Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2003 | 8:21 a.m.
For most businesses, if Cirque du Soleil requests assistance for an upcoming event, the immediate response would most likely be, "When and where do you want us?"
But for nationwide chain Whole Foods Market, which opened at 8855 W. Charleston Blvd. on Aug. 27, such a request had to be turned down.
Marketing director Sandra Benton was giving a tour when she was alerted of a phone call from the Cirque people. Evidently, they wanted Whole Foods to bring a food booth to the Saturday premiere of "Zumanity" at New York-New York.
"Unfortunately, I don't think we'll be able to carry it off," Benton said. "It was kind of short notice."
But, one would argue, it would be great advertising for the store chain, not to mention the prestige of having its name linked to one of the most respected artistic groups in the world.
Whole Foods Market, however, doesn't rush into anything at the expense of quality. That's been the company's policy since opening the first Whole Foods Market in 1980. Most of its patrons are there by word of mouth, and the company's attention to detail is evident.
Its motto is "Whole Foods, Whole People, Whole Planet," and it strives to become a vital part of the community wherever it goes. Indeed, the 40,000-square-foot Las Vegas store has a "neighborhood corner market" feel to it, and it has already participated in several community activities, with many more planned.
The produce section the first thing customers see upon entering is representative of the store as a whole: organic, high-quality items sitting side-by-side with brand names. Though Whole Foods Market produces its own items similar to Trader Joe's it isn't afraid to place competitors throughout the store, as long as they comply with the company's stringent standards.
"No hydrogenated oils allowed here," Benton said. Products sold on Whole Foods Market's premises contain no artificial flavors, additives, preservatives or colors.
In other words, you'll find Heinz ketchup, French's mustard, StarKist tuna, Chiquita bananas and many other brands alongside their Whole Foods Market counterparts.
The produce section is fully stocked with everything from pears to apples to low-acid pineapple, and June Ernaez, the produce team leader, is ready with his knife to slice open any piece of fruit if a customer shows the slightest interest.
"We really want people to sample food before they buy," Benton said.
Whole Foods, Benton said, became the nation's first certified organic grocer about six months ago. The 143-store chain has agreements with quality producers nationwide, and all fruits and vegetables are displayed "in a multi-sensual way -- For visual impact, smell and quality," Benton said.
An adjunct to the vibrant yellows, reds and purples of the produce section is the bulk department, including organic candy, pretzels, nuts, grains and cereals, all under the banner, "No Grazing, Please."
Spice of life
Vicky Albert, who teaches at UNLV, became a Whole Foods shopper shortly after the grand opening. Formerly a Bay Area resident, Albert was already familiar with the franchise.
"I like the variety, freshness, the organic stuff," Albert said. "I came here for its uniqueness."
Albert was out looking for sea bass, which she had trouble finding elsewhere. She had success at Whole Foods' seafood department -- modeled after markets where the fishmonger stands high above the customers. It's stocked with everything from mahi mahi, Scottish salmon fillet and swordfish steak to dungeness crab and crab cakes.
Benton said the store's supply, processed at its facility in Gloucester, Mass., is flown in fresh six days a week.
No less visually appealing is the store's meat department, where patrons can find ready-to-cook stuffed bell peppers, ready-to-cook chicken breast with soy ginger, New Zealand rack of lamb and preservative- and hormone-free chicken.
Roy Sales, busy checking out the baby back ribs, was enjoying his first visit through Whole Foods. Sales heard about the store from his family. His wife knows some of the employees, and his daughter, who lives in Spanish Trail, can't stop talking about it.
"My daughter said it's the only place she's going to shop," Sales said. "I like it so far. It looks great. It's surprising how big it is. I didn't think it would be this big.
"It looks like they're going to have more than what I want."
There are no antibiotics or hormones used in any of Whole Foods' meat products, Range-free chicken sits alongside organic turkey burgers, and there's not a single preservative to be found.
A particular store favorite, Benton said, has been the dry-aged beef station, where customers pick out a cut of beef and have it dry-aged, a process that uses air to flavor and tenderize the meat.
"It takes a few days, and it's totally tender," Benton said, eyeing the large slabs of beef inside the dry-ager.
No meat? No problem
Those who eschew meat products can find still find plenty at Whole Foods. The store's charcuterie, usually limited to cuts of meat, includes -- count 'em -- 300 varieties of cheese, all prominently displayed.
Vegans have plenty of choices as well. In addition to all the fresh produce, Whole Foods Market boasts a healthy selection of legumes, from blackeye peas, pinto beans, black beans, red kidney beans and lentils.
