Desperately seeking new stores: LA’s newest grocery concept is set to grow

This year, for the first time since before lockdown, I went to the US to check out stores and new concepts on the West Coast, just like I used to. To be honest, it was not what I was expecting.

LA, which is a city that I have always found forward-thinking, exciting and inspirational, was a disappointment. Main streets like Sunset Boulevard, 3rd Street, Robertson and Abbott Kinney, had many boarded-up stores. Concepts that I had always admired looked and felt tired. Streets that were once bustling and busy were empty.

This was juxtaposed with the clinical cleanliness of Beverly Hills with its usual cookie cutter, luxury mono-brand stores, which were obvious, expected and frankly could have been in any major city in the world. Nothing felt new.

Today, post-covid, with inflation, the rising price of fuel, the cost-of-living crisis and high rental prices, you have to be brave to launch a new store. Many have a fear of being overpowered by ecommerce, as opposed to embracing omnichannel shopping. World over, there are far fewer exceptional, speciality stores.

World over, there are far fewer exceptional, speciality stores.

But with a little help from celebrities and influencers, the health food store Erewhon has become the place to shop, to eat, and to be seen – both on and offline in California.

A counter in an Erewhon store, showcasing a selection of to-go lunch options

The West Coast has always led on health, beauty, spas, fitness, wholesome food and wellbeing concepts, and today Erewhon is growing at a steady pace. The upmarket, organic grocery store – named after a depiction of a utopian society and ‘nowhere’ spelt backwards – now has seven locations across LA, with an eighth planned for later this year.

The brand was founded by plant-based foodies Michio Kushi and his wife, Aveline, who opened a macro-biotic grocer in Boston in 1966.  Erewhon was a store for the counterculture, which remained the case when the Kushi family opened its first LA grocer on Beverly Boulevard in 1969. After changing hands several times, it was eventually bought by entrepreneurs Tony and Josephine Antoci in 2011 who still own it today.

Today, the stores are a mecca for fresh produce with a celebrity clientele.

The shopfits use natural materials, and there is plenty of retail theatre with chefs preparing food in open kitchens for all to see. The displays are appealing and inviting, the aisles are wide, and the lighting is excellent. Every store is small enough to feel like a standalone, one-off mom and pop shop, and each is carefully planned to match its neighbourhood. Erewhon hires in-the-know local talent to serve customers, and even the in-store playlists are curated by a local DJ… if only my local Tesco thought the same way!

Crucially, each store has an outdoor eating area. When I went to the West Hollywood site, the outdoor tables were very busy and filled with gorgeous, healthy young men and women all on their phones and many snapping pics of their food (or, often, themselves!).

When bars and restaurants were forced to close down during the pandemic, supermarkets were among the few places where people could still go to shop, meet people and be reminded of life before Covid. In the absence of A-List events, Erewhon and its outdoor eating spaces became a go-to destination for LA folk to congregate, to shop, eat, see and be seen. In some ways, I can relate – during lockdown I’d take myself off to the Marble Arch M&S foodhall, which became my most exciting weekly outing!

An iced coffee in a branded Erewhon plastic cup

The store certainly has a real appeal to influencer culture. Product is carefully and meticulously chosen, and the produce and packaged goods are displayed and laid out in a similar way to a fashion boutique. Everything is about health: organic, gluten-free, biodynamic, free-range and vegan.

It is the pinnacle of aspirational retail. Who would have thought that some of the best fashion magazines like Vogue or Vanity Fair would be profiling a grocer? Even Kanye West tweeted about his local store, and Erewhon’s Instagram posts are so carefully curated and edited that it is easy to forget that it is a supermarket doing the posting.

It is the pinnacle of aspirational retail. Who would have thought that some of the best fashion magazines like Vogue or Vanity Fair would be profiling a grocer?

Unsurprisingly, the brand really knows how to leverage the digital community. It has posted 3,212 times and has only 205,000 dedicated followers, but like all things on social media, the influencers and people who strive to be seen in the right places have benefited from being a part of the Erewhon community.

In addition to selling food, Erewhon has developed a small collection of branded apparel and accessories – ‘Erewhon Merch’. On trend, it looks quite a bit like Pangaia which took the world by storm during lockdown. The range is a limited-edition, carefully curated collection of sweatshirts, hoodies, t-shirts, shorts, hats and bags, in beautiful colours made from 100% Organic USA French Terry. On the website, in the ‘Summer 22 Lookbook’, the range is showcased by aspirational models, who are all boy-next-door meets the Kardashians types. Needless to say, the merch sells out very quickly.

A plate of fresh tomatoes

Since Covid, we’re seeing more and more people prioritise health, wellbeing, good food and a more ‘wholesome’ approach to life. The way we live and work has changed so dramatically, and brands like Birkenstocks and Crocs – once the epitome of uncool – are doing extremely well. Ethically sourced merchandise for the home, to wear and to eat too is on the rise. Erewhon is a certified B Corp and their strap line is: If it’s here, it’s good for you.

In late 2019, it was announced that Erewhon had accepted a minority-stake investment from Stripes, a growth equity firm based in New York, in the hopes of making an impact where they began – on the east coast. In my view, it is only a matter of time before someone like Amazon comes calling to make them an offer that they cannot refuse.

This is a brand that I plan to watch carefully. No doubt someone clever will emulate it here in the UK…  While I may not be snapping selfies outside, I’d certainly be first in line for a smoothie. | @TheMBSGroup