Recently, I had dinner with an old friend who was visiting Los Angeles from Costa Rica, where she now lives. As I salivated over her stories of life in the jungle with a hot French boyfriend and a new baby, she seemed antsy. Impatient. Even… nervous?
Eventually, she could hold it in no longer. “My flight leaves first thing in the morning, and I’ve got to get to Erewhon before they close,” she said. With that, my friend all but dashed out of the restaurant, presumably on her way to stock up on all of the healthy things before separating once more from that which she misses most about LA: a grocery store.
She’s not the only one who’s this crazy for Erewhon. I’ve heard others claim it’d be impossible for them to move out of the city, ever, because of their addiction to the natural grocer. Its four LA-area locations are known for their higher-than-Whole-Foods prices and shelves stocked with the next big wellness trends—Erewhon was the launchpad for Coconut Cult’s now infamous $25 yogurt, and insiders say that the shop sold charcoal smoothies, medicinal mushrooms, and CBD tonics way before they became staples on cafe menus. And it often appears on “where to spot celebrities” lists alongside trendy clubs and restaurants, due to the fact that megawatt stars like Kourtney Kardashian and Jessica Biel are known superfans.
So what, exactly, is the story behind this shop, which is basically the grocery equivalent of a really well-curated, indie-luxe fashion boutique? I went behind the scenes to find out.
Keep reading for everything you need to know about Erewhon, the LA grocery store you’re seeing all over Instagram.
The OG health food store
Despite its relatively recent Instagram-icon status, Erewhon has actually been around since the mid 1960s, when it was founded in Boston by Michio and Aveline Kushi, a husband-and-wife duo who were early pioneers of the macrobiotic diet.
“Michio Kushi was a rogue frontiersman who was fermenting miso and doing all kinds of crazy stuff in his basement,” says Jason Widener, VP of new store development for the chain. Initially, the Kushis mainly imported goods from Japan to stock their shelves. Over time, the brand has expanded its stock, but one thing still hasn’t changed—its ability to stay ahead of the curve. (More on that in a minute.)
A few years later, “Erewhon West” opened in Los Angeles. In 1975, the business was sold, and in the 30+ years since, the Boston location closed while the remaining Los Angeles outpost changed hands a number of times. (It’s not easy to run a shop which stocks such a higher-than-average number of perishables, after all).
Erewhon eventually landed with its current owners, Tony and Josephine Antoci, who have been responsible for some pretty serious expansion since they took over in 2011. In addition to the original West Hollywood-adjacent LA location, there are now Erewhons in Venice, Calabasas (hence the Kardashian connection), and, as of April 2018, a sunlight-filled, architecturally stunning new spot in Santa Monica.
Everything you didn’t know you needed
I hate to sound like someone who’s drunk the Kool-Aid—in fact, I rarely shop at Erewhon as I live in an as-of-yet unserved part of town—but there is something magical about the shops that’s difficult to define. So why are Erewhon’s parking lots perpetually packed when there’s basically a Whole Foods in every LA ‘hood? There are a few reasons.
For one thing, while Erewhon’s standards have evolved—the wares are no longer exclusively macrobiotic, for example—they remain some of the strictest in the business. Widener tells me that though he can’t say every product is fully organic and non-GMO, most of them are. (Some have been grandfathered in, but he’s “working to get them out.”)
The brand also prizes its close partnerships with indie health-food makers, from “standard-setting” biodynamic farms to vendors he describes as “craftsmen.” He says he can tell me a story about nearly every product on his shelves. “The almonds I use for my cold-pressed juice production come from a guy named George Yemetz, who I know personally,” he says.
This intensive curation allows each store to have a relatively small footprint—the new Santa Monica location is about a quarter of the size of the average Whole Foods—which allows for a discovery element you rarely find in overwhelmingly large grocery stores. Paired with the brand’s trustworthiness, it’s easy to see why it’s hard to just “grab one thing” from Erewhon. This is an environment that inspires you to try new products constantly.
Oh, and it’s impossible to talk about what sets Erewhon apart without mentioning its prepared foods. This is where the shops really shine—from their tonic bars, where you can grab a $12 adaptogenic latte to go, to their restaurant-quality deli cases stacked with homemade nut cheese, wild-caught grilled salmon, buffalo cauliflower, and more. Widener says this might be one area in which Erewhon stands to win against Whole Foods in the chain’s post-Amazon-acquisition era. (It could be tough, after all, to maintain this kind of quality for prepared foods while keeping prices reasonable—which seems to be one of Amazon’s priorities.)
But, what about those prices?
Okay, so if Whole Foods is known as “Whole Paycheck,” Erewhon could be nicknamed “Whole Bank Account.” In other words, it’s not cheap. Those amazing prepared foods? I once ran in and grabbed a few salads to take to a party and nearly keeled over and died at checkout. Still, Widener tells me that there’s no way around the higher pricing which results from this level of attention to detail.
To illustrate this point, he tells me about a new “powerhouse” product called Zeus Mousse. “It’s a take on an açai mousse which is made with superfoods, grass-fed whey protein, Hawaiian spirulina and chlorella, and fermented barley grass,” he says. “Yes, it’s $11, but you’re getting something well thought-out that you can’t get anywhere else.” He also points to a vegan donut, which costs $7 but has protein and adaptogens baked into it.
Widener insists, too, that it is possible to shop at Erewhon on a budget—he did so for years before working there. “You can’t go wrong with produce,” he says, noting that he used to cook rice with high-quality coconut oil and eat it with broccoli or cauliflower. Plus, he urges potential customers to see the food Erewhon sells as an investment in themselves. A recent tweet from the brand sends a similar message: “Love yourself enough to live a healthy lifestyle.” (And maybe trim back your leggings budget while you’re at it—just sayin’.)
The future’s looking healthy
Ever since Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods, Widener tells me that Erewhon sales have ratcheted up by 10-15 percent. His best guess as to why? “People were like, ‘I need to go to someone who cares,’ and that was us,” he says.
On that note, the Antocis do plan to continue expansion, albeit slowly and mindfully, with a downtown LA store in the works for 2019. If things continue on as they have in recent years—and the mainstream continues to catch up with Erewhon’s long-held values—perhaps they’ll eventually make it all the way to Costa Rica. (And I will, in turn, actually be able to finish a meal with my expat pal.)
Everyone in LA is also obsessed with a newly-opened convenience store selling healthy takes on pit-stop favorites. And if you’re not in the City of Angels? Walmart is upping its wellness game nationwide.
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