one trip (I live in Kailua - it's a schlep) every couple of weeks and look forward to them!

Zoomie said...

This is good news indeed for Hawaiian foodies! I'll have to check it out next time I'm there. If it takes so much gas to get there, plan something else fun on that side (visit Iolani Palace, Bishop Museum, Honolulu Academy of Art, the Zoo - whatever!), then do your grocery shopping and come home. Makes the trip more fun and more worth while!

vlb5757 said...

It's so funny that you should write about Whole Foods and we were in one this weekend while away celebrating our anniversary. It was so much fun shopping in there. We don't have one here so every time I get to chance to shop at one I break my neck to get there. Such a treat to shop at Whole Foods! Love your tips. Hope all is well in HI

Nerissa said...

Lucky girl, to have more options. Hello again. I have a new computer at last! Hurrah! Hope to see you more often now. :)

Michelle said...

Hi Morgan! Great - I hope it helped you navigate and save a few dollars (and I'm glad someone else here thinks it's far away!).

Zoomie, Great minds think alike - I do just that whenever I head over in that direction, I make it my WF shopping trip too!

Vickie, Happiest of anniversaries to you! It IS fun to at least have one to drive to because I haven't in so many years.

Nerissa, hello girlie! Good to see you again and congrats on the new computer!! And I hope to see you too!

Debinhawaii said...

Hey There,

So glad you wrote this up--I took all those notes and never did. Just got back from Portland, a quickish trip. We need to schedule another foodie adventure soon to catch up--I miss seeing you!

glutenfreeforgood said...

Or "Whole Wallet" as I've heard it called. The store looks beautiful though and I bet that coffee isle smells like heaven. Local coffee -- you lucky girl! No coffee farms (what are they called?) in Colorado.



Jen said...

Those are good tips for anyone near a Whole Foods.

Michelle said...

Deb, I know, it's been so long! Let's do get together soon! I miss my foodie friend!

Melissa, I think they call them plantations but I'm not sure...maybe that's just me thinking back to the "old days". And yes, the coffee aisle does smell heavenly!

I hope so! Thanks!

alan said...

I'm late to the party on this post, but I found your tips helpful. I had no idea, for example, the WF offers bulk discounts.

The other money saving tip I've found is to by as close to the unprocessed version of a product as possible. A head of lettuce might be competitive to Foodland. A little container of the same lettuce shredded, washed? Not so cheap. That same lettuce over in the prepared foods aisle salad bar--downright pricey! I have to be smart and alert at WF to avoid being overcharged (so that I can spend my money on their glorious cheeses.)


Adele the writers Blog said...

I find that you did awesome the moment when you picked up this topic of this blog article of yours. Do you as a rule make your blog articles on your own or you have a partner or even a helper?

Michelle said...

Hi Adele,
No, I don't have a partner or helper. Everything on my blog has been written exclusively by me. Thanks for the compliment!