The Skinny On Whole Foods

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - August 22, 2007
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If, like me, you’re concerned about local restaurants, local farmers and the growing number of Mainland food related chains hitting the Islands, and then you probably have been following with interest the Kahala Mall/Whole Foods Market story.

After a number of newspaper articles appeared earlier this month, the story seemed to be that national natural foods giant Whole Foods was getting picky about its neighbors. Letters to editors and calls for protests have been strong, and public perception is that Kahala Mall is forcing out its longtime tenants, including Yen King Chinese Restaurant, Ginza Kimura Tokyo Bakery and I Love Country Café, in favor of new tenants who fit the Whole Foods image. Something didn’t seem right about the whole thing to me, so I called Kahala Mall management to find out the details.

Whole Foods is known as a company with a strong commitment to its local markets. It donates 5 percent of profits to community projects and the company website states that the (stores) “must be good tenants of the planet, intimately connected to the health and economy of each community.”

Sounds more like the Mr. Rogers approach to neighbors than some bullying corporate box store.

“It’s nothing to do with Whole Foods,” says a slightly exasperated Kelly Kauinana, marketing manager for the mall. “The tenants have been aware since the closure of Star Market last year that we were looking to refurbish that end of the mall,” she says of the entrance that hasn’t been upgraded decades. “Before Whole Foods signed its lease, we already had spoken with tenants and written leases designed to end this year,” she explains. “Yen King, for example, was given three months’ notice - but it was on a month-to-month lease from January. Had another food store or business gone into that space, the situation would be the same.”

Apparently, trying to tempt us to the mall has made landlords a lot more competitive.

“There’s a lot of competition for malls out there, and people want choices of where to eat, shop and be entertained. The mall tries to bring in exciting tenants to serve the community - and to bring in stores people want,” says Kelly. “For Kahala Mall, this is a good time to revamp.”

I Love Country Café will leave at the end of the summer, and Kimura will close Aug 20. No word yet on where Yen King may go.

Meanwhile, representatives from Whole Foods have been busy visiting local farms and have already contracted several to begin supplying their stores this October. MA’O Farms on the Waianae Coast is one. Dean Okimoto, president of the Hawaii Farm Bureau, has his own concerns about the natural food giant coming to town. “I don’t know that there are that many farms with the acreage to supply what they need,” he says.

Or the all-important safety standards. “We’re taking a wait-and-see approach.”

Happy eating!

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