September 30, 2007

UPDATED! Whole Foods Coral Gables: Store Review and Gluten Free Assessment

You might have heard that the Whole Foods in Coral Gables finally opened. I've actually been there twice, but the first time I wasn't thinking about writing a review.

Tere has published her review, and a few others have also published their reviews. The other reviews tend to be about the selection of organic goods, or 'green' products, and the amenities of the store. I'll mention the store's physical plant, too, but my primary reason for shopping there is to fulfill my special dietary needs. And that's how my review is skewed.

I suffer from celiac disease. It's an inherited condition; basically, I can't tolerate a protein called 'gluten', which is found in wheat, barley, and rye. There is only one treatment option: a diet excluding those grains, and derivatives of those grains. The good news is that there are lot of foods I can eat; the bad news is that wheat is often added to them. I read a lot of labels.

I still do most of my shopping at Publix; rice and potatoes are GF. Fresh vegetables, most frozen ones. Meat, chicken and seafood are fine, as are most dairy products. Lots of staples, and even Publix is adding more GF products to its shelves all the time.

But there are some GF foods that I have to travel to get; GF breads, pastas, snacks and prepared frozen dinners. I can get a few items at Healthland on Miracle Mile (and do!) and I can find a few more at Wild Oats. But the best selection until now was the Whole Foods in Aventura. I've been waiting for the San Remo store for a long time.


The first thing I have to comment on is parking: or rather, FINDING it. All the signs for their parking garage are found on the side of the building the parking entrance is actually ON. There's nothing in front of the store (where there is a valet parking service) or the other side that tells you that there is a garage. Once you find it, it's Exceedingly Well Managed. There were at least a half dozen employees direct traffic up there. It won't last, of course. That's a lot of traffic management, and I consider this a design flaw of the store. You shouldn't need that much manpower to manage traffic flow for a supermarket.

I found a spot - not really that difficult despite the number of cars up there - and headed for the Garage entrance to the store. There are two decent sized elevators down, but no stairs or escalators going down. There is an escalator going UP, and it's along side an ingenious rail system to bring your grocery cart up. Unfortunately, they have to use one of the two elevators to bring the carts back DOWN. I consider this to be another notable design flaw in the store. Elevators can only hold so many people, and you inevitably end up with a bottle neck. The design should have included a staircase or escalator down into the store.

But things pick up once you're in the store: you have a choice in carts: of course you have the traditional carry basket and standard rolling cart, but you have a THIRD choice: comething like a large carry basked, but on wheels with a handle to pull it. And there's a fourth design that is two metal baskets stacked over each other on four wheels. Oh, and the motorized things for people who need them.

My last comments on the plant: the beer case isn't well located, and again this is just poor design, and the express lanes are in the middle of the other lanes, making them hard to find and hard to get through. There's a reason they are placed at then ends of the cashiers in virtually every other store in the country. I'm not impressed with the layout of the store overall. Traffic flow is hampered by the transitions between the traditional aisles in the center of the store and the produce section on one end and, all the other stuff at the other. What stuff? The bakery, the wine department, the deli, the cheese shop, the coffee shop, the a la carte counters, and the Sushi Maki concession. That's right, they don't simply serve sushi, they have Sushi Maki doing it.


As expected, the store has a wide variety of GF foods spread throughout the store. But lack of clear labeling makes them difficult to find unless you already know what you want. Wild Oats has a GF tag that is very obvious, and they simply tag the shelf next to the product's SKU label. Another chain goes a step further, using color code in addition to the big "GF".

They have all the pastas you'd expect, and the best selection of GF flours and baking mixes I have ever seen. Mixes for cookies, cakes of all flavors, breads and muffins - there are a lot of choices from a lot of manufacturers.

They have a good selection of GF pizzas, but they only carry one brand of frozen crust, and it's not the best one by a long shot. Guess I'm still trekking to Wild Oats in Pinecrest for that. Similarly, there wasn't a lot of selection of frozen bagels.

They do have a freezer case of their own GF product line, and the cakes, scones, cookies and pies are pretty good; the breads, on the other hand, are very dense and crumbly, and not like anything that I call bread. But if you like pie, you're in business.

They had some GF meals from Glutino that I haven't seen before, and they are quite good. With the GF selections from Amy's, the Tandoor Chef, and the Ethnic Kitchen, I now have a tasty selection to pop in my microwave when I get home from a long day at work.

