This announcement falls right in line with the growing trend of restaurants + retail, but a partnership with Whole Foods seems out of line with Locol's original mission to serve healthy food in underprivileged communities.
— Kristen Hawley
The rise of food halls, emergence of “grocerants,” and the uptick of restaurants housed within grocery stores across the country are changing the way restaurants do business, and there’s no sign of the trend slowing.
The latest: California fast-food restaurant Locol will open its third location inside a San Jose Whole Foods. After announcing that the restaurant would be taking a mid-December holiday break “making improvements, adjustments, and tweaks” returning with more news in 2018. The timing of Thursday’s Whole Foods announcement seemed to even surprise co-founder Roy Choi, who tweeted that he didn’t expect the announcement until later this week.
According to Eater, Locol will use Whole Foods’ kitchen space, serving its dishes in the prepared food section as well as via a pass-through window into the store’s taproom, Floodcraft Brewing. Since its start in 2016, Locol has worked to brand its menu items, including foldies (cheese and meat or beans inside a tortilla), messy greens (braised collard and mustard greens in smoked oil). This branding and recognition, soon to show up at at the San Jose Whole Foods location, gives Locol visibility in yet another California community while drawing a clear connection to its fresh, organic, and locally-sourced ingredients.”
The move is in line with other fast food/ grocery partnerships, but seems a little mixed-message. Locol started as a means to bring healthy, organic, affordable food to underserved communities — its Watts, Los Angeles and West Oakland locations are representative of that. Inclusion in a Whole Foods, known more for high prices and affluent communities, seems incongruous with that original goal.
Diners seem to have struggled with Locol’s identity, too. L.A. Times critic Jonathan Gold gave it a glowing review, naming it Restaurant of the Year last April. As restaurant press tends to do, this drove clientele from outside the area to the Watts location, leaving locals to question who the restaurant was meant to accommodate.
Earlier in the year, New York Times critic Pete Wells traveled to Locol’s now-closed downtown Oakland location and gave the restaurant a zero-star “satisfactory” review. (For comparison, a one-star reviews in the Times is considered “good.”) Co-founders Choi and Daniel Patterson need to figure out the menu, he wrote. “Why offer less satisfying versions of what’s already there, when they could be selling great versions of something new?” The uptown location, an area more affluent than Watts and convenient to office buildings and public transit, closed last summer, moving operations to West Oakland.
Locol has continued to evolve, making changes to its menu last year and will reopen soon, presumably with more changes. The course of Patterson and Choi’s ambitious plan to disrupt the fast food status quo has changed since its original inception, but continues to follow a trajectory that can help it expand.