Let's say, for the sake of argument, that I'm looking to please a crowd with some vegan kale caesar salad. Let's also assume that I live in sunny Los Angeles, one celebrity gossip whisper away from America's shiniest new value-minded grocery store, 365 by Whole Foods Market. Should I then, following the carefully composed instructions found on lifestyle food site Oh She Glows, home of the recipe that is Google's first result for "vegan kale caesar salad," buy all my necessary goods — including nutritional yeast! But more on that in a moment — from said 365 by Whole Foods Market, in order to get the best possible deals on my lacinato kale and hulled hemp seeds? Or should I head to one of the other handful of nearby grocery stores?
365 is the budget-minded offshoot to America's favorite grocery store-slash-punchline, Whole Foods. It's a slicker, smaller outlet for all things in its parent store's wheelhouse: ingredients that are by turns obscure, virtuous, and presumably healthy. There's your section full of bulk bins for grains (though the selection is much smaller than what you'll find at a Whole Foods original), your aisles of pantry staples, and your large supply of biodynamic wines. You'll also find a selection (which someone has almost certainly described as "curated") of fine cheeses and other such luxury products, any of which you'd expect would raise a shopper's grocery bill well above the average total at your run-of-the-mill, fluorescent-lit chains like Ralph's, Albertson's, and Vons/Safeway.
A side-by-side comparison actually reveals a lot about 365's new pricing dynamic
Except that it doesn't. 365's promise of paying less for high-minded groceries seems — at least where vegan kale caesar salads are concerned — to actually pan out. Dodging around the occasional hard-to-source items like nutritional yeast, a side-by-side comparison actually reveals a lot about 365's new pricing dynamic, and how it isn't nearly as expensive as the Whole Foods imprimatur may imply. In fact, if you're one of the millions of Los Angeles eaters excited to make the Oh She Glows vegan kale caesar salad for dinner tonight (aren't we all?), your most cost-effect move is shopping at 365 — and the competition isn't even very close.
The Oh She Glows vegan kale caesar salad calls for 15 ingredients in total, from chickpeas to lacinato kale. Assuming that you have a totally bare pantry (which means you'd need to supply even basics like salt and olive oil if you plan to make this meal, and thus save the world), I priced out the cost of this meal at four different grocery stores: 365 by Whole Foods, regular Whole Foods, a Vons (known elsewhere as Safeway), and Trader Joe's. Where I could, I matched product sizes (say, one four-ounce bottle of nutritional yeast), though there was no standard unit across each store for things like olive oil and bundles of romaine lettuce, and I tried to buy ingredients in quantities as close to possible as what's called for in the recipe. (This meant that for stores like Trader Joe's, where the only option is to purchase three heads of garlic at once, I counted the cost of buying three heads of garlic.)
365 by Whole Foods Market
Total cost: $41.95
For well under $50, you can buy and make a vegan kale caesar salad that probably tastes good and won't make you think about your skyrocketing cholesterol once. Not bad! The most expensive single items ($5.99 for 16.9 ounces of olive oil, $5.99 for four ounces of hulled hemp seeds) are of course higher value and/or specialty ingredients, but just about every other common staple came in at or below market price across all four grocery chains. A can of chickpeas, for example, ran only $0.79, which is a full $0.60 cheaper than what I found at Vons.
A limited but usable bulk bin section produced some of the biggest savings, as 365 was the only place to find non-pre-packaged raw cashews ($7.49 per pound). Other stores, including Whole Foods proper, seemed to only carry cashews of the roasted and salted variety, which is tasty for a snack on the way to spin class, but absolutely insulting for use with this recipe.
Of course, you'll also get the invaluable experience of shopping at the new 365, with its hordes of high-waist-shorts-wearing locals looking to stuff their canvas totes full of organic produce. There's nothing quite so satisfying as knowing you're part of all that's right in the world, before you've even reached the check-out line.
Total cost: $51.18
Do you think Whole Foods is annoyed at 365? Like, if Whole Foods were a person, would they be jealous of the skinner, more popular 365 — who also manages to be more approachable and have wider appeal? I mean, what even is that about?
These are the exact same products, just on different shelves
Mostly, my side-by-side ingredient comparisons ended up being fine for the slightly older (ugh, don't remind us) Whole Foods. Prices for things like chickpeas, sea salt, and cayenne pepper were exactly the same — the 365-branded products sold at 365 are also the house brand for Whole Foods 1.0. These are the exact same products, just on different shelves.
But there is some price creep hidden around the edges, like lemons that were a dime more expensive here than at 365, or kale that came in at fully twice the cost. Some options, like hulled hemp seeds, are actually cheaper at Whole Foods than they are at 365, the result of a larger bulk bin area that can presumably help keep overhead costs low. But all those twenty-cent dings for garlic and 250% price jumps for romaine lettuce add up, ultimately leading to a nearly $10 surcharge just for the luxury of shopping at the o.g. Whole Foods. Then again, you're paying for things like access to the butcher counter — 365 has a distinct disadvantage by, well, not even having one. But this is vegan kale caesar salad I'm after, so shame on me for even looking (longingly) at the meat.
