Clash Of The Organic Titans

For a city that doesn’t like food, Berlin’s sure got some action on that front these days. Maybe it’s just the dream of grabbing the tourist dollar, but a lot of new restaurants and delis (many with the inevitable English “Free Wireless Internet” signs) seem to be opening up, and not just the faux-French ones I commented on a while ago.

More to the point for residents, though, is the war shaping up on and near Senefelderplatz in Prenzlauer Berg, where two well-funded organic food shops are practically next-door neighbors.

It started about a year ago, when viv BioFrischMarkt opened pretty much next door to the former Polish Consulate, which is now a (very good) pizzeria. It wasn’t one shop, but three: a Drogerie (a term meaning basically a drugstore only without drugs: cosmetics, brushes, stuff like that), a “Lounge” (ie, a restaurant-cafe), and the aforementioned BioFrischMarkt. I investigated the latter, of course, and found it a nice, if unexciting, health food store. (A note on the term “Bio,” incidentally. It does not mean “organic.” That’s öko. Bio is a step just below. It could be that the EU has more stringent “organic” labelling laws than the U.S., too, and for something to be öko it’s got to jump through more hoops. My readers being who they are, I’m sure we’ll all find out in the comments section soon…) One decided advantage was that it didn’t have That Smell. I don’t know what it is, but it’s found in most health food stores. (Some speculate it’s from brewer’s yeast, which might be true). But it also didn’t have anything particularly interesting that would induce me to walk all the way over there.

Then, on the triangle of land where Kollwitzstr. and Schönhauser Allee come together, an apartment building started going up. As soon as the outer walls were firm enough to hold it, a big vinyl sign announced that LPG would soon open “Europe’s largest Biomarkt.” And open they did, albeit a month later than announced, and, being bored, I decided to head up there this afternoon and see if they’d started fighting yet. (Two Italian restaurants in my neighborhood once had a showdown with knives right in the middle of the street, after all, so I was wondering if mellow organic German hippies might become similarly riled).

Well, LPG’s new store may be the largest in “Europe” until tomorrow, when Whole Foods London opens up (unless England’s no longer part of Europe: it’s been a while since I’ve been there). But, more to the point, it’s not much more exciting than viv is. Oh, it’s got an escalator you can take your shopping cart on. But so does that supermarket in the suburbs I visit with friends when Heribert Kastell gets a wild hair and sells wine in the mall. It’s got organic frozen pizza, so they know their neighborhood (I estimate that around dinner-time, at least 30% of my neighbors on any given evening are cooking frozen pizza). It’s got a good selection of organic wines and beers — every organic beer I’ve seen in Germany, in fact, is in stock. It’s got lots and lots of potatoes and not very many green vegetables, and lots and lots of bread. Upstairs, it’s got a lot of stuff in jars (including — gack! — natto), but, the Japanese stuff (yes, natto!) aside, nothing else exotic, not even Indian stuff, which is the backbone of a lot of organic food stores these days, Indian food being heavily vegetarian and all. And while viv segregates its Drogerie in a separate shop, LPG segregates what looks like a women’s-and-children’s store with low internal walls, which I found distinctly unfriendly.

Now, maybe it’s because I grew up with Whole Foods in Austin (John Mackey ran the organic grocery store a block from my house before he joined with the others to open the first Whole Foods down the hill), and have sort of internalized their philosophy, but the reason I’m not moved to consider either viv or LPG for my shopping is simple: their stock is boring. Whole Foods always introduced new items, and always had someone on hand with samples. There was, eventually, a sampling station where either a WF team member (they don’t call them employees) or a representative of the product being sampled could stand and give stuff away. This meant that people were gradually introduced to new flavors, and, over time, added them to their shopping lists. I remember when Dean (the vegetable guy — now a vice president) introduced me to jicama. If jicamas didn’t weigh about ten pounds I’d have had one on call all the time: that stuff’s good.

But Germans, by and large, don’t like variety in their food, and certainly don’t like trying unfamiliar things: someone giving away samples of something unusual would probably stand there all day watching the stuff go bad. If the local cuisine (which is not to say I mean all German cuisine by this, just the local variety) were something precious, I’d say this is a good thing: this is how traditions get preserved. But it always disheartens me to realize that the yuppies who, by and large, make up the Prenzlauer Berg population may be young, may be affluent, but they really don’t have any interest in expanding their culinary boundaries past German and their conception of Italian food. LPG isn’t going to challenge that, nor is viv. And Whole Foods, during their promotional blitz for their London flagship, announced that, while Europe is definitely on the list to conquer, Germany, in particular is not.

The other thing that’ll discourage me from LPG is that it’s yet another extremely expensive co-op. Check out the membership costs: €51.13 to join (and where’d they pull that number from?), and €17.90 per month for a normal adult, €12.78 for low-income and unemployed adults. A single person would have to do a lot of shopping there to make that worthwhile — and, like I said, the stock doesn’t invite that.

Not my problem, anyway. There’s no way to get to either place with public transit, which means I’d have to walk. I’ve got two places (with That Smell) within a couple of blocks, although I rarely shop at them, either. But lifestyle wars like this do interest me, so let’s see who’s the fittest and who’ll survive. And if the knives come out.

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