Years of whispers and rumors culminated last week in the announcement that one of those hip, big-city grocery stores is finally coming to Boise. No, it's not Trader Joe's. It's Whole Foods, also nicknamed "Whole Paycheck." For the skinny on what this development could mean for Boise's natural food scene, BW bagged Ken Kavanaugh, general manager and president of the board of the Boise Co-op.
Boise Weekly: I know you've been with the Co-op since around the beginning, but for those who haven't heard the story, give us the abridged version.
Ken Kavanaugh: I go back to the very beginning. It's all, pretty much, I've ever done. It's been sheltered employment for me for quite some time.
How did you get started here?
I was a student at Boise State, flailing around and looking unclear about my direction in life. I latched onto this and it has kind of soothed me. I stuck with it despite all my expectations.
Talk about "sheltered"--the Co-op itself has led a charmed existence for the last 30 years, never really having competition for what it provides.
Never really direct, no. That's probably true of a lot of Co-ops that started in the '70s.
What was the response around the store when you heard that Whole Foods is coming to downtown?
By this time, I've really lost my fear of them. What I know about markets where they come in where there's an existing co-op, is that it's nothing to really be afraid of. Somehow, and I still don't understand how this works, because the products are so similar, it will have a temporary effect on your volume, but you'll get it back. They have a lot strengths, but we have some too.
Frankly, [Whole Foods] may be smarter than I am, but I think they're running out of markets, and I think the kinds of markets they're going into now aren't ones that are necessarily going to support what they do. They have a very specific kind of approach that appeals to a very specific demographic that I don't think we have here in large numbers. I don't know anything about it other than what other people tell me, but the day that article appeared in the Idaho Statesman is the day that they took a huge hit in their stock. I think they're running out of gas in terms of the very specific, well-to-do, high-income people with two incomes and no kids, that kind of stuff. That's why, in the back of my mind, I still don't think they're going to do this. But even if they do, I think they're not going to obliterate us or anything. We just need to do what we do.
What are the major differences in these two stores, in your experience?
We have a much wider assortment of products in a bunch of categories--but mainly the grocery. This is much more of a grocery store. Whole Foods has become more of a special occasion store. They also have a strong emphasis on their prepared foods. I don't know what the percentage is, but I think they have a really large percentage of sales in perishable products. They have a strong meat department, deli is huge, they have a pizza place in there, they have a salad bar, a hot food bar, they have all those types of things.
I noticed in the article in the Statesman where they said something about adapting to local conditions, but I don't know what that would mean here. That area where they're going to go is right by WinCo, which is huge, and it's such a great grocery store. It pulls from a wide area, because people are there doing serious shopping--you know, one cart, two carts. When I go to Whole Foods, I don't see people doing that. I see people with baskets. They're getting stuff more ready to eat.
It's like a theater, almost. You walk inside, and you're like, "Wow!" It's like a demonstration of food and epicurean theater, almost. It's extremely well-presented. But when you get down to the day-to-day, nitty gritty of buying things that you're taking home, we do as well as anybody. And for pricing, I think people may have a perception of our high prices, but wait until Whole Foods comes to town and you can see the difference on individual items.
What's the next step for the Co-op?
We have a lease on the old [Hill's] pharmacy, and we're moving our wine department over there. We're taking it to the next level, in the sense that we're into the palet buys. A couple of our guys have been over to France a couple of times, and they've linked up with, and met and been educated by some of the wholesalers who go on those trips. It's sort of opened our eyes to the possibilities of doing big buys on individual items and being able to offer those as exclusives, and better prices when you buy by the palet. Of course we have to pass those through our local distributors, but I think we're trying to further solidify our position with wine because that's such a link to that customer who also shops our store for groceries.
When can we look for that?
Right after the first of the year, I think. It's going to be a much better, bigger thing for the wine, but also, it'll free up some room for grocery, which we desperately need. Especially frozen foods. There are so many good things available there where there weren't before. We hope to double it.
When you guys moved to Fort Street from the original Hill Road location, did you think it would take you this long to outgrow this space?
Kinda surprised. I thought it would take longer. My belief, which was totally against what most people thought, was that people would come to our store on Hill Road and put up with all kinds of inconveniences to get that food, and that to move to a new location with all kinds of parking--or it seemed like all kinds of parking at the time--would not make that big of a difference. Maybe we'd eventually double our business. Well, we've quadrupled it. So, it's inevitable, because of the way the valley is filling up, that a second location is something we're going to do. Certainly not next year, but in the next two, three years, if there's continued growth out there.
There's that old Eagle Market spot.
Yeah, we're looking at that, because we realize that a lot of our customers are already out there.