Total cost: $48.10 (technically a Did Not Finish)
At Vons, things get dicey. See, this is more of an everyman's grocery chain. The parking lots are big, the aisles wide enough to carry all those brightly-colored mass-appeal brands of soda and chips. There's an unignorable class distinction here, a perception of accessibility that Whole Foods corporate has been eager to fight against for years, while facing flagging sales and slow growth.
Turns out Whole Foods was right — Vons isn't even any cheaper! Not only that, but they don't have every ingredient needed to make vegan kale caesar salad, LA's most spiritually fulfilling dish. In fact, up until just a couple of years ago, the organic produce section of your local Vons might have been so small as to comprise only a single mislabeled Pink Lady apple. So there's every chance that, two years ago, the kale you needed wouldn't have even existed at Vons, and asking for it by name might have earned you a trip to the cardboard packer.
Even today, Vons lags behinds the rest in what could be considered pretty straightforward requests, like raw cashews. First off, the nuts at your local Vons are in no less than three locations: there's the snack nuts section for all your hearty party chompin' needs, the bulk nuts section for people who, I don't know, own elephants, and a scant few house-packaged nuts available in small clear containers literally underneath the produce. You have to bend down, climb through a wardrobe and ask a lion for help just to see them — and even then you won't find the raw cashews you need.
I had to ask three different people if there was any nutritional yeast in the whole damn place. There is not.
Not only does Vons suspiciously not carry essential nuts, they also don't have vegan Worcestershire sauce! Each of the three brands on offer rely on sardines for that all-important umami, and sardines are fish, which are living creatures, the consumption of whom is, it turns out, a big no-no in the vegan world. I also personally had to ask three different people (including a manager who was yelling at a stock boy in aisle three) if there was any nutritional yeast in the whole damn place. There is not. Push around the Old Bay and reach towards the back of the shelves all you want, my friends, there is no nutritional yeast within a mile of here.
So, yes, if you're willing to make your vegan kale caesar salad without key ingredients, you could technically escape your local Vons for less than a trip to Whole Foods, but not by much, and not when you factor in the emotional cost of making an incomplete recipe. And you're still spending far more than you would at 365, where staples like chickpeas, sea salt, and cayenne pepper are significantly less expensive.
Cost: $38.59 (a big Did Not Finish)
When I set out on this quest, I thought that Trader Joe's would be the cheapest of the four options.It turned out to actually fail the challenge harder than anyone. Because of the store's limited shelf space and reliance on house brands, key items like Worcestershire sauce weren't just non-vegan, they were non-existent. Perhaps surprisingly, I also didn't find nutritional yeast (which, at this point I should fess up to knowing nothing about, other than it looks like fish food) on any of their shelves. What you will find are chocolate covered pretzels and bad-for-you vegan options like seitan orange chicken.
It's the pre-chopped bag stuff or GTFO
But the worst issue with Trader Joe's is one I hadn't even really considered before. Sure, I knew their fruits and vegetables were all pretty low quality, all things considered, but until I saw the produce section with my eyes newly opened by the glories of 365, I hadn't even realized that the pre-packaged bags of wilted greens I mindlessly grabbed on every TJ's run paled (both literally and figuratively) next to the fresh bundles of recently watered kale and lettuce I could be getting elsewhere. Plus, if you're making the Oh She Glows recipe, there's just no option to buy your leaves of lacinato kale — it's the pre-chopped bag stuff or GTFO.
For what the store does stock, though, it's pretty much zero-sum with 365 by Whole Foods. Save twenty cents on chickpeas here, lose thirty cents on lemons there. Garlic is only available by the bundle here, so there's an extra dollar down the drain, but at least those hulled hemp seeds in the light green bag at Trader Joe's are a full $5 cheaper than at Vons.
Still, it's hard to argue that for all your vegan kale caesar salad needs, going to a Trader Joe's will suffice.
Ultimately, should you feel like dining on the lifeblood of Los Angeles, the meatless kale salad with caesar dressing, without shopping at something owned by Whole Foods, you'll need to go to multiple stores. (Think of the carbon footprint!) For those among us who want to make only one stop for fishless Worcestershire sauce and cashews as raw as a prom night breakup, it seems you'll have to give in to one version of Whole Foods or another.
If price is your only consideration, then the 365 store is the way to go — impossible parking lot and long checkout queue notwithstanding. But if you're the type who's already gaga over what Whole Foods has to offer, from the organic produce to the craft beer aisle to (I'm not a vegan, I'm not sorry) the friendly butcher, you may still find yourself drifting to the original. You'll pay a nearly 20% premium over 365 for the right to yell at a nice man in a white coat when your rack of lamb isn't as racked as you'd like, but if that's what you're after, it's probably worth the price.
For the rest of us in Silver Lake and beyond, it may be time to begrudgingly admit the truth: 365 by Whole Foods Market is a good thing — for the neighborhood, for organic produce, for anyone who loves a salad bar, and for our wallets. Now dig into that big bowl of cashews, chickpeas, and kale — you've literally earned it.