It's now been almost three months since the much-buzzed-about Whole Foods opened in Harlem–enough time for most of the kinks to have been worked out. So I thought I'd pay a visit to the bi-level location on 125th Street and report back on what I saw and ate.
My main impression? Whole Foods made sure to add some unique details to make the Harlem store feel special, and for the most part it works. Here are 5 noteworthy reasons to stop by (and a few improvements they could make, too):
1. Harlem Local Vendor Program
When it first opened in July, the Whole Foods in Harlem made a point of featuring 18 local (as in made-in-Harlem) brands on its shelves. They included Egunsi Foods–maker of West African soups–The Harlem Pie Man, and the extremely popular Mama's One Sauce. Very cool idea.
Much to my disappointment, searching for the brands–which can only be identified by small blue-and-white "Local Harlem, NY" labels next to the price (see above)–was a time-consuming treasure hunt. As a regular customer walking through the aisles, I counted maybe five Harlem brands in the store the day I was there. Perhaps the idea would work better if there was one big area on the main floor that brought all the brands together. It would shine a light on the program nicely, I think.
2. Hot Bread KitcheN
Hot Bread Kitchen is both a bakery and terrific cause: the East Harlem non-profit teaches low-income, immigrant women baking skills, then sells their global breads at city greenmarkets, grocers, as well as Whole Foods stores nationwide to support itself. Its presence within the Whole Foods in Harlem feels a bit like a happy homecoming: Hot Bread Kitchen's "Local" sign was the only one I didn't have to search for with a magnifying glass (see photo above).
When the store first opened there were three graduates of its bakers-in-training program churning out close to 20 multiethnic breads from the big oven on the ground floor. These days you'll find everything from Hot Bread Kitchen's plump challahs to its flat, flaky Moroccan M'smen.
3. Cuban Sandwich and Kebab grill stations
The Cuban sandwich counter and adjacent kebab station, a brand new concept, are fun new additions to the prepared food choices at the Whole Foods in Harlem. When I stopped by for lunch one recent afternoon, there was a crowd of people waiting to order things like harissa chicken kebabs and Mediterranean fries (french fries mixed in a large bowl with feta, green onion and Moroccan salt).
I ordered the Cuban sandwich, pressed with a generous smear of butter and stuffed with juicy roast pork, ham, cheese, mustard and plenty of pickles. But when I went to pay, the store's color-coded next-register checkout system was uneven and slow, so my sandwich had cooled quite a bit by the time I sat down to enjoy it. I found myself wishing Whole Foods had a line usher like Trader Joe's does in its busy New York stores.
4. Cuban Coffee Bar
I love a good cafe con leche, and the one the barista made for me at the new Cuban coffee bar at the Whole Foods in Harlem was perfect. I ordered mine with whole milk (it comes hot, of course) and asked that they go easy on the cane sugar.
5. Mochi ice cream bar
OK, so this isn't the only Whole Foods in the city to have a self-serve mochi ice cream bar. But I'm so excited it's here! This little slice of heaven is located close to the ground level entrance, so you don't have to go too deep into the store to find these small ice cream balls wrapped in chewy, sweet Japanese rice dough. The bar sells about 10 flavors, some seasonal (last month there was mango, now there's butter pecan). Buyer beware: each treat costs $2–and one is not enough.