A finicky guy's exploits in finding gustatory (and other) satisfaction in his kitchen, his neighborhood, and beyond.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Whole Foods vs Urban Organic — Big Weekend Show-down!

Michael considers abandoning Urban Organic to create his own produce delivery system. . . .

I'd like to start by thanking my reader Debbie for injecting a bit of sanity into my thinking.  For weeks, I'd been living with a low-grade stress brought on by my dissatisfaction with the Urban Organic produce delivery company.  We were certainly enjoying the high-quality fruits and veggies they brought to our door every Wednesday, but the high level of error in their procedures was creating a lot of follow-up headache for me.

In my consternation, I guess I'd lost sight of the main reason we'd joined Urban Organic in the first place: to ease the post-harvest dejection we typically feel after the last weekly CSA delivery of the growing season, which happens just before Thanksgiving every year.  Well, this goal was achieved — we definitely were distracted from our melancholy by the fun of opening our weekly boxes from UO.  But over time, the frustration out-weighed the fun.  Time to move on!  Thanks, Debbie, for reminding me that, with Whole Foods only a block away, we have no need to rely on an error-prone delivery system for our organic produce.

But I wanted to be sure before opting out of UO that I could indeed get a superior consumer experience from WF.  So I set up an experiment — kitchen scientist at heart! — to give me a means of analyzing the two produce sources.  My challenge would be to see if I could create a box of organic produce at Whole Foods that would rival in quality, variety, convenience, and price the weekly boxes we received from Urban Organic.  Read on to find out how I fared. . . .
First, I set my budget.  We'd been receiving a weekly "Original Value Box" from Urban Organic, which is described on their website as "Incomparable value, 15-18 items, 1-3 pieces of each item. Ideal for couples or small families."  (Of course, they are showing only 14 items on this week's list — typical!)  Such a box goes for $34.99, plus a delivery fee of $1.99, for a total of $36.98.  This would be my target amount.

How would I decide what to put into my box?  Well, obviously, everything would have to be organic.  I would choose 15 items, to equal the minimum number of items UO claimed to put in their boxes.  I would choose from among both fruits and vegetables, and I would toss into my cart an item or two that is not habitual for me.  One thing I like about having my assortment chosen by someone else is that it often forces me to stretch my comfort zone a little.

I bought the following 14 items and brought them home and put them into a cardboard box, just to be consistent:

  • red cabbage
  • navel oranges
  • thyme
  • kiwis
  • grape tomatoes
  • mushrooms
  • daikon radish
  • golden delicious apples
  • red grapefruit
  • bosc pears
  • cucumber
  • baby zucchini
  • eggplant
  • green pepper
  • mustard greens
Delivered by Michael

My bill came to $34.79, so I could probably have added an additional item and still come in under budget.  This total is perhaps even a bit elevated because I did not choose the cheapest items which normally come from Urban Organic — bananas, carrots, potatoes — because we have a surfeit of these items on hand.  (In the spirit of fairness, I had tried to shop "price-blind" at Whole Foods, but a couple of things I might have liked to have were ridiculously expensive: a half-pint of blueberries for $4.99? Red bell pepper at $5.99 a pound?  Couldn't bring myself to spend for those.  Then again, I never saw such luxury items in the UO boxes, either.)

How did I do in my challenge?  I think I created at a similar price a box containing produce of comparable quality and variety.  The convenience is a little harder to measure, as are some of the less tangible aspects of the experience.  I actually had to leave my apartment to fetch the produce from WF, but I would have had to go there anyway for other items.  I had to spend the time to select the items myself, but for me that falls into the category of fun, especially as I had made it a goal to select some items that don't usually make it into my cart (red cabbage, daikon radish, yellow apples).  My inner control freak was delighted to be able to oversee every aspect of this transaction (I gotta admit), ending at the check-out counter, where my daikon was initially rung up at twice the price as a parsnip.

You can't relax for a moment, when someone else's capacity for error is involved!  (I know, I need to let go a bit.)  But at WF, at least I have to be vigilant only for the time it takes to check out.  I was finding the process of overseeing UO to be a full-time job.

Final score: Whole Foods 1, Urban Organic 0.  I just went online to cancel my account with UO and was unable to find an option for this on their website (typical!), so I wrote them an email.  We shall see if my departure from the organization is processed any more smoothly than my entry into it.  (When I first spoke to a representative on the phone, I was thanked for referring my friend Phyllis, who was supposed to have gotten a free box for referring ME.  I should've been on my guard starting then!)

Need to combat the winter blues (or the summer blahs for my readers Down Under)?  Put 15 kinds of fresh organic produce in a big box and give it to yourself!  I'm feeling better already. . . .


  1. I'm jealous that you have something like Whole Foods so close to you. Once the growing season is over here, my garden and all the local produce places close up for the winter. Of course, I can get fresh at the grocery(20 minute drive) but it's not the same. Holy Crap, though! $4.99 for blueberries!?! Gold plated? Special magical blueberries? $5.95 for bell peppers?!?

