TAMPA — For Whole Foods Market, doing the right thing pays off.
Coho salmon fillets caught without nets fetch $16.99 a pound.
A boneless New York Strip steak raised in a pasture sells for $18.99 a pound.
A gallon of organic milk costs $5.99.
While traditional grocers compete on price and service, Whole Foods caters to shoppers more concerned about healthy eating, wise environmental practices and selection. And it's working.
Even in budget-conscious times, the chain continues to add stores at a steady pace, including Thursday's opening of a location along Northdale Boulevard at Dale Mabry Highway. It's the 18th store statewide and second in the Tampa Bay area. Others are in the works for St. Petersburg and Clearwater, but no sites have been announced.
Whole Foods lures customers with high-quality items, freshly prepared foods and a global mission to improve the way food is made. Every store does fundraisers for local nonprofit groups and sells products from local farmers.
"Whole foods has a talent for making people feel good about spending money,'' said David Livingston, a supermarket consultant based in Milwaukee.
The chain has achieved success because it doesn't oversaturate markets and is selective about where it goes, he said. It looks for communities with highly educated people earning six-figure salaries. It leans toward areas near large medical centers or universities.
Whole Foods enjoys a loyal customer base of people like Carol Osborne of Tampa, who shops at Whole Foods about twice a month for "special'' and "indulgent'' items she can't find elsewhere. She supports the environmental policies but mostly likes the products.
"It's so good, easy and clean. It's got the best salad bar in town, and you always find cool things,'' said Osborne, a marketing professor at the University of South Florida, citing the Ciao Bella key lime graham gelato sandwiches as her favorite.
But her visits aren't cheap. "You've got to shop with a basket not a cart because of the sticker shock,'' she said, adding that she gets what she pays for in terms of quality and selection.
Whole Foods' revenues have grown from $6.6 billion in fiscal year 2007 to $10.1 billion in 2011. It debuted on the Fortune 500 list in 2005 and today ranks 264th. By comparison, Publix, with its 1,061 stores, has annual sales of about $27 billion and ranks 106th on the list.
Whole Foods began in 1980 with a store in Austin, Texas, and has expanded to about 335 stores in the United States, Canada and United Kingdom, mostly through mergers and acquisitions of other health food stores. It went public in 1992, trading under WFM on the NASDAQ.
The Carrollwood store was the area's first built from scratch. The other, 10 miles south at Dale Mabry Highway and Interstate 275 in Tampa, was a Wild Oats that Whole Foods bought in 2007 as part of a 110-store acquisition.
Stores are designed to reflect their community, and no two are alike, said Russ Benblatt, Whole Foods' marketing coordinator for Florida. Stores range from 18,000 to 75,000 square feet, with the Carrollwood store at 36,000 square feet. (The average Publix is 45,000 square feet.)
The new store carries more than 750 sommelier-selected wines, 400 beers and a huge artisan cheese collection managed by Kelly Snyder, one of just 121 American Cheese Society certified cheese professionals in North America. The prepared foods area has a "world cuisine'' hot bar, bakery, pizza oven, barbecue smoker and coffee and juice bar. Nearly two dozen soups and chilis are served daily.
Whole Foods' eco-friendly emphasis is visible throughout the store, from its cafe walls insulated with used blue jeans to its cafe chairs made from recycled plastic bottles. Food products contain no artificial flavors, colors or sweeteners.
Its seafood counter uses a color-coded rating system from the Blue Ocean Institute to describe wild-caught seafood. A green "best choice'' rating means the fish is abundant, well-managed and caught in environmentally friendly ways. A yellow rating is a "good alternative.''
This year, Whole Foods stopped selling red-rated fish that were caught in ways considered harmful to the environment or other marine life. For farmed products, it carries only fish from responsibly managed farms that don't use hormones or antibiotics.
In the butcher shop, Whole Foods has adopted the Global Animal Partnership's 5-Step Animal Welfare Ratings that show consumers how the pigs, chickens, turkeys and cattle were raised. Step 1 starts with no crates or cages. Step 5 is the most humane.
As part of its emphasis on local growers, the store has more than 50 locally produced items in the grocery, dairy and frozen food aisles. Members of Community Supported Agriculture sharing programs can pick up their weekly boxes of produce at the store free of charge.
A full-time Healthy Eating Specialist teaches cooking classes, gives store tours and educates customers on healthy food choices. Two graphic artists design the eye-catching chalkboard menus and other artwork throughout the store.
Despite higher operational costs than value-oriented grocers, Whole Food prospers because of its commitment to food, said Phil Lempert, a food and retail trends expert known as the "supermarket guru.'' The store's shoppers span the generations, from baby boomers thinking about their mortality to new parents concerned about what they feed their children. All share the same goal, to live healthy and eat better. And they are willing to pay the price.
"Whole Foods does it better than everybody else,'' Lempert said. "They live, breathe and eat healthy foods. When you walk in the store, you feel like it's healthier.''