Food courts — now more effetely called food halls — are the hot ticket these days. Forget for a moment the expense and discomfort: In their most idealized form, they consist of independent vendors set up at counters and kiosks, vying for your patronage with beguiling displays, delivering creative twists on familiar food. But gradually, food courts are popping up in which all stalls are operated by a single vendor, where the competition between counters is pallid and the offerings more prosaic.Representing a hybrid of the multi-vendor and single-vendor approach — so that some stalls are operated by independent vendors and others by Whole Foods itself — the so-called WFM Food Hall is found at the entrance to the new Williamsburg Whole Foods. This food court telegraphs its importance by being situated in the most prime part of the premises, and you can almost see the cogwheels grinding in the heads of the WF execs as they contemplate the success of their modern take on food merchandising.
Of course, a Whole Foods eating establishment is what’s known in the industry as a vertical operation, allowing the supermarket the chance to burn off perishable items by recycling them through a kitchen, with the additional advantage of keeping shoppers "on campus" for longer periods of time. In most Whole Foods stores this takes the form of a decidedly mediocre lunch-tray cafeteria, offering an aggressively boring combination of Middle American comfort food such as stews, sandwiches, salads, and soups, along with deracinated dishes like Mexican enchiladas and Chinese stir fries. What you’re really eating — as cynics might say — could be the supermarket’s leftovers. (For more on this practice, check out Gawker's dive into employee practices from a few years ago).
This new food court is a different sort of operation. It occupies an austere, concrete-floored space adjacent to a cattle-pen waiting area and double line of cash registers, meaning you have to wait in long lines to purchase your food court goodies at peak shopping hours. All the actual groceries are downstairs, like some sort of mercantile afterthought. On the left as you enter, you’ll see a coffee bar that also flogs smoothies and "smoothie bowls" in flavors like honey avocado, coconut kale, and breakfast greens — suggesting you could drink one or two of these things for every meal. Strangely uniting the coffee and juice functions of the counter is a smoothie featuring bananas, cacao nibs, and cold-brew coffee.
Photographer Nick Solares and I fortified ourselves with a bottle of Vietnamese cold brew ($3.50) and a miniature sticky bun ($3) baked by Roberta’s, found in a serve-yourself case of premium-priced pastries. (Gosh, the buttery sticky bun was good!) The juice and coffee bars are operated by Whole Foods, but across the aisle are a pair of independently owned carts. One scoops OddFellows ice cream, a local Williamsburg brand, while the other is operated by that ubiquitous denizen of food courts, Luke’s Lobster. But instead of selling lobster rolls, it offers tiny half lobster tails mounted on sticks. They’re cooked in a sandwich press and appear to come from very small animals. Traditionally, weren’t those immature specimens thrown back into the sea by lobstermen?
Next on the left is a line of vendors behind what amounts to a single long counter, followed by a couple of large grab-and-go refrigerator cases. In order, they are a pizza and sandwich station operated by Whole Foods; a counter called Layered offering vegan fruit-and-grain parfaits, also run by Whole Foods; a stretch operated by the No. 7 chain selling bowls, tacos, and veggie burgers; a counter run by East Coast Poke (a Smorgasburg veteran) specializing in the faddish fish salad; and a sushi case stacked high with sushi and sashimi assembled right there by Kikka, a 21-state sushi chain founded by a chemical engineer from Cal Tech making its NYC debut.
Apart from the poke and sushi, most of the food court’s offerings are vegetarian or vegan, and one has to look very hard to find meat — limited on our visit to a prosciutto sandwich and a pepperoni pizza, though extensively processed meat substitutes were in evidence. The vegetarian focus lends a tone of moral uplift (some might say self-satisfaction) to the operation, but also encourages Whole Foods to dip deeply into its produce section for raw materials. There’s nothing wrong with recycling fruits and vegetables from the supermarket into vendable food (in fact, it’s good for the planet), but it should still taste good and one should receive a discount for it, like buying the bruised and overripe tomatoes in the farmers’ market. Given the relatively high prices at the Whole Foods food court, that discount seems not to be forthcoming.
We carried our purchases to a hidden dining room around the corner from the cash registers. Here is a rundown of the things we tasted.
Clam pie from pizza and sandwich counter: Ill-formed and doughy, the amateurish pies at Whole Foods are more like focaccia. Slices are sold by weight and most of the topping choices are confined to a single main ingredient: one pizza mainly featured sliced heirloom tomatoes, another, whole garlic cloves. We picked clam pizza and it was cut into two slices, which contained flecks of tomato and some melted cheese, but virtually no clams ($8.99 per pound).
Ahi poke from East Coast Poke: In contrast to many of the poke establishments around town, East Coast’s pokes are rather meager in the range of elements, which means the product is perhaps closer to the Hawaiian original and less like a fishy chef’s salad. But it also means these pokes are relatively more expensive and you get less stuff for your dollar. We picked the ahi poke with pineapple sticky rice and Hawaiian slaw, and found it tasty and wholesome, with big chunks of actual fish, but too small in size to constitute more than just a snack. ($13)
Veggie Burger "Deluxe" From No. 7 Veggie: The bun, tomato, onion, and lettuce were very fresh, but the burger patty proved a disappointment, thin and flavorless. The vegan cheese was a mistake; we should have exercised the provolone option ($8.25).
"I Can’t Believe It’s Not Chicken Salad" sandwich at No. 7 Veggie: Actually it was very easy to believe it wasn’t chicken salad. It looked more like tuna fish, and glistened alarmingly. The yellow vegan cheese was also damp, penuriously sliced, and unappetizing. This was the worst thing we ate at Whole Foods. ($9.85)
Lobster Tails at Luke’s Lobster Cart: These were tasty once pried from their exoskeletons, but seemed way too expensive for the small morsels of flesh. This is someone’s bright idea of how to make money with no effort. ($6 each, $11 for two)
"Tropical Whip" vanilla chia parfait at Layered: Run by Whole Foods, the Layered counter is the vegan heart of the food court, dabbling in an invented genre: cups that contain seeds and fruit bound together with sticky substances like oatmeal, chia seed whip, and coconut "yogurt." The result looks unappetizing, but tastes surprisingly good. In our case, the vanilla chia whip proved hard to plow through on its own, but stuck with seeds and bits of fruit, it was perfectly palatable. But who wants to eat this way, and how healthy is it, really?
WFM Food Hall Hack: Standing in the register lines to buy your food court purchases at peak hours is a drag, as your pizza or veggie burger grows cold and the queue crawls at a snail’s pace. Note that you are also allowed to pay for your acquisitions in the coffee/juice line, and sometimes it’s considerably shorter.