There are often moments when a design concept becomes so commonplace and widely replicated that it makes it hard for an originator to stand out. That could be said to be the case for Whole Foods and its take on the design of grocery stores. Starting in 1978 with founder John Mackey's original Safer Way Natural Foods location in Austin, the company has spread across the country and updated the idea of a healthy food store, from rows of utilitarian bins to elaborately laid out superstores with bright produce aisles and numerous in-store bar and dining options. With extensive growth plans to nearly triple the company's total number of stores from 417 to 1,200, including a just-announced initiative to open smaller, urban locations tailored to millennials, it seemed like a good time to speak with Christine Sturch, one of the company's Design and Branding Coordinators. While many of the chain's core interior design concepts seem rote at this point —reclaimed material, creating an experience within a shopping trip — Whole Foods helped introduce these concepts to the mainstream grocery industry.
Sturch heads the design group within the 22-person Midwest Store Development team. Currently working on 11 stores designs across the Midwest and Ontario, Sturch is a 20 year veteran of Whole Foods, and has even deeper roots in the natural foods industry, having worked at a natural food coop as a teen growing up in Chicago.
The core of the company's philosophy is designing for the community, which explains why Sturch's group is one of 12 different teams across the country. Whole Foods seeks to create a branded environment around authenticity, sustainability and the "theater" of the shopping experience, she says, with open kitchen and wide produce displays. Sturch and her team may love the idea of covering a wall in a particular type of tile, but if the store designers find a way to add and window or glass the shows off food being made or prepped, that will likely win out.
"We have to remember as interior designers that we sell food, not design," she says. "Food is the hero here."
Sturch says that each store is based around a standard design brief, which begins by going out into the community and consulting demographic and community research, including demographic data and even trips to local historical societies. Old images or neighborhood history may suggest incorporating industrial motifs, and existing neighborhood stores can provide stylistic cues. For instance, a recently opened store in Chicago's Greektown neighborhood, just west of downtown, was given a Mediterranean theme to help broaden any cultural and culinary connections due to the huge restaurant row nearby, as well as an airy interior partially inspired by the converted warehouses
and lofts in the surrounding neighborhood.
At the forthcoming Englewood store in Chicago, which is still in the initial planning stages, Sturch's team might do an homage to the railroads, since they discovered the site had deep relevance to the railroads. Opening in a lower-income on Chicago's south side, the store has generated interest over whether "Whole Paycheck" can work in a less affluent area. But, like the Midtown Detroit opening a few years ago that seemed to fly in the face of people's expectations of the Motor City, this new Chicago store just needs to reflect the community, which is why they're sourcing local material and working with Chicago design firm 555.
Locally sourced and salvaged materials also play a big role in store design. Even Sturch is a bit tired of barn wood, and tries to find other ways to reuse material. At the company's Minneapolis store, old bike pieces, gears and chains, rescued from the basement of a bike store down the block, decorate the walls, and when the St. Paul location was moving, they purchased letters from an old sign shop to use for the interior. A store in the city's Lincoln Park neighborhood includes a diner partially built from old wood salvaged from a now defunct amusement park.
"We feel like we're on the forefront of reusing materials," says Sturch. "It taps into what's around the corner, as opposed to vendors who are across the country."
The reclaimed material also speaks to Whole Foods' sustainability initiatives. The company's focus on energy conservation includes more efficient refrigeration systems, switching all in-store lighting to LED and the occasional LEED-certified location. It's all part of backing up the stores philosophy with visual branding and design.
"I think the legacy is about making grocery shopping not a chore, it should be simple, comfortable and unique," she says. "That's an impact Whole Foods has made, as a design standpoint, we've made going out a greeting your groceries a fun experience."