Toledo Whole Foods opens to huge crowd

Jon Chavez - The Blade, Toledo, Ohio (TNS)

It was a Wednesday morning in August but the scene at the grand opening of the Whole Foods Store in West Toledo looked more like Black Friday in November.

Police, store officials, and others estimated that the crowd waiting to get inside the grocery chain’s new store at 3420 Secor Rd. numbered between 800 and 1,000.

Store officials said the first customers in line arrived at 4:50 a.m., bringing lawn chairs to wait out the four hours until the 9 a.m. opening. Whole Foods actually opened 10 minutes early to decrease the line to get in which had begun to snake behind the store and threatened to spill out into the street.

Whole Foods gave the first 200 in line a reusable canvas tote bag and a mystery shopping card whose value could range between $5 and $100. But the store’s neighbor, ProMedica’s walk-in health clinic, also handed out cloth bags to the shoppers in a marketing effort. A member of the clinic’s staff said that by 10 a.m. more than 700 bags had been passed out.

Two Toledo police officers at the opening estimated the crowd in line at 700 to 800, and said the store prepared well for traffic, with cars directed to nearby parking lots behind restaurants. Two local hotels and a nearby shopping plaza put up signs directing Whole Foods shoppers away from their lots.

“I would say this is better than expected. I’ve been to multiple store openings and I haven’t seen a line like that,” Ben Moher, the store’s team leader, said while watching dozens of shoppers roll into the store and flood its aisles.

“I’ve opened stores in Chicago, St. Louis, Ontario, Aspen and I’ve not seen a line like this,” he added.

Whole Foods brought in an additional 70 employees from other stores in Michigan and Ohio to augment its 100-employee workforce for the store’s opening.

Mr. Moher, who lives in Temperance, had some thoughts about why the opening crowd was so large.

“I would say it may be the anticipation. You know, a four-year wait, along with just our brand,” Mr. Moher said. “It brings excitement, bringing that fresh, quality food to Toledo. It’s an exciting thing in general.”

Privately, Whole Foods keeps data on the response to its store openings. Mr. Moher said he would not be surprised if the Toledo opening set a record for a store of 30,000 square feet.

“You never know how many people are going to show. We were ready to go big and we were ready to take care of a less amount of customers if that happened,” Mr. Moher said.

“We do keep records. We don’t share them. But I think we will hit a record. I think we will exceed our targets,” he added.

Barb Hankenhof, of Toledo, was among those who stood in line to get into the store on its opening day. She goes to Ann Arbor to shop the Whole Foods stores there and is a big fan of the store’s lentil soup, which she learned came from a Toledo supplier.

“My first experience with Whole Foods was in Ann Arbor. I would have to go to the medical center there and I stopped in and bought some of their organic grapes,” she said. “Those grapes lasted three weeks!”

Ms. Hankenhof, whose cart had a cluster of organic grapes in it, said she plans to shop the Toledo store for its deals and produce. “Everybody in Toledo has been waiting for this store a long time. I can’t wait to get these grapes home and see how long they last.”

Another shopper roaming the store Wednesday morning was commercial Realtor and retail expert Pete Shawaker, of Toledo’s Reichle Klein Group.

Mr. Shawaker, who purchased a watermelon and other produce, has been watching Whole Foods’ progress since 2015. He recalled a friend from out of town who in 2015 sent him a photo of the future Whole Foods site taken from the nearby Hampton Hotel. It showed a torn up, vacant field on Secor with the comment: “Ha-ha. I’m in Toledo — dead town.”

Mr. Shawaker said Toledo’s has always been a great town but the opening of Whole Foods now validates that viewpoint.

“What this does for people like that out-of-town friend, or visitors or even locals, is it changes that view. The perception is huge. It says to outsiders and visitors, ‘We made it!’” he said.

“It’s symbolic, but it’s also real and it’s part of our Toledo brand now to say, ‘Yeah, we’ve got a Whole Foods. We’re a vibrant town,’” Mr. Shawaker said. “Whole Foods doesn’t open in dead towns.”

Jon Chavez

The Blade, Toledo, Ohio (TNS)

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