3201 Belmont Boulevard, 297-5100Open Mon.-Sat. 8 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sun. 10 a.m.-7 p.m.
I have a friend who refuses to eat Indian food. My sister won’t eat Korean or Vietnamese, though she will eat Chinese. I know people who wouldn’t eat sushi if they had a gun held to their head. Everybody has food prejudices, even food critics.
Mine happens to be health food. Not healthy food, mind you, but that particular genre of food sold in quirky little markets by people who wear Birkenstocks and hemp clothing and are named Wood or Pansy. On the shelves and in the coolers you’ll find granola and herbal wellness teas and carob and brewer’s yeast and soy beverages and sprouts and organic burdock and, the most evil thing of all, tofu. Don’t get me wrong. Some of my best friends are vegetarians. And many of these people are loyal devotees of Nashville’s most well-known ”natural foods“ market, Sunshine Grocery, which opened in 1972 on Broadway, and moved to Belmont Boulevard in 1989.
In January 1997, Wild Oats Markets, based in Boulder, Colo., announced it was purchasing Sunshine from Lin and Cam Cameron, Don Safer, and Tom and Phyllis Salter. Wild Oats Market Inc. is the second-largest natural foods supermarket chain in North America, and currently owns and operates 52 stores in 12 states and British Columbia. In their initial release, they announced plans to remodel and expand the store size. While this news caused barely a blip on my personal radar, it was of momentous import to those who count themselves as Sunshine regulars. Among those is my friend Barbara Moutenot, who lives nearby and estimates she is probably a daily visitor. Barbara was familiar with the Wild Oats store on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles, which she describes as ”Huge!“ While excited about the potential for growth, she was concerned about losing some of the friendly familiarity that comes from local ownership. Wild Oats representatives assured Sunshine shoppers that the market they knew and loved would be the same, only better. A year later, how are they doing?
There’s still plenty of familiar faces. According to manager Dale Beauchampwho came to Sunshine from California in March ’98no one was let go in the ownership transfer. One of the first changes Wild Oats made was expanding operating hours, including opening on Sundays.
There’s no doubt Sunshine looks different. The front entrance has been widened and the doors automated. The interior is brighter, actually ”decorated“ with whimsical memorabilia, sort of like a hippie Cracker Barrel. Check-out stations have been modernized. The produce department, relocated from a dark corner at the back of the store to the entrance, is greatly expanded. Most fruits and vegetables are organically grown in Californiaa sign will tell you if it’s notwhich translates to higher prices. The fresh bagged herbs, however, are cheaper and fresher than what you’ll find at traditional supermarkets. You’ll also find more exotic produce on a seasonal basis. And, when it comes to personal attention, consider that on a recent visit to Sunshine, when Barbara inquired about the Satsuma oranges, the produce manager didn’t hesitate a second before cutting one open and offering a taste. There is an improved system for drawing your own bottles of honey, olive oil, soy sauce, and molasses. There are more bins of dried fruits, beans, grains, and nuts, and a nearly overwhelming selection of fresh herbs from Frontier; what’s especially nice about this option is being able to buy only what you need for a recipe, not an entire can you won’t use before it’s gone stale.
Barbara and others find the preponderance of Wild Oats label productsparticularly among certain items like beverages, condiments, jams, and saucesa little too Big Business. She misses the old brand of organic coffee beans, replaced by Wild Oats, and usually purchases the other option, Bongo Java. The dried pasta selection is pretty puny, limited to only a few brandsincluding Wild Oatsand none is exceptional. This is a glaring paucity, considering how central pasta is to a vegetarian or natural foods diet. And the expanded candy sectionnatural as it may beis looked upon with much disdain by shoppers and long-time employees. The dairy section is much improved, as are the frozen food cases, now stocked with new items like Taj, Ethnic Gourmet, and Celentano vegan entrees. A rather surprising addition for some is frozen venison, rabbit, and duck.
The cheese selection is excellently priced and of good quality, though not of massive quantity. And their bread department now includes pita delivered fresh from Baraka Bakery, as well as a wide variety of loaves from veteran vendors Provence and Great Harvest.
Sunshine now stocks fresh free-range chicken or turkey, vegetarian-fed, hormone-free lean ground beef, and other cuts of red meat, and Beauchamp says despite initial misgivings, it’s selling. A nicely, though not extravagantly, stocked salad bar has been added, which carries two or three soups daily. Every one I have sampled has been delicious, particularly anything mushroom.
Luckily, I made a third visit to Sunshine to sample the freshly made salads and pasta dishes, because I had been prepared to excoriate what I had tried, which ranged from dry and tasteless to laughably awful. On my last visit, I was amazed at just the visual difference in the display case from the week before. The astounding makeover coincides with the return of chef Teresa Wiles, who recently shuttered her restaurant Way Out West. I sampled five things and found everyone of them to be bursting with flavor, color, contrast, fresh ingredients, and imagination. Bravo! There are also wrapped prepared sandwiches in the case; we like the smoked cheddar and avocado a lot, but are puzzled by the excess of mayo. A gourmet mustard would be more suitable.
The additional space that was formerly Pangea now houses vitamins, oils, skin-care products, books, and magazines. There are four tables for two jammed up against the window; some Sunshine regulars were expecting more seating in the addition. There are several picnic tables outside waiting for warmer weather.
In addition to my confessed bias against health food, I also shy away from the high prices attached to such a specialized market. On one visit, 24 items added up to $81.41; on another, 13 totalled $43.18. That’s a little too pricy for me, but if this food is a priority of your lifestyle, many of Sunshine’s prices under the Wild Oats umbrellathanks to national buying power and in-house productshave actually gone down. Any transition, with equal parts excitement and anxiety, provokes strong reactions. On scale, the positives at the new Sunshine Grocery outweigh the negatives. At 3201 Belmont Boulevard, change is good.