Vegan Diane Gremlich began shopping at Whole Foods the day after it opened upon the urging of her sister in Texas, who raves about it.
"It's larger (than Trader Joe's and Wild Oats) and the variety is much larger," Gremlich said. "It's also lower priced. I think the produce is a little bit better."
Her favorite product so far? The "365" line of jams. (Whole Foods has four different brands: 365 Everyday Value, which means the listed price is the same all year; 365 Organic Everyday Value; Whole Kids Organic, targeted at children whose parents are having trouble getting them to eat healthy; and Authentic Food Artisan, products which come from all over the world.)
However, Gremlich, a homemaker, doesn't find it necessary to buy any of the store's "Whole Kids" line.
"I find if you start children eating right early, they take care of themselves," she said.
The charcuterie also contains an olive bar, including green olive pate, artichoke with stem, caprese salad, jamon serrano and oven-roasted tomatoes.
Once past the charcuterie, it becomes easy to forget Whole Foods Market is a grocery store. The prepared-foods area quickly transforms the store into a large food court with a dizzying variety of choices.
Chefs Tori Cautela, Jason Vovaag, Santiago Flores and Kelly Higgins keep things lively in this section. There's Asian Express, where patrons can grab noodle bowls, rice bowls and more -- all with no MSG. A salad bar is at your fingertips, rather than behind a counter, such as those found at most other stores. A fresh soup bar includes garden vegetable and butternut squash, among others. And a rotisserie chicken display offers too many choices to list.
First-timer Van Dao grabbed a rotisserie chicken for his workmates -- he heard about the store from a co-worker -- but took a few minutes to take in the store.
"This is very nice," Dao said. "This is the first time I've seen a store like this."
Barbara Saladino and her husband, Vinnie, were also visiting for the first time, having heard about the store from friends.
Both were just looking around. Both left impressed.
"I was just saying to my husband, 'We have to find out what time they open Sunday so I can do my shopping,' " Barbara said. "I love the meats and produce."
"Very clean," Vinnie added.
Both also agreed the prepared foods section would be on the shopping list.
"Sometimes you're pressed for time, and you can get something to eat here (after you're done shopping)," Barbara said.
Other prepared foods include a breakfast bar (converted to a lunch bar around noon), freshly prepared lasagnas and pizzas, ham and roast beef carving stations and a deli with freshly baked breads, including focaccia, jalapeno cheddar, sourdough, wheat panini and more.
For those who manage to make it past all that, there's another station with artfully displayed meals, including New Mexico-style catfish, strawberry spinach salad, curry chicken salad, risotto cakes, zucchini potato latkes and green bean fennel and onion, among others.
Rounding out the prepared foods area are fresh-roasted coffee beans, each variety sitting in containers surrounded by burlap.
Whole Foods also offers a "Whole Body" department, featuring supplements, herbs and aromatherapy, as well as healing music, cruelty-free makeup (no animal testing) and more.
Judy Preston, perusing the organic chamomile flower and organic kelp powder, said her 30-minute-plus trek to the store is more than worth it.
"Anybody who appreciates this kind of thing is going to go nuts," Preston said, proudly displaying the rose perfume and vitamins she had just put in her cart. "I dragged my husband kicking and screaming here. I don't think he appreciated it until he got here."
Whole Foods had barely opened when it staged the first of what will be many community events -- a party for the children who helped design the store's large dining area. The children from Jacobson and Ober Elementary schools are remembered with a tile mosaic on one of the dining room walls.
Involving children is one of Whole Foods Market's priorities, Benton said. Upcoming programs include a Halloween bash. Other community events include cooking demonstrations, wine pairings and a fund-raising barbecue for the Las Vegas Valley Humane Society.
Whole Foods' environmental stance is reflected in a "Green Mission" board near its exit. The board delineates all the environment-friendly materials used in the building of the store, such as low-VOC paint, tile made from recycled material and more.
Future looks bright
Benton said the Whole Foods name has been the best advertising.
"People with a lifestyle of exercise and good health love to come here," she said.
The company name may speak volumes, but its immaculate interior is what keeps customers coming back.
Jennifer Stricos, floral supervisor for Whole Foods' flower department -- featuring everything from Australian mulla mulla to pumpkin trees and curly lucky bamboo -- has been with the company since 1993, working in both its Hillcrest, Calif., and Boston stores.
"As a whole, this is the most beautiful store I've worked in," she said.