We never thought we'd be heading to a Whole Foods for a dining review, but after a few visits to its new-and-improved Bowman location, we realized that while this place still sells groceries, prepared food is star attraction. It's a smart marketing decision by the Austin-based grocer – they once ruled the organic and health food grocery market, but now that big boys like Walmart and Kroger have multiple organic options, the pricier Whole Foods brand needed something to keep it relevant. Given our experience at the new store, they have succeeded admirably.
And let's just get this out of the way right here at the top: this is a grocery store with a bar. A full, honest-to-hops bar decked out in attractive reclaimed wood with tables, stools and a friendly employee who will pour you a selection of beers by the glass to be enjoyed in the bar area or by the growler for home consumption. We saw Lost Forty beers on tap as well as national brands, and the idea of popping into our local grocer for dinner ingredients and a pint seemed so wonderfully revolutionary that we drank two just to make sure it was real.
After our drink at the bar, we made our way to the back of the store to take a look at the "barbecue bar," a self-serve salad-bar style table that was full of pulled pork, smoked chicken, sausages, ribs and smoked baked potatoes. Grab what you want in the recycled-material containers and then weigh it out – you can mix and match what you want for $10.99 per pound. The store is smoking their meat on-site, which both surprised and impressed us.
The 'cue itself wasn't gourmet but we still thought it was quite tasty. The pulled pork was tender and had a good smoky flavor, and while we were worried that its time in the holding pan would leave it dry, it was perfectly moist — it's a perfect pulled pork to feed a bunch of folks for relatively cheap. The chicken was also tasty, and again our fears of a dry product were laid to rest by the first bite. At the suggestion of a staff member, we also sampled a sausage called Atomic – and while it wasn't overly spicy, it was also a really good smoked sausage.
At this point, having had beer and barbecue at a store with a reputation more for soy milk and granola, we decided to head home and lie down for a while to ponder a world that was drastically different than the one we thought we knew. And then the next day, we went back.
Our second trip took us through the expanded cheese counter, where the knowledgeable staff was more than willing to talk about their various cheeses and cut sample pieces of anything to try. As tempting as it was for us to just hang out and eat Humboldt Fog and imported Stilton, we knew there was more to see. We passed by a case of build-your-own sushi kits which include pre-cut slices of sashimi grade fish and made a solemn vow to any deity that might be listening that we were going to return for that at a later date.
Not being in the mood for beer that day (yes, we were shocked, too) we decided to head over to the coffee and juice bar. A perfectly acceptable cafe au lait ran $3.50 for a 20 oz. cup, and while we did not sample any of the juice, we did notice the spicy green fragrance of wheat grass floating all around as one of the baristas prepared a bright green shot for another customer. It wasn't for us, but anyone into that sort of thing would likely be pleased with the finished product.
What is our thing is pizza, and Whole Foods knows this because they installed a pizza bar selling slices for $3.50 each or $6 for two. We selected a slice of veggie pizza ... and discovered the best bite we'd had yet. The crust is good, light with a good texture, and the toppings were nicely balanced — not so heavy as to overwhelm everything else, but not so sparse as to not be present at the party. Pair a slice of this pizza with a bowl of the $8.99 per pound salad and you've got quite a lunch.
This new appeal to customers is a stroke of genius. There are tables scattered around for diners to use, and we saw at least two dozen people enjoying lunch just like they were at a cafe. The sturdy containers the store uses makes it great for takeout, and we imagine that there are more than a few West Little Rock commuters who stop in to grab a tasty dinner for the family that doesn't require cooking. With the organic market getting more crowded, Whole Foods deserves some credit for expanding what they do – and with everything we ate making the grade, they seem to be bringing some skills to the expanded store. Of course, we still can't get over drinking a beer at the grocery store.
Maybe they're owned by a Chik-Fil-A devotee. Or Hobby Lobby. But I just called and…