Its Gowanus location in Brooklyn has been a part of the neighborhood’s evolution.
Originally printed in the May 2023 issue of Produce Business.
Whole Foods Market has made itself at home in New York City over the past couple of decades, expanding in Manhattan, where it has 13 stores, then crossing the river to Brooklyn to open four stores in newly gentrified neighborhoods. One of those locations is in the Gowanus neighborhood, where it not only serves food shoppers, but helps advance the cause of urban agriculture with a Gotham Greens roof installation.
Gowanus is one of the more recently gentrified communities in Brooklyn, and apartment buildings and condominiums continue under construction in a neighborhood that was previously commercial, industrial and working class. The 20,000-square-foot greenhouse atop the Gowanus Whole Foods was the second Gotham Greens’ growing facility in Brooklyn, but the company’s first commercial scale greenhouse farm integrated into a supermarket.
Gotham Green operates a 15,000-square-foot greenhouse in the Greenpoint neighborhood, in addition to a third New York City greenhouse in Jamaica, Queens, a 60,000-square-foot facility in the historic Ideal Toy Co. factory building.
The 56,000-square-foot Gowanus Whole Foods became the first Brooklyn store under the banner when it opened in 2013.
Once, the neighborhood would have been an unlikely candidate for urban agriculture, as it was most famous for the polluted Gowanus Canal. However, the Gowanus Whole Foods now serves a neighborhood where consumers are concerned about issues such as sustainability.
“Environmental awareness was a major focus for the property’s build out, especially considering the history of the store on a former brownfield site and Gowanus Canal’s designation by the EPA as a Superfund site,” says Jinah Kim, store team leader for Whole Foods Gowanus.
Kim explains the store is LEED Platinum certified, the highest level of certification in green building energy and design, and the building incorporates sustainable building materials, such as more than 250,000 reclaimed bricks from the demolished Westinghouse Factory in Newark and salvaged wood from the Coney Island boardwalk that was destroyed during Superstorm Sandy.
The store’s site also features solar panels in the outdoor parking lot, wind turbines and electric vehicle charging stations, along with water collection tanks under the parking lot’s permeable pavers to collect rainwater.
“The addition of the Gotham Green’s 20,000-square-foot rooftop greenhouse was a perfect partnership for this store and the first of its kind integrated into a retail location,” Kim adds.
With its connection to urban agriculture and sustainability, the Gowanus Whole Foods was bound to attract the interest of the clientele that has been moving to the community.
“These elements provide a connection to the neighborhood we’re in by showing our investment in environmental stewardship to the community,” says Kim. “One of Whole Foods Market’s core values is caring for our communities and the environment. It’s a consideration not only for the products we source and sell, but for building out physical stores where we serve customers. As a company, we’re one of the market leaders in energy efficiency in the built environment. We strive to design and operate our stores in ways that maximize energy efficiency, and I do believe that’s one of the reasons customers choose to shop with us.”
SPOTLIGHTING PRODUCE VARIETY
Amanda Delgado, store associate team leader in produce, led a store tour as part of the 2022 New York Produce Show. She started at a low-profile, open case that stands by the store’s entrance and across from the produce section. On the day of the tour, it was loaded with berries, an important category for the store where strawberries and blueberries are two top sellers.
Delgado says the store brings in berries from many sources, including local berries from New Jersey in season. The availability of local produce is important to the store’s proposition to the customers and is immediately emphasized on the shelf on top of the berry case, where the store mounts signage that calls out the source.
Moving into the produce departments, avocados are featured in a mix of conventional and organic varieties in both bulk and bags. Organics are abundant in the Whole Foods Gowanus produce department, and Delgado says the Gowanus store offers a majority of organic produce. Shoppers can also purchase conventional products from a bulk display.
Avocados are the third best-selling produce segment in the store after berries and potatoes/onions, Delgado says.
Apples, with grapes tucked in with them and pears nearby, are a significant part of the produce section front-end displays, as are citrus products. Potatoes and onions, squash and tropicals, including bananas, are merchandised by category in the back of the produce section. As December began, the store was transitioning, pushing citrus more forward and pulling apples back a bit as their peak season had passed. Similarly, the store was winding down domestic organic grapes and introducing conventional, as sourcing switched to from domestic to imported products.
In Brooklyn, Whole Foods clearly believes its customers want variety within categories. Although they were transitioning to a lesser configuration in early December, the store still offered 15 apple SKUs, with both organic and conventional included. The mix included domestic and imported items, such as varieties from New Zealand. Among the latest introductions, the Hunnyz variety from Washington State remained a part of the December apple presentation.
In the meantime, the citrus season had begun, and the presentation was expanding. Featured items included white grapefruit, Melogold grapefruit and red grapefruit as well as bags of organic mandarins, Valencia oranges and Key limes. In Brooklyn, mandarins/clementines are also among the most popular produce items, Delgado says, including stem and leaf mandarins that were prominent in the assortment and “very peelable.”
In the period leading up to the holidays, imported Italian chestnuts were a celebratory element of the department assortment.
Not far away, the pear display included product from New Jersey growers, while the store also featured organic red pears from Washington.
ORGANIC FOCUS CONTINUES
In the open cold cases, leafy greens get a big piece of the space. In Gowanus, the demand for fresh greens and herbs outstrips processed items, Delgado says. In the wet case, in general, organics are the majority of the assortment. The wet wall categories are big sellers in Brooklyn, with cilantro, broccoli, kale in several varieties, and green onions especially popular. The majority of wet wall products are organic, Delgado says, even if many commodities are presented in both organic and conventional form.
Potatoes, in the rear of the produce section, occupy a large piece of the department floor space. In another example of the importance attached to varieties within product segments, Whole Foods Gowanus makes a particular point of its yucca and sweet potato display, with signage identifying and explaining individual varieties. Bananas are adjacent to potatoes and onions. The commodities in the rear of the department also came in both organic and conventional presentations.
Although it doesn’t have the kind of ethnic customer base some supermarkets in Brooklyn support, the Gowanus store has a large range of peppers, such as everything from jalapeño to habanero and serrano. Fresh herbs reside above a large mushroom display featuring packaged and bulk baskets. And the store offers a mix of organic and conventional ginger root, turmeric, watermelon radish, tomatillos and sugar snap peas near items such as English cucumbers and zucchini and yellow squash as well as organic radicchio.
“People love organic radicchio,” Delgado notes.
The store merchandises packaged salads in door-fronted cases across the department from greens. As is the case with greens, the assortment is expansive and features both private label and branded products such as Gotham Greens and Square Roots items, organic girl clamshell items and Taylor Farms in bags. The store also offers a significant display of dressings in the cold case alongside packaged salads.
FRESH-CUTS ATTRACT SHOPPERS
Fresh cuts and related value-added products are popular at Whole Foods Brooklyn. Fresh-cut fruits also are an important part of the cold case displays, “all cut in house,” Delgado says, with exceptions being salsa and mango from Baldor.
“The guacamole is made in-house, as well,” she added.
Busy Brooklyn customers who generally prepare food in small apartment kitchens appreciate the simplicity packaged salads and fresh-cut fruit provide. “I would say the thing wanted the most is the pineapple,” Delgado says, “along with the watermelon.”
Fresh-cut coconut is also part of the presentation.