If there’s one grocery store that seems to have tapped into the zeitgeist — at least of health-conscious Angelenos — it’s Whole Foods. But does the attraction lie in the power of the products, or the character of the stores themselves?
Walk around any Whole Foods and you will find the stores are very carefully designed, sharing some features while being specific to their neighborhoods in color, art, materials and even the display of the goods themselves.
So who is responsible for this? Much of the credit goes to Deborah English, an interior designer based in Pasadena who has spent 15 years working with Whole Foods on all aspects of store planning and design, both in Los Angeles and now nationwide.
English, in her words, is “disrupting” the supermarket experience. She kicked off a career in food retail design with Bristol Farms, the southern California retailer of gourmet, organic, and natural foods.
“I shop for food in grocery stores and honestly I didn’t like the experience, so I wanted to make them places that I wanted to be in,” English said. “I wanted to disrupt the shop because I wanted to find places that would feel good to me to be in as well. And that transfers down to the wider community.”
Even though one reads reports about price gouging, lack of worker protections and even food preparation breaches, the stores exert a big attraction to many — judging by the lines and crowded parking lots.
DnA producer Avishay Artsy and host Frances Anderton both live close to a Whole Foods. Both were designed by Deborah English along with the Whole Foods team.
But one is the regular brand — at Lincoln and Rose in Venice — and the other is the newly opened lower-price version 365 by Whole Foods, in Silver Lake. So Avishay and Frances met with Deborah and compared the design of the stores and what they reflect about the communities they are in (hear the conversation, below.)
365 by Whole Foods caused a bit of a stir a year ago when some residents bristled at the news that they’d be getting the budget version of the store.
The store in Venice also created some buzz because it was installed in an area occupied by the very affluent as well as the much poorer residents of Venice, where many homeless people live. The company reached out to local artists to add decor and they created an interior that is very large but more woodsy, less transparent than the Silver Lake store and a little bit countrified.
The Silver Lake store drew inspiration from the work of two artists. The fluorescent light blades were inspired by the late artist Dan Flavin, who made minimalist art out of fluorescent light fixtures. And the colorful graphics and window transparencies drew inspiration from a local artist, the Catholic nun and political activist Sister Corita Kent.
English said that she received a branding deck by a firm in New York that referenced Sister Corita Kent’s work, just as a retrospective of her career was on display at the Pasadena Museum of California Art.
“I piled our entire design team into the car. We went down to the museum and we were deeply inspired and moved by her work and her messages, and saw how that could relate to 365 by Whole Foods Market because her words are powerful, but at the same time they are done in ways that are very accessible,” English said.
But what would Sister Corita Kent think, knowing that her social justice-themed art was being used to sell groceries?
“I think she would be delighted,” English replied. “Not only did she use a lot of food imagery in her work. If you look at it, she took the Wonder Bread bag and she turned it into a piece on food equality. Whole Foods has been at the forefront in natural food and healthy eating for years. So I honestly think there’s connection and commonality there.”
The company has used design in innovative ways to appeal to millennials. English and her team went through a process of community outreach, and distilled the values of Silver Lake to four core values: simplicity, efficiency, convenience and transparency.
Those may seem like universal values, but they play out in the design of the store. Huge storefront windows with primary colored vinyl transparencies let in plenty of light, along with skylights and innovative LED “blades.” Windows let shoppers see into the kitchen where employees prepare food, and scrolling LED displays read “no animal by-products” and “no antibiotics, no added growth hormones” in the meat section.
English also connects this theme of transparency to the open ceilings, which reveal the air ducts, sprinklers and wood rafters. The gondolas – the shelving units – are low, so you can see all the way to the back of the store from the entrance. The vegetable section, which they call “veg alley,” is separated by a large window, with lighting used to draw people in.
There are also playful additions: a wall with a mural reading “SILVER KALE” that’s made for Instagram selfies, a “free air guitar” rack at the entrance, and thoughtfully messy piles of La Croix boxes on pallets in the middle of the shopping aisles.
The Whole Foods in Chicago’s Greektown neighborhood has an airy, Mediterranean-themed layout, inspired by the converted warehouses and lofts in the neighborhood. Tables in their Detroit location are made from salvaged car and truck hoods, and registers are decorated with Motown records. The Minneapolis store features old bike parts, gears and chains, rescued from the basement of a nearby bike store. The Columbia, Maryland store is in a building designed by famed architect Frank Gehry, and has a minimalist design with little flashes of color.
Here in Los Angeles, the company recently opened a store in Playa Vista, which English described as a very aspirational community, with a history of technology and aviation, and now the hub of Silicon Beach.
She used words like “uplifting” and “soaring” to describe the community, and her firm used ultralight materials, high ceilings, and bright colors to bring a sense of freedom into the store design. Another recently opened store in Brea, she said, was similar in tone though her focus there was on a modern, clean, and residential design.
The stores don’t always reflect localism in a literal way, the way a Trader Joe’s will have murals in the store of a neighborhood scene. It’s more about the values of that neighborhood. In a store that was being planned in Hawaii, English recounts how their plans changed after meeting with community members.
“We went there with this idea that the Hawaiian store should be about the surf and the sun and the sand. And then we got into a room of community leaders and shoppers, and we found out exactly the opposite. They wanted respite from the sun. They wanted it to be cool and shady. So we went from laying on the beach and trying to figure it out, to heading inland and we started hiking the jungles. And we started looking at all the things that were in the materials, and finishes that were dark and shady and comforting instead,” English said.
The Venice store combines the urban grit with the beauty of the ocean and mountains through a color palette that’s not typically used in supermarkets. English recalls that some Whole Foods collaborators bristled at the idea of using a dusty lavender color called “Twilight Taupe.”
Meanwhile, the Silver Lake store uses buoyant, friendly, simple colors like blue, red, yellow and green, which English connects to the values of simplicity and transparency.
There is a lot of psychology that goes into designing a Whole Foods store.
For example, in the recently opened downtown LA store, English said, “we created a space where we want you to meander. It’s exploration and discovery. There you can’t see around every corner. You have to actually physically walk around the corner to see what’s there. You run into people around the corner. Every time you go there you see something new. The messages are sometimes hidden behind a column or they’re done in a way that you may not even notice them the first, second or third time that you come in.”
Whole Foods has pushed supermarket design far beyond the cold, sterile, sanitary white boxes that were once the norm for grocery stores. But, English said, “traditional grocery stores of the past served us all really well. There was a place for that and that was the time for it. The big agribusinesses came in and it was the beginning of processed foods. In the 1940s and ’50s, when traditional grocery stores first came into being, that was almost a necessary thing to do to get people to trust them, and that was quite revolutionary at the time.”
However, supermarkets now resemble European-style markets or today’s farmers markets, in which they’ve become highly social places to shop. Many Whole Foods have dining areas and cafes that also serve beer and wine.
“We talk about the third place. It’s not the third place anymore. It’s a whole new place. It’s a whole new way of being so that it becomes a part of your life,” English said. “Food shopping is such an important thing that we do. Why not let it be delightful? Why does it have to be drudgery? So we’re attempting to create spaces that do just that, whether it’s a value store like 365 by Whole Foods Market or whether it’s a regular Whole Foods store like downtown LA.”