By Emily Hamann
The Bellingham Business Journal
There’s a new game in town for grocery shoppers looking for natural and organic foods.
Whole Foods Market is open.
The store opened around 9 a.m. Wednesday at 1030 Lakeway Drive in Bellingham after a “breaking bread” ceremony which featured store staff, community members, the mayor and some protesters.
The ceremony was hosted by Otto Leuschel, the store team leader (that’s Whole Foods speak for the store manager).
“We are coming in from a position of respect for the food community here,” Leuschel said. He said the store hopes to “earn” its place in the community among existing natural food stores like the Community Food Co-op and Terra.
Seattle-based Greek yogurt company Ellenos was passing out samples. At the ceremony, the company received a $100,000 loan from Whole Foods as part of its Local Producer Loan program.
The store also donated $2,000 to the Bellingham Food Bank. Food bank Executive Director Mike Cohen said they have formed a partnership with Whole Foods to collect the store’s unsold food.
“We’re thrilled to have another strong grocery partner here in Bellingham,” he said.
Whole Foods has already been working with local schools; the company gave $120,000 from its Whole Kids Foundation to Bellingham Public Schools to make school lunches healthier.
A large crowd gathered for the ceremony. At opening, the parking lot was full, and was still full into the afternoon.
The 50,000-square-foot store includes a coffee bar serving Allegro coffee, a juice bar, and an in-store pizza eatery that serves beer on tap.
Bellingham’s Aslan Brewery brewed a special beer for the store, Illmatic IPA, which will only be available at the Bellingham Whole Foods.
About 135 employees were hired at the store, and another 29 existing Whole Foods employees transferred to the location.
It’s the ninth Whole Foods in the state. The next closest one is in Lynnwood.
“I want to give Whole Foods a round of applause for picking Bellingham,” Mayor Kelli Linville said Wednesday. “They’re more like a movement than a grocery store.”
About 10 minutes into the ceremony, the speakers were interrupted by a group of protesters, who demonstrated against Whole Foods’ stocking Driscoll’s berries. Driscoll’s gets some of its berries from Sakuma Brothers Farms in Burlington. Farm workers there have been fighting against working conditions and trying to get a union contract. They’ve called for grocery stores to boycott the berries. Both the Co-op and Terra have complied with the boycott.
“To be welcomed in this community [Whole Foods] really need to support all members of the community, including the farm workers who put food on our plates,” said Andrew Eckels, one of the organizers in the protesting group.
Whole Foods has reached out to Driscoll’s about the issue, according to a statement released by Whole Foods, and the berry company said it is working “to advance farmworker welfare.” The Whole Foods statement doesn’t specify what those improvements are.
After the ceremony, Leuschel said that while he respected the protesters right to free speech, it was unfortunate that they had tried to disrupt the celebration of the Whole Foods workers, who had worked hard to get the store open.
“I think respect has to be a two-way street,” he said.