Marc Vetri got a text from his wife the other day. “Check this out,” she wrote, and then attached a video featuring…a shopping cart. Only this shopping cart wasn’t just standing still. It was riding on its own escalator.
“Isn’t that awesome?” Vetri asked, showing off the video a few days later. The star chef wasn’t alone in his excitement. The shopping cart escalator — whigh made it easy to get bagged groceries from the second-level shopping floor back to the sidewalk, or your car — is part of the main exit stairway at the giant new Whole Foods Market at 2101 Pennsylvania Ave. Since the store opened last month, the escalator has been one of the most talked-about features, inspiring several delighted social media posts from Philadelphians who were wowed or surprised by the new tech.
Oh, city dwellers. It seems the “cartolators” (Whole Foods’ term) Philly’s been buzzing about aren’t exactly novel. If you live or shop in the suburbs, you’ve probably seen or used them before, at Whole Foods, or maybe a Target or two. Shopping cart escalators have been a thing since way back in the 1980s, when Walmart progenitor Ann & Hope introduced a slightly less automated version to the world.
But to folks who live in Philly’s urban center, where grocery stores are rarely multi-floor operations, they’re … cool. As it turns out, the cart escalators are just one of the many technologies that make the new Whole Foods more than a regular market.
Here’s what else to pay attention to when you go.
Just inside the soaring floor-to-second-story windows that make up the building’s facade is a ground floor retail counter surrounded by tables and chairs. It’s officially called the Allegro Coffee Bar, but that’s unnecessarily dismissive of one of its most unique offerings — tea. Tea infused in a vacuum.
When you order, you’re not signing up for some drop-the-bag-in-a-cup-and-add-water situation. Instead, the barista measures the loose tea leaves of your choice and inserts them into a machine that looks like a cross between an juicer and a guillotine. It’s the Bkon Craft Brewer, and according to a pre-programmed sequence, it begins removing air from the brewing chamber and bubbling hot water through.
Each type of tea goes through a different cycle tweaked to its particular characteristics. The end result is likely to be one of the most flavorful, least bitter cups you’ve ever experienced. Pass on the honey, you won’t need it.
Robot pour-overs that don’t take forever
Back on the coffee side, the equipment doesn’t slack either. Find yourself skipping the clean, delicate flavor of a pour-over because you don’t feel like dealing with the barista rolling their eyes as the next 10 people in line start twitching with caffeine withdrawal? Whole Foods has the gizmo that makes it much easier.
The Poursteady features a computerized spigot that can navigate its way back-and-forth across five pour-over cones at any given time. Each release of perfect temp water is perfectly timed, from the initial bloom to the slow middle drip to the final fill that takes the grounds up to the very edge of the filter. All the barista has to do it prep the grounds, press a few buttons and then move on to taking the next order.
Your morning smoothie in dessert form
Upstairs, next to the sprawling produce section, there’s a juice bar. Yes, you can order freshly-pressed juice in a handful of different combinations. But even better — and much more decadent feeling — is that same juice turned into a sorbet-like scoop.
To create it, Whole Foods staffers use a Pacojet, a kind of freezing blender many high-end chefs consider an essential part of their arsenal. In it, juice blends frozen the night before are custom shaved to order, and served in a paper cup with a spoon. The result is creamy and smooth, and also lasts longer than juice, making it feel much more substantial without adding any calories.
Dry-aged meat, hanging before your eyes
Open kitchens are the new normal at restaurants these days, and that’s also the overarching philosophy behind this Whole Foods. All the stoves and prep tables that make the eats for the expansive prepared food section are totally visible instead of hidden behind swinging doors. Same is true for the seafood section, where mongers will clean and filet your chosen fish at a table right next to where you’re standing.
It’s also that way in the butchery. Which can be a little jarring at first. Even old-school butchers usually did their cutting behind a nice high counter. But if you’re going to eat meat, you might as well recognize where it comes from. So here, whole animals are broken down right before customers’ eyes — although for safety’s sake, the action takes place in a glassed-in room next to the main display.
Inside the butcher room, in a second, double-walled glass chamber, is the dry-aged meat case. Precisely controlled temperature (34 to 36 degrees) and humidity (between 60 and 70 percent) make this the right environment for aging beef. At any given time, steaks in three cuts — New York strip, short loin and export rib (aka prime rib) — are sitting on its shelves for two to three weeks at a time, intensifying their umami flavor.
Here’s a look at some of the other cool stuff around the store.
A full service pub offering pints and growlers.
Lots and lots of craft beer to go (no wine by the bottle yet, though — that’s likely coming in 2017).
Don’t miss the seating nook above the pub/beer fridges.
Two hybrid wood-gas ovens cook pizzas that fall somewhere between NY-style and Neapolitan.
There’s a grab-your-own fresh pasta bar.
The cheese section is ginormous, and organized by style.
Seafood isn’t hidden behind glass so you can really tell if it’s fresh.
Bagels and lox are put together right out in the middle of the seafood area.
You can see hoagies being built throughout the day.
The Allegro Coffee Bar is full of natural light.
Espressos are pulled on a low-profile Modbar system.
Each leaf of this “Jasmine Pearls” tea is rolled by hand.