Entering Whole Foods' North Academy Boulevard location on a Saturday afternoon, I discover a bustling scene.
Beyond the produce stands laden with happy organic vegetables and fruits, people bloom everywhere: standing in lines, sitting at bistro tables, shuffling around the sumptuous buffet in the caf area, bouncing baskets and bags full of exotic cheeses and creamy soaps, and queuing up to check out. Even the front booths are filled with families and canoodling couples.
Suddenly, into this cheery scene runs a guy in an orange slick-suit and waders with a slippery, 100-pound tuna yelling, "Step up for the Tuna Capade!" and "Come meet Flipper's best friend!"
A ripple effect, punctuated by customer laughter and gasping, follows the Tuna Bearer around the store, and like any good clown, he soon has drawn a line of followers (most of them bored men with fractious children). They trail Tuna Bearer his name is Richie Maestas back to the seafood market, where they watch as he slings the big fish onto a cutting board at a kiosk in front of the seafood counter.
We stand in thrall as the tuna is chopped, gutted and filleted into neat steak stacks. I'm captivated by its entrails and ruby muscle and startled when a bell goes off and Maestas, now joined by seafood team leader Chris Miller, begins to throw pieces of the fish over customers' heads to the mongers behind the counter in their starched and dapper butcher's coats.
"Here comes a piece of the cheek!" yells Maestas. A cherub-faced young man deftly catches the slop, and flings it back, retorting in a mock Jamaican accent, "What about the eyes, mon? Throw me the eyes for a little voodoo that you do."
For the next 10 minutes, the kiosk becomes melodrama as employees gleefully pitch pieces of the fish to each other, ring the bell, harass each other and generally entertain the growing crowd with their carnival antics.
As fish theater roars on, Miller and several other employees steadily wrap and weigh fish for sale. Miller also finds time to arrange free sushi samples (bits of our friend, the tuna, dabbed in soy sauce and topped with pineapple mango salsa). They're delicious, and I start to understand why people loiter here on Saturdays.
The other Pike Market
OK, you ask, but what's the point? Why is Whole Foods throwing fish?
The obvious answer is marketing. It's clear that Whole Foods like Apple, VW and Target has a slick team that fingers exactly what customers want. In this case, that's to feel like they're strolling an open-air market in a major city.
"Whole Foods wanted to copy, as much as it could, the energy and fun of Pike Place Market," says Miller.
Pike Place Market, a world-famous market on Seattle's original waterfront, has been in the fish business since 1911. According to legend, fish-throwing began when fishmongers tired of walking to the market's fish table to retrieve a salmon each time someone ordered one. Of course, at Whole Foods, fish-throwing is an activity, not an expedient, but Miller claims there are other motives at work than marketing.
Miller wants to interest Colorado customers in the many wonderful ways fish can be prepared to make healthful, delicious meals.
"The theater creates in people an openness to fish by seeing it fresh, cut and cooked right in front of them," he says. "There's nowhere else around here to get fresh fish on this kind of scale."
Whole Foods has even purchased four facilities that serve as seafood monitoring and distribution bases.
"The fisheries increased Whole Foods' buying power," says Miller, "which meant we could serve fresher fish to our customers more cheaply and more in line with our mission."
In 1999, Whole Foods became the first U.S. retailer offering Marine Stewardship Council-certified seafood. MSC works to sustain over-fished waters and to protect the oceans against pollution, all in line with Whole Foods' well-known desire to leave a small corporate "footprint" on the environment. Miller says his department uses every part of the fish.
"We sold that huge tuna by 5 p.m. just the neck and jaw were left, and that went into compost," he says. And that compost ultimately ends up in local gardens.
I, being myself, cannot resist pointing out that flying in planeloads of hours-old fish each day so landlocked customers can have their requisite omega-3 fatties poses a far greater strain on the environment than a few fish heads rotting in the dump. Miller gets momentarily frosty with me, but since we both realize he's a mere fish bone lodged in the giant Whole Foods' whale belly, I'm quickly forgiven.
Spraying fish guts from his cutting surface, Miller tells me the seafood team offers dietary consultation, handling, cooking and serving tips, and even a $20 seafood cooking class, which he teaches once a month at the store. "The theater gets people over here, then the food keeps them at the table," Miller says. In the past eight months, he adds, Whole Foods has seen a $1,000 increase in seafood sales on Saturdays.
Behind the toss
Behind the toss
A little while later, I taste a superb piece of Chilean sea bass soaked in blue cornmeal and tequila lime seasoning that Miller, 27, has fried up. I see a few customers sneak more than one sample.
Miller, the son of restaurateurs, says cooking is his first love; he's already spent half his life as a chef. Previously employed by Colorado Springs' defunct bistro, 32 Bleu, Miller also worked at the Flying Fish, a Seattle wharf restaurant near Pike Place Market. It was that expertise that caught Whole Foods' attention.
When Miller and the other seafood employees were hired, they watched a video about Pike Place Market and began copying the fish-throwing shenanigans. But, as Miller points out, Whole Foods took the event further by adding the cooking element, which he pioneered and perfected.
It's evident in all this that Miller cares about his job and making it fun for staff and customers. I watch him charm senior citizens, a couple of blonde ambitions and a small boy holding tightly to his little brother's hand. The boys warily eye a bucket of sea bass. The oldest one says, "Those are really big fish!"
Miller smiles, bends down to the boys' level and responds, "That ain't nothin'. I got a tuna back here that can take you both on." The boys giggle and their mom buys three tuna steaks.
As they walk off down the "street," toward the ocean of pavement outside, Miller grins.
"Pikes Peak Market."
See Chris Miller compete in a "Battle of the Chefs" against Blue Star chef James Davis.
Nosh, 121 S. Tejon St.
Friday, Aug. 2, 4 p.m.
Tickets: $30, includes drinks and samples; visit nosh121.com for more.