The Whole (Foods) Story

The slick new shopping hub at the corner of Kirby and West Alabama -- it replaced the former River Oaks Lincoln-Mercury dealership -- looks almost ready for prime-time occupancy, but the Whole Foods Market won't be moving in as soon as free-range-chicken fans may have hoped.

For more than a decade, Montrose shoppers have flocked to Whole Foods' current location, the little shopping strip at the corner of West Alabama and Shepherd, drawn by the center's heady combination of books, hiking gear and organic produce. And for almost as long, those shoppers have complained about the impossibility of parking.

Expect those complaints to continue, at least for a while. "The absolute soonest we'd be moving to the new space is July 2000," says Brian Lew, manager of the Shepherd Whole Foods location. "And October 2000 is a lot more likely." The Austin-based natural-foods chain plans to ride out its existing lease with Weingarten Realty before shuttering the Shepherd store and reopening on Kirby.

"We're looking forward to having a lot more interior store space on Kirby, which means we can carry more products," Lew explains. But he's especially excited about the new location's huge parking lot.

Whole Foods' current neighbors in Alabama Center are equally excited about the spaces that'll be open in Whole Foods' absence. "Once they're gone, we expect to have a lot more available parking," says Moeen Khan, manager of the next-door Bookstop, whose dramatic, sloping space used to be the Alabama Movie Theater. "'Cause we're not going anywhere ourselves. This theater is our home."

Frank Vasquez, manager of the Whole Earth Provision Company two doors down, says his store doesn't plan to leave the location it has enjoyed for 15 years either. "Even though we traditionally position our stores as near Whole Foods as we can -- we feed off each other businesswise -- we think the new Kirby spot will be close enough. Besides, I heard a rumor that another organic food store that recently opened in Dallas is looking at the space. So it'll all work out in the end."

That other organic food store Vasquez mentions very well may be Wild Oats Markets Inc., which opened its first Texas outlet last summer in Dallas's University Park. Based in Boulder, Colorado, Wild Oats is second only to Whole Foods in retailing natural foods, and it has been spreading like a weed over the last two years; the count now stands at 57 Wild Oats stores in 16 states and Canada.

The tenant that replaces Whole Foods will probably not be Austin's Central Market. "We're completely focused on opening our next store in Austin this April," says Nona Evans, a marketing spokesperson for the division of San Antonio's H.E. Butt Grocery Company. "Although we're interested in Houston and it's definitely on our list, we have no immediate plans for a Central Market there." Evans confirms that Central Market was interested in a location at the corner of Westheimer and Weslayan last summer; she declined to comment on the rumor that the chain was put off by a nosebleed asking price.

The original Central Market outlet was meant only to be a test market for the H-E-B Pantry Foods chain of grocery stores; now, Evans says, the boutique food store has blossomed into the second-largest tourist attraction in Austin, trailing only the State Capitol. Sights worth seeing in its 60,000 square feet include the "longest seafood counter in Texas" and a miniature-vegetable department populated by baby carrots, itty-bitty Brussels sprouts and even fresh fiddlehead ferns.

-- Margaret L. Briggs

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