MENDERSKI: Restaurant and bar the stars of new Whole Foods store

MENDERSKI: Restaurant and bar the stars of new Whole Foods store

University Parkway store to open Wednesday morning

You can sit at the bar and order a beer.

There’s an outlet for your laptop and a hook for your handbag.

They’ve got a French-inspired food menu and even a happy hour.

No, this isn’t Sarasota’s newest restaurant or cafe.

I’m talking about its newest grocery store.

Southwest Florida’s second Whole Foods Market will celebrate its grand opening at 9 a.m. Wednesday, but after the sneak preview tour I took Monday afternoon, it almost feels like the region is getting a whole new chain.

The company’s overall emphasis on organic and natural foods is still there, of course. You’ll still see Whole Food’s in-house 365 brand and its signature salad bar, juice bar, bakery and prepared foods sections just as we have at our downtown store on First Street.

But you’ll also see so much more.

The most obvious difference is Brasserie Honore. It’s a funky 1,500-square-foot French-inspired café on the northeast side of the store, and it’s original to the University Parkway store. You’ll find other café-and-bar mashups at some of the company’s other locations throughout the country, but this one’s menu and setup are unique to Sarasota.

The chefs there will make fresh crepes on the griddle right before your eyes or serve you chicken fresh off the rotisserie. Wine, beer, pizza and burgers are $2 off daily from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. You can get cozy in one of the dining room’s bright green sofas or find a seat at a more traditional table. There’s plenty of room to relax and stay awhile. It seats 75.

Or, if you’re eager to explore, you can take your drink with you as you do your grocery shopping.

if you’re looking for an e-commerce-fueled store of the future, so-to-speak, that’s not what you’re going to see in Sarasota’s second Whole Foods store. The organic grocer and rocked the retail world last summer when the e-commerce giant announced plans to purchase the high-end grocery chain.

This is one of a few new stores opened since that purchase, but beyond lower prices and Amazon lockers, which are used for deliveries and returns of Amazon purchases, what you see in the store was what was always intended for Sarasota, Heather McCready, a spokeswoman for Whole Foods, told me.

At 40,000-square-feet, the grocer is much closer in scale to a Publix than the chain’s noticeably smaller downtown sister. If you’ve been to the other location, you’ll recognize the same departments, but now they’ve got more products and more room, McCready told me.

There are a few new additions beyond Brasserie Honore, though. The University Parkway store has a housewares section where you can buy a steaming basket, an apple corer, cooking tongs or whatever other gadget you might need at the last minute to fix your dinner.

There’s a self-serve soda fountain near the coffee bar that serves sodas sweetened with organic cane sugar, molasses, stevia, fruit juices and honey and that are dramatically more healthy than their mainstream competitors, according to the company.

The University Parkway store has a different vibe than the downtown location, too. With its proximity to Nathan Benderson Park, Whole Foods has given a subtle nod to rowing in its décor. The paint on the walls is designed to look like water, McCready told me, oars are displayed near signs and the seafood section includes a boat.

Whole Foods has clearly brought its A-game to this new location, and the company could very well need it. Quite a bit has changed in our market since the grocer announced plans for its second store in February 2015.

Three years ago, the market was a little roomier, and Fresh Market and Detweiler’s Farm Market were really Whole Foods’ only competition. Now Sprouts Farmers Market, Lucky’s Market and Earth Fare have all opened stores in the area. Health-centric, organic-focused consumers have more choices today than they’ve ever had in Southwest Florida.

And Whole Foods’ arrival was not without controversy. The company and the Sarasota County Commission met some public opposition in 2016 because the plan for the store involved paving over wetlands to build a parking lot. That led to protests, a lawsuit and delays for the project.

But now that that parking lot is here, I’m sure it will be filled with cars come Wednesday.

Southwest Florida has turned out in full-force to welcome every other new grocer in the past three years and, despite the controversy, Whole Foods very much has a fan-base here.

While the grocery market itself might be more crowded than it was three years ago, this new, bigger Whole Foods has quite a bit more breathing room.

And I doubt it’ll have trouble filling that 40,000-square-feet with customers.