A marketplace for questions and answers You might wonder how customers could complain about anything at Fresh Fields grocery store, but they manage.

June 14, 1998|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,sun staff

It only seems perfect.

The fruits and vegetables so unblemished they might be cast in wax. The free samples of farmer cheese, sweet red pepper pesto and pink vodka sauce arrayed just so with a basket of Crostini Tuscan Crackers. The floor shining like a dinner plate in the bright, airy market. The staff ever helpful and mellow - an Up With People cast on chamomile.

The real and the ideal might appear to converge at Fresh Fields market in Mount Washington. Look closer, though. There's trouble in paradise. Trouble with the beets, for example.

"How are we doing with regard to beets w/o tops?"

The anonymous note is written by hand with the question mark drawn large, thick as an earthworm. It's a cry for help scrawled on a strip of heavy recycled paper and tacked to the bulletin board displayed under a sign near the front doors: CUSTOMER SUGGESTIONS.

In a place less groovy, a plea for beets without tops might go unanswered. Or worse, dismissed with another suggestion, say: There's a new thing out called a knife, bonehead!"

Perish the thought.

At Fresh Fields, Whole Foods Market - specializing in all-natural, organic, socially conscious, environmentally sensitive, free-range, crunchy-grainy goodness - no wise guys need apply. As seen in the response by Tim Jeffries, the man in charge of produce: "Just ask any team member on the produce sales floor and we will gladly remove the beet tops and only give you what you wish to purchase. Thank you for communicating your concerns."

Communicate they do, crowding the board with concerns, concerns ranging from the sublime to the radicchio. If only the bread were more moist, the scones not sugar-topped. If only "A Current Affair" did not report that workers harvesting Mexican tomatoes were being exploited. If only the Siberian Birch Beer and the Tibetan Root Beer did not contain an ingredient somehow linked to osteoporosis. If only the store stocked

callaloo, a Caribbean spinach-like vegetable. If only the containers of fresh-cut pineapple chunks didn't leak.

How, one might ask, could anyone gripe about a market where one might choose from, among others: organic green Arauco olives with rosemary and garlic, French green olives with herbs, Sicilian style olives, Alfonso olives from South America, green Cerignola olives (also known as Baressi olives), black Cerignola olives, Kalamata "colossal sized" olives and Greek Amfissa olives?

One might, for example, say that the selection of Rice Dream - a nondairy milk and ice cream substitute - leaves much to be desired.

"In large containers of Rice Dream there is little choice of flavor," says one note, which in a market less sensitive to the lactose-intolerant might be answered with other questions: Flavor? Whaddya expect from Rice Dream - Chunky Monkey?"

But no. Heather Hutchison, of the grocery department, trained in the enlightened ways of Whole Foods Markets, plays it straight:

"Many of the flavors are out of stock on a regular basis. If you have specific flavors you want that we don't carry, please request them. Thanks!"

For the record, Rice Dream ice cream is currently available in vanilla, mint chocolate chip and cherry vanilla.

Technically, Hutchison is not a member of the grocery department but the grocery team. There are no departments, no managers at Whole Foods Markets, a Texas-based public corporation living in the spirit, if not the price range, of the old food cooperatives. Joe Flueckiger, for example, might in a less enlightened place be known as store manager. At Fresh Fields, he's store team leader.

"We do manage product, but we don't manage people," says Flueckiger. "We lead people."

With his close-cropped red hair and little goatee, the 29-year-old Flueckiger looks as if he might lead the local Ethan Hawke Fan Club. In fact he's leading a staff of 150 trying ever so earnestly to please a well-educated, well-heeled, demanding clientele. They're paying higher prices for many items, and they want something for it. Answers, for one thing, sometimes in excruciating detail.

Administrative assistant Kari Zimmerman posted several paragraphs, and then an update, in response to a question about a shortage of Edensoy milk. Flueckiger filled the front and back of a suggestion card responding to a complaint about a discount program.

"I think our company culture really contributes to the fact that the customers feel they have a say" in running the store, he says. "The biggest thing about this [suggestions] board is people want to be heard, and we want to hear them."

And so the messages go up - 10, 15 a day, usually anonymously. Sometimes someone says something nice ("We love your 12-seed multi-grain bread. Keep it up!"), but eight of 10 times they note something absent, something amiss in what appears a quite harmonious universe.

"Could you leave rubber bands in the produce department? My blueberry container opened and spilled all my berries on the floor."

It is not clear where the berries fell or whether the mishap occurred before or after purchase. Either way, no matter is considered too trivial to merit a serious response. As Flueckiger says: "Our team members understand that the only stupid questions are the ones that are not asked."

The case of the bouncing blueberries was referred to produce team leader Tim Jeffries: "Thank you for the feedback. I will try

using rubber bands on the packaged berries to keep this from happening again. Thanks, Tim."

The pursuit of the ideal is surely endless, as William Faulk-ner has observed, for what would be left to do if it were achieved but leap off "the pinnacle of perfection into suicide." Such somber thoughts find no quarter in the clear light of Fresh Fields.

"We're not perfect all the time," says Zimmerman. "But we try."

Pub Date: 6/14/98

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