Whole Foods Market finally arrives in University Place

People started walking into the Whole Foods Market in University Place two weeks ago, according to one store employee. The store was not yet open to the public, the shelves were not fully stocked and the store had yet to hire security guards.

Still the people came. And they kept coming, a few dozen every day, only to be turned away.

They were there again on Tuesday, even though the opening was two days away. Early in the afternoon, in-laws Kathy Hunter and Jack Hall of Lakewood were politely told that Thursday hadn’t yet arrived.

“My daughter has rheumatoid arthritis,” Hunter said. “The doctor said she should eat organic food. She’s been going to the Whole Foods in Colorado, and she’s been doing a lot better.”

Hunter and Hall said they’d return once the store opens on Thursday, May 7, at 9 a.m. at 3515 Bridgeport Way W.

Finding a place

David Hulbert, regional marketing coordinator with Whole Foods Market, was steadfast in his belief that Pierce County shoppers deserved and could support a company store.

He grew up in Tacoma. He graduated from Wilson High School and he began his grocery career as a bagger at a North End Albertsons.

At 20, as an English major at the University of Washington in Seattle, he took a job at Whole Foods Market.

He had never seen a pomegranate or a plantain. “I had heard about dragon fruit, but I didn’t think it was real,” he said.

Three years ago, as a Whole Foods veteran, he took a four-hour drive homeward accompanied by Regional President Joe Rogoff. His goal was to convince Rogoff that Pierce County offered an opportunity for expansion beyond the North Sound.

“I was focused on Seattle,” Rogoff said Tuesday.

They drove through Tacoma, the Tideflats, the Proctor District, downtown, Old Town, all around.

They came to University Place.

“I just saw what I look for in a site,” Rogoff said. “University Place went to the top of the list. I liked Bridgeport. I liked what the city is doing here. My sense is this could be a destination for people in the county and beyond.”

He told Hulbert, “Show me.” And Hulbert did.

“There’s a food consciousness here,” Rogoff said. “We saw a vibrant and growing community.”

“Tacoma, Gig Harbor, Lakewood, Fircrest, they’re all within (an easy) drive,” Hulbert said. “That’s why U.P. is such a good fit for us. This is something I’ve wanted for a long time. I think people here want the highest quality organic food.”

Before signing the deal, officials continued their investigation. Who visited farmers markets? Were people interested in organic foods or were they focused on crafts? Who were the potential local suppliers? What were the traffic patterns?

Hulbert also wanted to change the image that Whole Foods targets only an elite consumer. “Access to quality food should not just be for certain people,” he said. “This says you have an intelligent community, where people read labels and ask questions.”

The store

No preservatives, no artificial colorings or sweeteners, lots of organic foodstuffs.

An in-store bakery, butcher shop, fishmonger, cheesemonger. Prepared foods, local produce, a live-mollusk tank, wood-fired pizza, 10 beers on tap — at least three from Tacoma.

Mountain Muesli from Tacoma, also Heavenly Heart chipotle sauce. Honey from Kent. Produce from Mabton, Tonasket, Puyallup, Monroe, Sunnyside.

Shea shampoo, goat whey protein, organic pale ale honey mustard.

Take your choice between reverse-osmosis or deionized water, by the gallon.

Kelp in several forms, bonito, aloo matar, Punjab eggplant, baby lima beans, baby corn, miso organic soybean paste. Palestinian cold-pressed olive oil, Israeli couscous. Curds, and whey powder.

“(We are) thinking of how the customer wants to shop, but also offering something to surprise them,” Hulbert said.

Three hundred bulk items (one of the largest selections in the chain) featuring buckwheat groats, golden flax seeds, sticky purple rice, jasmine rice, mung beans, garbanzo beans, red lentils, white kidney beans, spelt flour.

Coffee roasted in Olympia and on Vashon. Pomegranate juice, carrot juice, a full line of alternative milk. Sandwiches and a selection of cannoli.

Cheese from France and cheese from just around the corner.

The Whole Foods Market at Chambers Bay (although it is well removed from the actual Chambers Bay) is the 20th in the Washington-Oregon-Alberta-British-Columbia Whole Foods region and the 418th in the company catalog.

The store employs 150 people and stands at 37,000 square feet offering 28,000 SKUs.

“I think this store will change the face of University Place,” Hulbert said.

The Whole Foods effect

“I think this is a great milestone for the community,” said University Place Assistant City Manager Mariza Craig.

Whole Foods, she said, is “a much-desired anchor for any development. They don’t go to just any community. They are thoughtful about the sites they choose. We feel very fortunate to be the first site in Pierce County.”

This year, the city celebrates its 20th year.

“It’s just a great birthday present,” Craig said.

City Attorney Steve Victor had trouble convincing people that Whole Foods was actually coming.

“Realtors, particularly from Seattle, didn’t believe that our announcement was true,” he said. “(The city manager) got a call three weeks after we had gone public on Whole Foods. Three brokers, all they wanted to ask was if it was really true. It was difficult for this market to believe.

“Now if we go to the international shopping center show, the message is different,” he said. “The message is not that this is a probably a good place — this is a good place. It’s not a dream, it’s not in the pipeline, it’s open.”

“There’s a definite impact,” said Chris Green, vice president for business retention and expansion at the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County.

“Frequently when we are talking to companies, they either ask us or we feel obligated to tell them about the big brands in town. It sends a signal that these other big names have made decisions that build the community. Bass Pro, Chick-fil-A, State Farm, Hobby Lobby, Amazon, those are major investments, ” Green said.

“It’s all about aspiration,” Rogoff said on Tuesday, leading a tour of dignitaries. “Everybody aspires to a life where they take care of themselves and others. People want quality in their lives.”

He continued, “I’m stoked!”

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