Whole Foods Market gets set to raise the stakes in the grocery game

At last, there will be something other than dust, jackhammers and traffic blockades between Everyday Music and Powell's City of Books, and it promises to be pretty sweet.

Whole Foods Market will open its Portland store March 20, making it the first tenant of the massively overhauled Brewery Blocks off West Burnside Street.

Whole Foods is the largest natural and organic supermarket company in the world, with about 130 stores in the United States and a Canadian store under development in Toronto.

If you're not familiar with Whole Foods, here's a fair description. Take the environmental activism of the Sierra Club, throw in the best of what natural food co-ops have to offer, mix with soft-edged Ikea aesthetics, and add the polar opposite of what Qwest calls customer service.

The bottom line for shoppers is that Whole Foods carries only products that are certified organic or deemed to be natural, in that they endure minimal processing and are free of artificial preservatives and flavors.

In addition to providing products that inflict the least possible environmental harm, Whole Foods aims to make grocery shopping less of a chore.

'One of our core values is to delight and satisfy customers,' says Will Hildeburn. (Hildeburn's title, associate store team leader for Portland, should tell you something about the company's progressive staff policies.)

A recent tour of the supermarket site at 1210 N.W. Couch St. revealed a number of features designed to make shopping convenient, if still not exactly a ball.

For starters, there's the tote system, which surely will give the administrators at the nearby Stadium Fred Meyer a wake-up call. At the checkout counter, customers will receive tickets that correspond with their parcels. While they retrieve their cars from the adjacent, four-

story parking garage (built to serve the entire Brewery Blocks project), their bags will journey down a conveyor belt to meet them. Whole Foods staff then will load their purchases for them.

Although Whole Foods isn't strictly a gourmet market, it definitely caters to foodies. This location will boast a dedicated cheese department, stocked with everything from triple-cream St. AndrŽ to uncommon blue Gouda; an aged beef case; the largest seafood selection in town; and coffee roasted on site.

Whole Foods also will introduce a new concept for the chain at this store. Salud, a small cooking school and housewares shop built on a mezzanine level overlooking the sales floor, will recruit local chefs to lead inexpensive classes. In a stroke of marketing cunning, Salud Ñ and a visible, full-service bakery Ñ will tempt shoppers with the aromas of what's cooking upstairs.

Whole Foods presents a pretty tempting package all around. It certainly will be a nice change from hard hats and bulldozers.

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