Wandering through Manhattan last week on a brief visit to the Big Apple, I was struck by the way in which the city's ready-to-eat food culture has been transformed since my last visit almost a decade ago (I know it's a long time between visits; but I don't get out much!).
It all reminded me of a story we ran way back in 1998, when we described how a new type of store that we dubbed 'the grocerant' was set to revolutionise food retailing. As someone who wants more than a bagel or a hot dog when out and about, I was delighted to discover that virtually every food to go outlet, casual dining establishment and deli store on Manhattan seems to have embraced the concept in one form or another.
Eight years ago, we wrote that New York's famous department store Macy's was leading the way with a new deli-cum-restaurant in its basement. Today, Macy's efforts have been eclipsed by outlets right across Manhattan and are looking downright shabby when compared with what's on offer at one store near Central Park.
That's right, I am talking here about the Whole Foods Market in Columbus Circle, which we deservedly named last year as the best food store in the world.
What impressed me most about this huge outlet was its prepared foods area where it caters for the needs of busy urbanites by offering everything from hot food and salad bars, fresh sushi, freshly made pizza and pre-packaged sandwiches and salads. There's different fresh options depending on the time of day. And there's a menu of restaurant-quality food that you can either take back to the office, take home or eat in the store's café.
The grocerant idea has never really taken off in the UK. We have elements of it, of course, which some British retailers (big and small) have implemented really well, blurring the boundaries between retail and foodservice in the process. But it's the way in which US outlets have combined all these elements, often in ways that we have not yet thought about, that is so impressive. Perhaps the march of the grocerants across Manhattan is a sign that such concepts are better suited to that island's uniquely high-octane, cashed-up working and living environment. Nevertheless, Whole Foods is preparing to give it a go over here. And when you see what's in store at Columbus Circle, it really does whet your appetite ahead of next year's opening in London
Julian Hunt, Editor