They also had some GF corn dogs; I LOVE corn dogs, and the ones at the regular markets add wheat flour to the batter. I can't wait to pop these in the oven.

Over in the Baker section, they have a shelf labeled "WHEAT ALTERNATIVES." They had a shelf of breads from Sami's Bakery, but beware!! Two of the choices actually are wheat breads. They shouldn't be in that section at all, and I've mentioned it to someone stocking the shelf last week, but no change has been made. Hopefully, other people with food allergies know enough to read the labels, but if they don't realize that Sami's isn't exclusively a GF vendor, there could be serious consequences.

So they had a shelf of "wheat alternative" breads that only actually had ONE type of wheat-free bread, a shelf of croutons from Sami's, and a shelf of millet snack chips from Sami's and a shelf of millet lavash from Sami's, they didn't have any hot dog or hamburger buns from Sami's. They also didn't have any of the similar products from the Deland Bakery. The Deland products are actually a little better than Sami's, but just barely. Deland makes a killer GF bagel, and this Whole Foods isn't carrying any Deland products. They really should.

Another bewildering lack: they aren't stocking Redbridge Beer. This is a gluten-free beer from Anheuser-Busch, making it the first mass-produced GF beer in general distribution. They were carrying New Grist, another GF beer, but they've priced it higher than I've seen it at other stores, and frankly, Redbridge is a better beer. The Publix on Monza carries Redbridge, so it's not a disaster for me, but it's an odd thing to skip.

The other odd thing is the location of the beer case: usually, it's adjacent to the wine section. Beer and Wine, what could be more natural? Instead, it's tucked several aisles away from Wines, as if the Wine department doesn't want to be sullied by the presence of beer. In fact, the beer section isn't near ANY of the other refrigerated cases. If you use logic to find stuff, you will be as stumped as I was. It took me fifteen minutes to find it. It's inexplicably in the coffee and tea aisle, which has its own refrigerator case for iced teas.

And do you know what's REALLY odd about that? Across the store, and adjacent to the Wine Department, they have an entire COFFEE SHOP. They not only MAKE coffee by the cup for you, they actually ROAST beans there. They have bins of fresh-roasted coffee, and bags of whole-bean and ground gourmet coffee ready to go, as well as some gourmet teas.

And it's half the store away from an aisle of coffee and tea products! It's about the most stupid thing I've ever seen, after hiding the beer in the same bizarre location.

To be fair, the fact that they roast beans fresh in the store balances the idiocy of putting coffee beans and teas in two completely different places. I like fresh coffee, I grind my own beans for every pot, and now I can get the beans fresh out of the roaster. But they'll need to stock Redbridge if they want me to quit grumbling about the beer section.

Overall, my experience at Whole Foods was a positive one. The store has been crowded both times I've been in, but the staff seems to be maintaining its cool, and they've been keeping shelves stocked and lines moving smoothly. There were lots of tasting stations, and they caused the same traffic jams they do in every store, but no worse. The store is clean, the staff is friendly and helpful, and once you know where the parking is, getting in and out is no worse than any other store. I am mildly disappointed in the GF selection, but only because it leaves me still having to visit other stores to complete my shopping. (I've only been to one store EVER that had it all: Ada's, over in Fort Meyers.)

One last note: I did want to put in a request for my "missing" products at the suggestion board by the cashiers: I've done this at the Aventure store with good results. This store has the board up, but no suggestion slips, pencils, or a box to slide them into.

Grade: B+
I emailed the store manager, and the problems with the WHEAT ALTERNATIVE shelf have finally been addressed. He also added products from the Deland Bakery to those selections.

No luck yet on bagels, pizza crusts, or RedBridge beer. Sigh.

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  1. Wow, heck of a review.
    I noticed difficulty in using the suggestion board when I wanted to mention the lack of bike racks.

  2. I was there over the weekend, and I noticed that they haven't fixed the suggestion board yet.

  3. Wow. Bummer about the Celiac's. My brother-in-law recently found out he has it, and my wife fears that she might as well. So far the tests are negative, but I'm sure you know it can manifest at just about any time. My ex is gluten intolerant and I spent many a food dollar at Whole Foods and the ilk during the 6 months we cohabitated.(is that a word?) Anyway, since this is a long-ago blog I hope you have it well under control and are enjoying the yummiest of GF foods.