Good lord, people, you'd think we'd never seen an organic potato before.
Whole Foods Market has been open for a couple of weeks now, and Savannah is still swooning as if the Messiah is in there singing karaoke and giving away free babies.
Not that I count myself apart from the entranced masses clutching canvas bags and ogling the artfully-piled pluots: As an avowed disciple of the gods of kale and nitrite-free turkey bacon, I, too, have already worshipped multiple times at this new megachurch of higher eating. I confess to skipping up and down the aisles like a hungry Hare Krishna, squealing with rapture at the rainbow of bulk quinoa and unpronounceable brands of kombucha.
And Holy Mother of Edamame, THE SALAD BAR.
It says a lot that the opening of a fancy grocery store is the most thrilling phenomenon to hit town since Hurricane David. First, clearly Savannah has been salivating for an upscale foodie experience that caters to the socially-conscious palate. (If only we lined up for better public schools like we do for housemade raspberry gelato!)
Second, Whole Foods sets a high bar for creating instant community. At any hour of the day, all corners of Savannah are out representing in its customer base — one only need to see the mothers in Muslim headscarves milling along the pasta aisle with observant Jews to dispel the outdated notion that this city is merely black and white. And while there are haters who reject paying a few more pennies for pesticide-free produce, there are plenty of blue collar folk planning meals amongst the housewives in expensive tennis outfits.
It's not just about who's buying but who's selling: An advance corporate team sussed out some of Savannah's finest artisan vendors: FORM's cheesecakes, Chocolat by Adam Turoni, Nourish Savannah's divine bath fizzies and local caffeine courtesy of PERC and Cup to Cup are among those taking their products to the next level.
"If there's anything local we can get, we do," avows associate team leader Emily Salzer, who relocated here from WF's Nashville store. "Every store is unique, and we do our best to reflect and respond to the local community." (Hello, did I mention there's locally-brewed beer on tap?)
The philosophy extends to more than just food: Opening festivities included raising funds for the Savannah Tree Foundation and the West Broad Street Y as well as employing musical mainstays The Train Wrecks and City Hotel, who crooned away near the cheese display.
The store's design concept is also rooted in the Lowcountry, from the reclaimed shutters above the deli to the picnic tables built by Design for Ability. There's even a framed homage to Backus Cadillac, the pink concrete loaf of a building that sat upon this lot for over 50 years.
Maybe it's hard to swallow that a corporate giant is better at collating our local resources and packaging them up prettier than any of us ever could. Yet suddenly people who used to roll their eyes at the word "organic" are now knitting their brows over red snapper overfishing and fair-trade coffee beans. If shiny and fancy brings more people to the Altar of Sustainable Eating, that's a wonderful thing.
But it's important to remember why Whole Foods can bring the glamorous lifestyle of gluten-free macaroni and free trade chocolate to the mainstream:
Because independent stores like Brighter Day Natural Foods have been touting it way before it was sexy.
In fact, when Janie and Peter Brodhead opened up Brighter Day in 1978, eating organic was downright revolutionary. Enlightening people about the ethical origins of their food was a never-ending challenge, especially when the culinary choices weren't much more than sprinkling wheat germ on salad and carob cookies that tasted like baked lawn clippings.
Yet with patience and many delicious uses of tahini, the Brodheads have built a loyal and lovely conscious community from their historic building on Forsyth Park. They know most of their customers by their first names, and Peter's vast knowledge of the medicinal properties of herbs and supplements is legendary — plenty of local doctors refer patients to him for advice on complementary treatments for cancer and digestive disorders.
I expected to see some long faces when I popped into Brighter Day last week in the midst of the Whole Foods fervor, but instead found the Brodheads and the rest of the bunch responding to their first competition in three-and-a-half decades with Buddha-like serenity and bootstrapping good cheer.
New construction buzzes near the produce, where a remodeled deli will give manager Marilyn Sims-Fishel and her force of culinary elves more space to create their magical nourishments (if you've never experienced a baked cheese sandwich with avocado, you're depriving yourself.)
Plus, the coolest thing ever is coming to the Bull Street side: A walk-up, bike-up, dog-friendly takeout window.
"Our goal has never been to be bigger, only to do things better," says Janie.
The Brodheads have found valuable support from the Independent Natural Foods Retailers Association, a national organization that validates the role of small health food stores as health food culture moves away from the fringe. Brighter Day's "boutique" status means being able to offer from Hunter Cattle and Savannah River Farms, both highly evolved but not large enough to meet Whole Foods' distribution guidelines.Brighter Day has always been involved with local charities, raising over $10K last year for various non-profits.
"Staying independent also gives us freedom. We can be political," affirms Janie, referring to Peter's moving speech at the recent March Against Monsanto rally.
Though the coming of Whole Foods brought no small amount of hand-wringing, the Brodheads have faith in their passion for healthy, conscious living.
"It's kind of like the pretty girl whose dad works on Wall Street and rides in a limo to school just moved to town," admits Janie a bit ruefully. "But we're family. We're strong."
While the staff surely feels like kin, it also includes Janie and Peter's actual offspring: Andrew has been working the register for ages, and daughter Claire just moved back to town from Asheville to apply some of the knowledge she learned working at organic farms up north. Oldest son and acupuncturist Ben recently moved back from the West Coast with his wife and kids to start a practice in Savannah.
"I think there's intrinsic value in the fact that we've been here for over a generation," muses Claire, who remembers toddling down the aisles.
I have to agree. Though I can literally walk from my desk at Connect to the front door of Whole Foods in less time it will take you to find a parking space (don't hate), I still plan to make it to Brighter Day to shop and commune with these good people. And also for the revelation of Marilyn's tempeh salad.
Whole Foods is indeed a glorious promised land of victual bounty — and for many, a starting place to learn how and what we eat affects everything else. Perhaps it has brought you to the sacred ground of where food and community intersect.
Hope the true devotees will make frequent pilgrimages to the place where it all began.