Boston, MA– Look far enough into the past—say, 2016—and you might remember a time when “in-store experience” at grocery stores meant avoiding eye contact with a vaguely Stepford Wife-esque promotional merchant aggressively proffering free cheese samples when all you really wanted was a six pack and a roll of aluminum foil.
But the in-store experience isn’t just a pretentious marketing buzzword anymore. It’s a fundamental reality for brick and mortar retailers forced to distinguish themselves against the ever-encroaching digital threat of obsolescence. When American consumers are spending over $513 Billion for online retail goods, you can be certain adaptation will not only drive your in-store grocery “experience” but alter it in unimaginable ways.
Witness the rise of lifestyle branding.
It’s no longer enough to purchase your favorite pint of ice cream. Your shopping decisions define your demographic, your lifestyle, and your very identity as a consumer. And perhaps no other retailer understands this as much as Whole Foods Market. As synonymous with health consciousness as they are with relatively high levels of disposable income, they’ve cornered the organic food market by the twin pillars of both exclusivity (as the only USDA Certified organic grocer in the U.S.) and name recognition. And despite their acquisition by Amazon, they’ll do anything in their power to retain that status. The result? The “Friends of Whole Foods Market” program.
Launched last year in Atlanta and Los Angeles, the program partners with local chefs, restaurants and retailers to “bring shoppers innovative in-store experiences.” And while it can be argued that the program provides exposure to local chefs and lends a regionally-inspired identity for consumers shopping at a national chain, the question still remains whether or not partnering with a chain retailer ultimately homogenizes the character of local vendors.
If it does, no one bothered to tell the James Beard Award-winner and Top Chef alumni Karen Akunowicz. In a press release earlier this week, Akunowicz—who opened her long-awaited debut enoteca Fox & the Knife in February—announced she would be opening SloPoke, a fast-casual poke-themed shop in the Charles River Plaza location of Whole Foods.
“Prior to opening Fox & the Knife, I cooked with Asian ingredients at Myers + Chang for seven years, experimenting with bold flavors — including my poke, which was a signature item on the menu,” said Akunowicz. “Now, I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to open a poke concept where I can bring my vibrant flavors to the Whole Foods Market shoppers.”
It goes without saying that part of the appeal of poke is the ability for customers to create their own bowls, and SloPoke promises that appeal will remain, alongside planned signature bowls such as Ahi Poke with yellowfin tuna, radish, and chili ponzu, the Sake Poke with Faroe Island salmon, edamame, tobiko, sesame seeds, and mango salsa, and plenty of vegetarian options.
But Karen? Isn’t the poke scene in Boston already a little over-crowded?
Oh wait… you’re partnering with Whole Foods. Never mind the question.
SloPoke will open at the Whole Foods Market in the Charles River Plaza, located at 181 Cambridge St in Boston, on Friday, May 10. Hours will be daily from 9:00 am - 9:00 pm. For more information, please see their Instagram.