Whole Foods is an Austin, Texas, icon - and, apparently, a complete nuthouse.
Texans love their nuts. I know this because while living in Austin in the ‘90s, I got more Christmas gifts of homemade fancy-coated nuts (like cinnamon-sugar pecans) than I could ever eat in a season. “Driveby” nuts also are quite common at Texas roadside stands, which typically offer chipotle peanuts and other spicy concoctions by the bag.
And now the retail icon of the capital city - Whole Foods Market, which began in 1980 as a single natural food store in Austin - apparently has gone “completely nuts” at its downtown flagship store. I discovered this while recently visiting the Lone Star State and its capital city attractions.
I parked in the street-level garage and took the escalator up into the sensory delight that is Whole Foods. The first thing that hit me was not the typical flower and produce arrangements, but an expansive, in-your-face nut display, aptly named and labeled with a sign high above: “Nut Row.” I moved a little closer and took in the warm, nutty aroma.
My eyes (and nose) focused on what appeared to be a salad bar island, but no, this was a “nut island.” Even better, all the nuts were fresh-roasted and “HOT, Kept Warm,” as the sign in this 8-ft., self-serve display read. For $9.99 a pound, I had my choice of what seemed like endless fresh-roasted nut options: cashews, pecans, almonds, walnuts, pistachios and hazelnuts. I had to multiply all of those times two because they were available with or without salt. And then there were the sweet options: cinnamon-roasted almonds, pecans, walnuts and pistachios. Last, but not least, there were the “Tamari” (a salty spice made from soybeans) nut selections, which included almonds.
I leaned over the case to catch a bigger whiff of these, and my derriere grazed a barrel. Naturally, it was a barrel of nuts. I quickly realized that this vast nut display also included nuts in barrels (12, to be exact), retailing for $5.99-$8.99 a pound. Selections included organic walnuts, a deluxe nuts mix and dry-roasted, unsalted almonds. They weren’t hot, but they were of greater (bulk) value. (I’d seen this type of barrel display before at Whole Foods, usually in an entire aisle of bulk items, but positioned in Nut Row, they were a more fun focus.)
I wandered around a corner (to what I thought would be outside of Nut Row) and found more nuts (and dried fruits) in a pre-packed, bulk shelf section. They all were neatly stacked in deli-like, plastic see-through, rectangular tubs. The ambiance lighting above made them appear almost jewel-like. Surely, this had to be the end of the nuts, right?
No. I found more, further down the row (but out of sight of the Nut Row sign). This time, they were locally branded nuts from Flavor Tree, which encouraged shoppers to “Buy Local” with a shelf sign. I found some interesting flavor combinations here, including Chili Lime Pistachios, Black Pepper Cashews and Black Pepper Soy Nuts.
“If you like those, you’ll love these,” said a disembodied voice.
I spun around to find a friendly young man behind what appeared to be a dessert counter. I instinctively smiled and walked forward to knock out the glare and get a better view of the sweet treats behind the glass. But when I was practically on top of the case, I spotted ... nuts! And more nuts! It was an entire display case (much like you see in a deli, only this one went around in a circle) filled with nothing but nuts.
I looked above at a sign that announced: “We make custom nut gift-packs and party trays.”
“Care to try some?” the man offered. I then started sampling the most gourmet nuts I had ever tasted. And they fresh and warm to boot! I tasted everything handed to me and finally decided I just had to bring home my favorites: Rosemary Garlic Cashews, Bourbon Pecans, Sesame Seed Glazed Walnuts and Chili Lemon Pistachios.
Next, the Whole Foods employee showed me a plastic-sectioned, round gift-pack container (included in the price of 1.5 lb. of these nuts for $10.99). I nodded “yes,” just as I had responded to everything else he’d offered me in the last ten minutes.
I then found out I could even get a gift bow tied around the top - the first item I actually declined, as I planned to munch on a few more of these nutty babies in the car.
I walked away content as a squirrel in a nut store, a nut-crazed Whole Foods, that is. Surely, they couldn’t get any nuttier than this?
And that’s when I heard what sounded like a meat grinder, followed by some laughter from the same direction. I decided to see what was the commotion was about before heading to the checkout.
I found what appeared to be a group of college students, hovering around a machine of some sort, filling a container full of ... peanut butter. Wait, make that Honey Roasted Peanut Butter. Here we were, aisles away from Nut Row, and there were still nuts to be found (and ground) in the Whole Foods “Nut Roaster” display.
In addition to freshly ground peanut butter (both creamy and crunchy) and honey-roasted PB, there also were machines ready to grind-up fresh cashew butter, almond butter and even chocolate almond butter. I put down my nut tray and served myself up the last.
Moral of the story: When in the company of some great nuts, you might as well enjoy them.
A Whole Lotta Nuts in Austin
April 11, 2008