Beaton column: The ‘artisan salmon’ of Whole Foods
“Charlie, they don’t want tunas with good taste. They want tunas that taste good.”
— Charlie the Tuna Starkist advertisement from the 1960-80s.
At Whole Foods recently, I overheard a conversation between a customer (or what they probably call a “client”) and a fish monger with a purple earring (or what they probably call a “pescator associate”).
Customer (looking at a counter of iced salmon): “But are the salmon farmed sustainably?”
She asked her question a little too loud. She evidently wanted other customers to hear it.
Fish Monger: “Are you kidding? This is artisan salmon. Our partnering salmon supplier — which operates off the coast of Norway using special deep-water salmon condominiums — harvests two salmon eggs for each salmon they sell.”
“What happens to the eggs?”
“They’re at the other end of the counter.”
“OK, I’ll take 2 pounds of salmon.”
“I’ll take 2 pounds of the salmon, please.”
“Lady, we don’t sell these like slabs of beef. This isn’t a meat market. This is Whole Foods, and we sell only whole salmon.”
“Fine, I’ll take two.”
“Oh, they all look the same to me.” Pointing, she added, “I guess those two.”
The fish monger was horrified. “In your species-centric world where you suppose you’ve purchased justice and hipness with a Prius and a COEXIST bumper sticker, I’m sure all salmon look the same to you. But they’re not. This is Olga. Her favorite movie was ‘The Little Mermaid.’ This is Hans. He liked ‘Jaws.’”
The customer felt defensive and wondered how he knew about her car. “OK, could I please have Olga and Hans? And a recipe for preparing them.”
“Listen lady, Olga and Hans are well-prepared. They both swam in private schools. The question is whether you are.” He handed her a bound folder. “Here’s the adoption application. And we’ll need two references.”
“Oh my gosh! They’re friggin’ dead!”
“Don’t get crabby. To them, you’re the one who is dead. Frankly, you smell more like fish than they do.”
OK, apart from the first few sentences, this story is made up.
But this part is not. Whole Foods isn’t so hot anymore. It’s actually closing stores.
The reason is that, at least in part, this hipster of the grocery business is a victim of its own success. Surveys suggest that people are turned off by the “pretentious” customers.
Personally, I like Whole Foods. I don’t care one way or another about the pretense of their customers, even though a Prius with a COEXIST bumper sticker grates on my nerves as much as those of any other sane American. And I don’t find their food much different than ordinary grocery store food.
But I like their employees. I’m not wild about the purple earrings, but I love that they seem to like their jobs and sincerely want to help customers. I also like that the checkout counters are usually staffed sufficiently.
You wouldn’t know it from the employees, but the founder and CEO of Whole Foods is an ex-socialist turned libertarian and an admirer of Ayn Rand. I like to imagine him chuckling about how he daily gooses the pretentious Prius drivers. In fairness, I should also mention that he’s a vegan.
So he’s an interesting character. And so is his company. In the next few years, we’ll see if it was a flash in the pan — an artisan salmon — or a real company.
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