“Our apologies, café is closed,” read a sign blocking the customer entryway at Whole Foods Market on South Street. The message was an invisible red velvet rope that kept curious customers, grinning coworkers and their collective video cameras at bay.
It was a charming little setup. The typically heavily trafficked eating area gave off an exclusive vibe when seats for 21 – no more – were getting decorated for the show.
Sparkling water with a dash of lemon and green, heavy plastic cutlery were aligned with care, with arrangements of fresh flowers as a finishing touch. Enter “Spaghetti Opera.”
“Love, love, love – tonight is all about the love,” 2003 Temple graduate and Whole Foods Market cashier Jim Gwathney said as he addressed the crowd. And by crowd, I mean the 11 people who chose to make an appearance after the whole place sold out. Talk about exclusive.
Operas typically follow a storyline of love, but what says love better than a hearty plate of spaghetti and meatballs on a Friday night? That sort of love sparks a joy in your taste buds and a comfort only found in what I have referred to as warm-noodle-belly for more than a decade. So I ate my vegan meatballs with pride, and all was well.
That is, until the incredibly disarming bout of digestive issues overcame my plus-one and I shortly after finishing. I may have PTMD – post-traumatic meatball disorder – but I digress.
The Spaghetti Opera was a first for the grocery store, a dinner-and-a-show spin on its monthly “Supper Club,” which focuses on healthy eating, and the entertainment was provided by none other than Whole Foods Market’s own employees.
Gwathney said the planning went a little bit like this:
Michelle Snyder, a Whole Foods Market team leader, said last year, “Hey Jim, you sing opera. I love opera, why don’t you sing some opera?
“Of course I said yes, because you’ll agree and it will never happen,” Gwathney said. “So I said yes, and last year it never happened. Oh, what a shame. I was totally going to do it.”
This year, Snyder asked Gwathney if he was “ready to sing some opera.”
“And because [Snyder] is great at her job, here we are,” Gwathney said.
“We” was an impressive band of employees. Gwathney, along with fellow cashier Elise Vetanovets and Whole Body associate team leader Shana Baty, performed famous opera pieces over dinner, including several selections from Georges Bizet’s “Carmen.”
“One of the things that I love about working at Whole Foods Market is that stuff like this happens,” Gwathney said. “I’m a cashier, and you guys come around and create this presence. I find that amazing.”
The event planning wasn’t all about the entertainment, however.
Whole Foods Market has been investing in lessening poverty for more than 10 years now, and has found several creative ways to raise money.
In a six-week period from the middle of February to the end of March every year, the grocery store organizes fundraising efforts to benefit Whole Planet. The charity aims to provide microloans to women aiming to raise themselves out of poverty in areas where Whole Foods Market sources its products.
For a healthy, three-course meal, $15 isn’t so bad to begin with, especially not when it’s directed at community development. All of the money Spaghetti Opera brought in, paired with the $38,000 that has been raised thus far, will go into these communities to be recycled.
Here’s a bit of context. A small loan, typically starting around $175, will go to a woman in Peru, where Whole Foods Market gets products like quinoa, cacao and coffee. Once the loan is repaid, it will continue to be directed into development of that entrepreneur’s community, with the original woman serving as a leader and mentor.
“I think one of my favorite parts of this program is that there is a 98 percent repayment rate on the loans,” Gwathney said. “What that means to me is that people aren’t going into lifelong debt, which is important to me. I like the idea that these women are getting what they need in the short-run and using it for this business that they conceived. And when they are successful, they pay the money back.”
As a bit of an organic food junkie, I have always loved Whole Foods Market and now have all the reason more. The simplicity of Whole Planet is what makes the venture so remarkable. It is small, executable steps that will change the world.
And hey, the food is great, too – remember? I digressed. It really tasted great, and the vegan chocolate cake was out of this world. I thank chef Ethan Jarvis who told me, “I made this with love” as he placed that huge hunk of chocolaty heaven in front of me.
“It was a fun little evening out for a good cause,” patron Stan Ervin said. “It was fun to see the different personalities of the people we see regularly in the store performing and having a good time.”
For Ervin and friend Sarah Petrosky, the Supper Club is a monthly must.
“Who would decide to go to the grocery story once a month to eat dinner?” Petrosky said.
That really stuck with me. Through the opera librettos and steady beeping of the cash registers in the background, it was obvious that the grocery store isn’t a typical Friday night hotspot. Whole Foods Market has challenged that notion however, providing a sense of community in Philadelphia with its creative event planning and building that community aspect abroad.
“I would say the really good thing about this is using public commercial space for arts and making a grocery store a place where we’re happy to come eat,” Petrosky said.
Brianna Spause can be reached at email@example.com.