Noe Valley Voice September 2009

Whole Foods Set to Open Sept. 30

By Corrie M. Anders

When Whole Foods Market makes its long-anticipated appearance in Noe Valley this month, it will unveil a few surprises.

For one, the store replacing Bell Market on 24th Street will pour kombucha on tap. Kombucha is a popular Chinese tea that purports to have therapeutic value.

But another surprise may be a less pleasant one: Drivers who overstay their 60-minute visit to the store's parking lot are likely to find their cars quickly towed.

Shoppers can expect these and a host of other changes when the gourmet grocery opens its doors Sept. 30, with a "bread-breaking ceremony."

"It's our version of a ribbon-cutting," said Glen Moon, a vice president at the chain, which is known for its organic and preservative-free products.

The guest list has not been finalized, Moon said. But community leaders, city politicians, and company representatives will kick off the event at 9:45 a.m. with thank-yous and welcome speeches. And at 10 a.m., shoppers will get their first opportunity to roam the aisles.

The unwrapping of the remodeled store at 3950 24th Street has been eagerly awaited since mid-February, when Bell, the only full-size grocery in "Downtown Noe Valley," shut its doors after more than four decades on the block.

"Everybody misses having a full-service grocery store within walking distance," said Debra Niemann, executive director of the Noe Valley Association. "Not only the community but the merchants want it to open up, too. The merchants need the foot traffic."

The Noe Valley Whole Foods will be open daily from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.

A Manager with Experience

Whole Foods veteran Angela Lorenzen will be "team leader"--the equivalent of store manager--for the 24th Street store. Lorenzen joined the Austin, Texas­based grocery in 2000 as a "team member," and moved up the corporate ladder while working at five Whole Foods stores in the Bay Area.

Like Whole Foods' other locations, the Noe Valley store will feature a full line of vitamins and natural cosmetics, a large produce section, a bakery, a wide selection of wines and cheeses, chef-prepared foods to take out, and a fishmonger and butcher.

"The meats will be cut to order," said Lorenzen. "There's not going to be a bunch of stuff in styrofoam wrapped in saran wrap on a shelf."

Because the store is less than half the size of Whole Foods' typical stores, it will not have a sit-down café or clothing for sale.

Lorenzen said the store would offer several other treats to compensate, but she refused to disclose them--all except the kombucha--before the grand opening.

However, she gave fair warning to drivers who might be tempted to use the parking lot to do errands on 24th Street. Outdoor monitors will be on hand to nab offenders at the lot, which has space for just 18 vehicles.

"Unfortunately, we will be towing cars," she said.

Lorenzen encouraged customers in the traffic-clogged corridor to walk, take public transportation, or use other alternatives to driving. Most store employees plan to either ride their bicycles or use Muni, she said, "so we won't be parking in the lot either."

End of Mini-Market, Shuttle

The advent of Whole Foods ends a number of stopgap measures residents and merchants undertook to make up for the seven months the community has been without a traditional large grocery.

A mini farmers market that sold goods on Tuesdays in the grocery's parking lot shut down Aug. 25 because Whole Foods needed the space for the final construction push. The operation started last May.

"It was really a great mini-market," said Leslie Crawford, one of the organizers. "It became increasingly popular as more people learned about it. I know that customers were happy to get produce during the week, and I'm hoping it helped the merchants."

The original Noe Valley Farmers' Market will continue to sell fruits and vegetables, eggs, and other products on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Noe Valley Ministry's parking lot, on 24th Street between Sanchez and Vicksburg streets.

And the weekly Tuesday shuttle that Whole Foods ran to the retailer's Potrero Hill store will no longer be needed after Sept. 22, its last day of operation. The free van service, which the community requested when Bell closed, has been ferrying residents to the Whole Foods on Rhode Island Street since March.

Whole Foods currently has no plans to offer home delivery or free shuttle service within the neighborhood to assist seniors or disabled residents.

"Maybe down the road," said Lorenzen. "We're focused on opening and making sure we take care of our first make sure our regular, everyday business is successful before we start adding elements."

A Few Bell Employees Hired

Former Bell shoppers will see a few familiar faces at the new store. Lorenzen noted that all Bell employees had been invited to interview for positions with Whole Foods.

"Some were asked to join our team, and some declined and a few accepted," said Lorenzen. She wouldn't identify the workers joining Whole Foods because they were still going through the hiring process.

The Sept. 30 launch will give Whole Foods four operations in San Francisco, including Potrero Hill, Pacific Heights, and the South of Market area. At one time, company executives expected the 24th Street site would not open until much later this fall.

"We accelerated our effort because we knew the community was eager to get the store open," Moon said. "We went over and above [with] a really tight schedule with no fluff."

The renovations, which Moon said cost $4 million, involved gutting the 18,000-square-foot Bell Market structure. The company upgraded bathrooms, designed the space to accommodate disabled shoppers, and utilized environmentally friendly construction products and equipment.

"I have to commend them," Niemann said. "They started in March or April and they're finishing now. That's pretty impressive."