MISHAWAKA — Haley Coffman compares her initial venture into a Whole Foods Market to that of a kid walking into a candy store for the first time.
For Chris Cotton, an insurance agent from North Webster, it was like an amusement park.
Coffman, Cotton and thousands of others in the region will soon find their favorite grocery store closer to home when Whole Foods opens its first store in Northern Indiana on Wednesday, April 10, in Mishawaka.
The decision to choose Mishawaka as the third Whole Foods location in Indiana — after Indianapolis and Carmel — was based in part on proximity to the University of Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s College and Indiana University South Bend, said Mariah Fairweather, marketing specialist for the Mishawaka store on Grape Road.
But overwhelming demand was another factor.
How strong is the demand? The Mishawaka store’s Facebook page eclipsed 15,000 fans over the last weekend.
The company expects to attract customers from across northern Indiana and southern Michigan, Fairweather said.
“Everyone’s been pretty blown away by the support of the Michiana community,” she said.
The company has a devoted customer base who prefer organic and natural foods and appreciate its themes of healthy living and sustainability.
Aside from image and product line, though, customers are greeted with a shopping experience uncommon in many grocery stores. Employees are encouraged to engage customers and provide excellent customer service.
Part of that is tempting customers with samples.
The company realizes many shoppers may be unfamiliar with the store’s products and is willing to win them over with a taste.
“In order to give them that comfort level, we’re willing to pull something off the shelf, open it up and say, ‘Here, take a sip, have a sample,’” Fairweather said. “It’s a way of building trust. You don’t want somebody to buy something and then have them hate it.”
That’s a big appeal for Coffman and Cotton.
Coffman, a 20-year-old student at Butler University, has Crohn’s disease, which requires a diet that is essentially gluten-free, dairy-free and low fat. She’s become a regular at the Whole Foods store in Indianapolis.
Prior to living in Indianapolis, she and her mother, Leanne Coffman of Warsaw, often shopped online for specialized foods. The results, she said, were often “hit and miss.”
Haley Coffman said she especially likes the opportunity to test new foods.
“You can ask them to open a box and actually try it,” she said.
Coffman said she’s looking forward to returning home this summer and knowing a Whole Foods store is nearby.
“I don’t know what I would do without one,” she said.
For Cotton, a 44-year-old insurance agent, trips to Whole Foods in Indy or Chicago have often been paired with other activities. But he and his wife, Tammy, enjoy cooking so much that a venture to Whole Foods often feels like a date where they can plan out new dinner ideas.
He said they enjoy the opportunity to find new foods, especially Middle Eastern and selections from India.
“I literally get excited to go in there and come up with new things we can try,” Cotton said.
“I’m a dork about food.”
In addition to the samples, Fairweather said customers especially like the cooking department, where items are available in bulk. The department carries a wide range of items, including different types of grains, nuts, rice, beans, lentils and oatmeal.
“It is great for people who just want to try something and don’t want to commit to buying a big bag of anything.”
Another big attraction is the prepared foods department that includes a deli, sandwiches, sushi, homemade pizza, a hot food bar and a salad bar that offers organic selections.
One criticism that follows Whole Foods is its prices. To counter that, the store offers coupons, a program highlighting money-saving ideas and a private label, 365, that Fairweather says provides good price alternatives.
Exactly how the arrival of Whole Foods will impact local grocers remains to be seen.
A spokesperson for Martin’s Super Market declined comment for this story, and a representative for Meijer did not return a phone call Friday.
Whole Foods Market in Mishawaka will feature 22 local vendors, including two from Elkhart County. IndigoH2O of Elkhart will provide alkaline mineral water, and Dutch Country Market of Middlebury will stock noodles, honey and maple syrup.
Wednesday’s grand opening is at 9 a.m., but the store is planning live entertainment that will begin about an hour before, weather permitting.
Instead of a ribbon cutting, the store will have a bread-breaking ceremony.