  2. The price of the berries I can understand. After all, they're completely out of season in January in NY. I normally buy berries only when the local ones come out in early summer. They're even more of a treat that way, because I've been waiting months for their arrival.

    But I have never been able to understand why red peppers (and yellow and orange) cost 3 times what the green ones do. Anyone out there have an explanation?

  3. $4.99 is about what our blueberries are here as well, unless the grocery store is having a sale. Then you might get them for $2.99. I do love them in your baked banana dish. It really is delicious. And I tried your pasta bake too, but some how misread the directions and used sliced carrots. I was so excited though, because it was an easy way to sneak some vegetables into the mouths of very picky eaters (and I'm not just talking about the kids here!). I'm dying to try the sausage/saurkraut dish, but I'm afraid I might end up having to eat the whole thing by myself.

  4. Hi Liara. I'll bet the sliced carrots were a delightful variation. Go ahead and make the sausage thing — even if you have to (get to?) eat it all yourself!

    You know, I've never put blueberries in with my baked bananas, but that sounds yummy. I guess when the berries are in season, it's hot out, and I'm not baking my fruit. But I think I'll have to make an exception to try this out. Especially if they're on sale.

    By the way, everyone, that was $4.99 for a SMALL container, not the standard pint-sized containers, but the little flat ones. I think it contained about 20 berries.

  5. Red bell peppers cost more than green mostly because the market will bear it. They are all the same exact plant, but green is the least ripe which means they can be picked earlier and last longest on the shelves, and thus be priced lower. But the huge difference in price in grocery stores of any kind is just crazy.

    Here our growing season is pretty much year-round so we always have fresh local veggies at the farmstands, which are everywhere along the roadsides. The one I go to most often sells bell peppers in groups of 5-6 for about $3.50. Green or red. Constrast that to the "cheap" grocery store which sells the green peppers for 79¢ to $1.29 each, depending on time of year and I guess where they trucked them in from. I don't even know what the red peppers sell for because I never buy them in a store.

    I'm so glad your UO v. WF scientific kitchen experiment turned out well. Factor in a bonus dollar amount for the stress saved and treat yourself to some expensive produce once in a while too. Blueberries in the middle of NYC winter will be worth it.

  6. I guess I balk at that price(again-crap!-$4.95) because I am used to the farm stands or U-pick farms. When it's in season and I can't/won't grow it myself, I'll buy a lot and freeze it. I still have 30 or more pints of frozen blueberries in the freezer that I didn't pay more than $35 for-and we've probably eaten about 1/3 of what was originally picked. Living in NYC has some great advantages- I'd love to see a live opera- but you certainly pay for it in other ways!

  7. There is no Whole Foods here, and the prices of organic produce from my farmer or from the grocery store are just stupid! I can get some fresh produce from my restaurant supply house, which helps, and I eat a lot of frozen veggies in the winter, because I have trouble walking much distance. Whine, whine, whine. Anyway, I'm glad that you have saved money with your Whole Foods experiment; that always feels good!

  8. I'm glad that your experiment was a success! I also can't bring myself to buy expensive fruit and veggies - at the moment I've been wanting broccoli really badly, but it is sitting at around $8-$10 kg! Crazy!

  9. That IS a ridiculous price for broccoli. Didn't broccoli used to be a mundane, everyday vegetable? Now, apparently, it's become an exotic delicacy.

    @Marjie: do tell us more about the restaurant supply house. Are you in the restaurant business, or can anyone shop there?

    @pikojiko: I can't even imagine how luxurious it would feel to have 30+ pints of hand-picked blueberries in my freezer! Your freezer must be the size of our living room.

  10. @Debbie: Thanks for the inside scoop on red peppers. I thought it might have something to do with the ripeness, but that can't be the WHOLE story.

    I think I will definitely be treating myself to blueberries soon with my baked bananas. . .how else am I going to get through another week with a high temperature in the low 20s? I'll either spring for the tiny box at Whole Foods or raid pikojiko's freezer.......

  11. Michael,

    Love that you can go into WF with a budget like that. WOW!!! I have often thought of getting a delivery service myself but LOVE to go into grocery stores! My problem is usually spending more because I see things I just absolutely can't live without.
    I also don't eat alot of things out of season. I mean come on, strawberries and watermelon in January? I can wait until it's actually strawberry season for the best strawberries around.
    Love the blog by the way.

  12. Whole Foods a block away! See what I mean, you lucky city boy? Good job on your WF run and on getting rid of UO. I'll bet that feels good (or will, if the cancellation goes smoothly ;-)

    I can't wait for spring to come and kick away these winter blues. In just a couple of months, our asparagus will be coming up, and from there it will be a glorious spring and summer of fresh veggie goodness!

  13. I find it hard to buy fresh orgaic and when I do find it it's often waaaaay out of our budget. I hope to grow our own this year.

    Good luck with your shopping.

  14. Thanks, Atomic. I don't know what we'd do if we had a big family like yours to feed.....organic would become more of a luxury, I suppose. We're lucky — 2 skinny guys and 2 6-pound dogs don't consume such a huge amount!