If you’re staying in a holiday rental in Austin and you’re a foodie and like to stay in and cook sometimes, you’ll be in heaven. Austin is blessed with beautiful produce and brilliant places to buy it — whether you want to shop the farmers’ markets or supermarkets such as Whole Foods and Central Market, or have Farmhouse Delivery bring fruit and veg direct from the farm to your door.
We’d shopped Whole Foods before in London and New York, but neither prepared us for the experience of the Austin flagship store. We’d always believed the best supermarkets to be in Europe, in Switzerland especially, although we also love Spain’s El Corte Inglés. That was until we visited Whole Foods here to tick off items for our Austin shopping list.
Firstly, Whole Foods Austin is colossal. This is a monumental supermarket with a staggering variety of products. Of course the sheer size of the place is not impressive in itself, particularly if you’ve been to some of the French chain Carrefour’s supermarkets around the world.
What sets Whole Foods apart is the first-rate quality of the products, and the focus on natural, ethically-produced, and organic foods. That doesn’t mean you’re going to find thousands of types of muesli and not a pork sausage in sight. In fact, they have dozens of different made-on-the-premises sausages, which all looked scrumptious.
The sheer variety of products is the other really impressive thing. You want cheeses? You’ll find a whole section, foreign and local, including a decent selection of Texas cheeses. There are cold cuts from all over Europe. Plenty of fresh seafood from around the planet, with an emphasis on local ‘fruits of the sea’ from the nearby Gulf. The fruit and vegetable department is enormous and there’s not a bruised or over-ripe piece of anything.
The walk-in beer fridge (with scores of types of cold beers, including local brews) and wine department are outstanding. There’s an abundance of American wines, although only a small section of Texan drops. What was most surprising for us is how many excellent Australian wines they have and how much cheaper they are here than Down Under. Generally the wine here is brilliant value (far cheaper than New York) and Whole Foods even has wine sommeliers (with business cards!) there to assist. I had a nice chat with one of the sommeliers — yes, I was at a supermarket! — and that’s another thing about Whole Foods, the staff are super-friendly.
These people smile like they mean it. It’s not a fake friendliness — they actually seem to enjoy their jobs. They cheerfully call out hello while unpacking boxes or putting prices on things. Look lost or confused and they’ll stop what they’re doing and come over and see if there’s something they can help with. If you don’t need assistance they’ll leave you alone. Their instinct seems more profoundly developed than most of the waiters who served us in New York.
The staff have fun and joke around with each other, but never at the detriment of the customer. I asked one guy, who was sharing a story with the guy at the other end of the aisle for some cream and he told me “It’s down there, near the tall guy. We call him Lurch. You can call him that too.” When I arrive at the cream section, ‘Lurch’ says “Was he teasing me?” and, pointing to the cream section, smiling, “Is this what you’re looking for?” Nothing is too much trouble for these people. I ask a guy cleaning up a broken bottle (I didn’t do it) where the toothpicks are and he makes a phone call and a few minutes later is leading me to another aisle. At the Customer Service desk they’ll even call you a taxi.
But it’s Whole Foods commitment to local produce and sustainable farming that is super-impressive. As I walked around the store I picked up recipe cards that introduce me to Laura and Diaz Murray (photographed beautifully astride their horses) of the family-owned F Bar Springs Ranch, who assure us they treat their cattle (grown on 100% native grasses) humanely. On the back of the card there’s a recipe for Roasted Beef Tenderloin with Rosemary and Thyme.
On another card, Chad Lemke of McCollum-Lemke Ranches flashes his white teeth warmly and twinkles his eyes and tells us that by raising different species on his fourth-generation family-owned ranch, they are more closely recreating what historically occurred on Texas lands, and better keeping the environment in balance. On the back of Chad’s card is a recipe for Beef and Bean Stew. The cards are as much about promoting the Grass Fed Livestock Alliance as they are a goodwill gesture for customers, and I appreciated them.
I also liked the idea of the Global Animal Partnership‘s ‘5-Step Animal Welfare Rating Program’ which Whole Foods promotes on another brochure I picked up which seems to be as much about labelling and rating the products so you know what you’re buying, as it is about improving the lives of farm animals through outreach and training.
And if you take a look at the Whole Foods website, as I did, it seems they also partner with, support and promote an array of other admirable programs like a loan bank to encourage small producers to develop innovative products and projects through the Whole Food Foundation, such as ‘One Dollar Day’, where four American college students pledged to live on $1 a day to raise money and raise awareness of the plight of 1.1 billion people living in abject poverty on less than $1 a day. Ah, if only the world had more supermarkets like Whole Foods…
And then of course there are Austin’s fabulous specialist food stores and local grocery stores, such as Farm to Market Grocery (our ‘local’), Antonelli’s Cheese Shop, Thom’s Market, and Austin Roasting Company. Not to mention Austin’s farmers markets, which you can read more about here, and find a list of markets here. Now do you see what I mean about shopping in Austin?
|2 litre water||US$0.80||£0.53||€0.63|
|1 quart (1 litre) milk||US$1.90||£1.25||€1.50|
|Bottle of local wine*||US$11.00||£7.26||€8.70|
|12oz (350 ml) beer||US$1.20||£0.79||€0.95|
|250 g organic coffee beans||US$7.90||£5.22||€6.25|
|Lipton tea 50 bags||US$4.30||£2.84||€3.40|
|1 kg sugar||US$1.70||£1.12||€1.35|
|Jar of Texas honey||US$2.90||£1.91||€2.29|
|1 loaf of bread||US$2.20||£1.45||€1.74|
|8 oz (250g) quality butter||US$4.20||£2.77||€3.32|
|8 oz (250g) cheddar||US$4.50||£2.97||€3.56|
|500 ml olive oil||US$7.00||£4.62||€5.54|
|1 dozen organic eggs||US$4.20||£2.77||€3.32|
|2.2 lb (1 kilo) tomatoes||US$5.60||£3.70||€4.43|
|2.2 lb (1 kilo) onions||US$3.80||£2.51||€3.01|
|2.2 lb (1 kilo) apples||US$6.00||£3.96||€4.75|
|250 g pistachios||US$5.80||£3.83||€4.59|