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Having completed our master-of-ceremony duties at “Connections 2002,” the terrific conference held by Portland State University’s Food Industry Leadership Center (FILC), we actually had a couple of hours to kill before heading home.

First stop…a new Whole Foods store in downtown Portland, built in an old warehouse district that is rapidly being gentrified into high-priced condos. Terrific store, and very typical of the Whole Foods approach to retailing. The décor is woody and warm, with oversized plants atop the shelving to create a natural-looking environment in which to sell products.

It is a truism that first impressions are important; Whole Foods goes one step farther by having a fiery hearth visible from the street. It serves a practical purpose as there is someone making pizza in it, but the hearth also gives the entire place a sense of energy and freshness. The hearth seems to infuse the place with heart.

Whole Foods also continues to suggest that it maintains a belief that “meal solutions” are alive and well, with great looking prepared meals available both from service counters and pre-packaged from a self-serve case.

One small nitpick…we have to say we’re not crazy about the labeling that the company is using for its new private label. “365 Organic” is a great name, but you hardly can see the words “Whole Foods” and “Everyday Value” that are printed above and below it. The name of the chain has a lot of equity, especially for those who believe in the natural foods approach, and these labels don’t maximize the name value. (As opposed to its kids-oriented brand, “Whole Kids Organic,” which is much better designed…)

Next stop…a Fred Meyer store just a few blocks away, which recently was renovated to capitalize on the opportunities available in the rejuvenated community (and, no doubt, do effective battle with the new Whole Foods).

This Fred Meyer is maybe a third the size of a traditional supercenter operated by the chain, and focuses almost exclusively on food. It is a terrific format, with great-looking perishables, a robust wine department, and seemingly sharp pricing.

Well-lighted and featuring a light wood décor that is pleasing to the eye, this store seemed to be doing gangbusters business for a weekday evening, busier than Whole Foods at the same time – perhaps because it appeals to a broader audience.

Also, we noted that there were lines of people waiting to use the self-checkout lanes…even when there was no waiting at the manned checkouts. Go figure.

This Fred Meyer store is an excellent example of adapting to surroundings, and creating a store that is appropriate to the community and the shopper, not just taking the usual format and cramming it into a space where it won’t work.

Finally, because The Content Guy has to eat… we were taken to dinner at a terrific restaurant/brewpub that is a textbook example of clever real estate development.

McMenamins is an Oregon brewing company that specializes in taking unusual and often historic locations and converting them into unique eating and drinking establishments. In this case, we went to a former school building that had been sold to the company.

The Kennedy School now offers, in addition to a restaurant and several bars, 35 guestrooms for overnight stays, a movie theater where you can drink beer and eat pizza, a swimming pool and a gymnasium. It all has been restored lovingly and accurately; we met an elderly woman there who had attended the school more than 50 years ago, and she spoke affectionately about the company and their respectful approach to the building’s history.

We thought this was worth mentioning because it represents anything but a cookie-cutter approach to new store development. McMenamins’ different brewpubs apparently all are unique…the company wants people to be surprised and delighted as they explore each new one.

One other note. The food was terrific. And the Nitro stout was awesome.

(The only downside was that we half expected Sister John Aquinn, our old second grade teacher, to appear and start terrorizing us. But elementary schools always have that effect on us…as do nuns.)
KC's View:
Thanks to MNB user Michael Roth, one of Oregon’s great independent retailers, for inviting us to dinner at McMenamins and spending the evening with us after the conference.

One of the real pleasures of this job is getting out and seeing stores and spending time with the folks who use MorningNewsBeat. And we appreciate it when people like Michael give us this opportunity.