Saturday, May 18, 2024

Pick Up on Aisle 6! How an Overpriced Supermarket Became L.A.’s Hottest Hook Up Spot

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I’m standing in the produce section at Erewhon on Venice Boulevard, pretending to be interested in an $8 avocado. In truth—while I am interested in why an avocado costs $8—I’m here on an undercover assignment, covertly observing L.A.’s trendiest new mating ritual. On this chilly January evening, I carefully navigate my cart around a cadre of eligible hipster customers who seem to have arrived directly from an ayahuasca retreat, practically levitating as they look for love among the paleo bagels and ox bile tablets.

If I spot a prospective partner, I’m supposed to ask, “How’s the soup?” If the person is interested, he or she is supposed to respond, “It’s hot.”

It’s all part of Shop & Shag, an informal singles gathering organized by professional matchmaker and relationship coach Christina Weber, who noticed that the high-end specialty supermarket was an ideal setting for uncoupled Angelenos to meet cute. “My clients were already making connections in the checkout line,” she says, so she saw the Monday night gatherings as an opportunity to “uplevel the vibe.”

Weber’s hardly the only one who’s picked up on Erewhon’s love connection potential. As the pandemic has finally started to fade away, L.A.’s singles have begun poking their heads up from their dating apps and venturing into the real world in search of actual face-to-face romance, the kind that doesn’t require swiping left or right but swiping nonetheless. “Between dinner and our turmeric teas, I’m out $100,” sighs one Shop & Shagger. And here on Venice Boulevard, as well as seven other locations—in Santa Monica, Fairfax, Silver Lake, Beverly Hills, Pacific Palisades, Calabasas, and Studio City—they have discovered that, at Erewhon, finding a prospective mate can be as simple as sipping a $19 Maca Bomb smoothie.

“I’ve started numerous relationships here,” says one shopper who is such a well-known fixture at the stores that the staff has started referring to him as Erewhon Famous. “When you meet someone here, you know they’re following a healthy lifestyle.”

Officially, Erewhon has no part in the Shop & Shag events, and Yentl-ing isn’t listed on the tonic bar menu. But it’s clear that the company’s stated mission of “creating community” has gradually morphed into the promotion of outright canoodling. Indeed, every detail in the stores seems to have been deliberately—one might even say aerodynamically—designed to be dating-friendly. From its frequent-shopper program with its suggestive name (“Members with Benefits”) to the soulful musical selections (Bowie, Coldplay, Byrne), it’s an aspirational utopia devoid of adult diapers or denture creams, but where the gluten-free energy bars are as numberless as the world’s wonders and the sultry, muted lighting rivals any Ian Schrager hotel lobby.

“It all creates a sensual mood,” notes Erewhon shopper Mariah O’Brien, an interior designer. “Everyone looks better next to natural material, and the small aisles force you to interact with people. As you squeeze by, you feel people’s energy. It’s a visceral experience.”

Jason Widener, Erewhon’s VP of brand management, is a bit cagier about the company’s matchmaking intentions. “When you make healthier food choices, why wouldn’t that lead to improvements in your love life?” he says, all but winking.

Whether or not the company’s executives admit it, Erewhon has become the hottest meet market in Los Angeles. “I’m here to make a sacral connection,” says one shopper, “That’s something you can’t do in cyberspace.”

When macrobiotic pioneers Michio and Aveline Kushi first opened it in 1969 on Beverly Boulevard—naming it after Samuel Butler’s classic 1872 utopian novel (the title is the word “nowhere” spelled backward, except the “w” and “h” are in the wrong places)—it was anything but sexy. On the contrary, it was a hippie hangout for hard-core adherents of the strict diet. The scent of fermenting veggies hung in the air like a bad review, and it was hardly the pickup joint it is today, unless you were picking up carob chips in bulk.

LOVE, PLUS ONE. At the Mid City location, marketing agent Steven Waldrop and news producer Joseph Corral like drinking juices before and after morning workouts.

But in 2011, foodie entrepreneurs Tony and Josephine Antoci purchased the company and quickly set about modernizing the brand and adding locations. Eventually, RDC Collective, the buzzy architectural firm that designed many of L.A.’s high-end pot dispensaries, was brought in to update the vibe, giving the stores a hipper, chiller, more intimate, and better-smelling ambiance. It also put some serious thought into customer flow and interaction in spaces that generally have a much smaller footprint than most other supermarkets (the Silver Lake Erewhon, for instance, is just 12,000 square feet compared with the 50,000 square feet of the average Vons). The aisles in Erewhon aren’t numbered like other supermarkets either. Instead, the stores are staffed with swarms of young “shopping consultants” who happily escort customers to whatever product they’re seeking, plying them with friendly conversation along the way, which in turn tends to spark engagement with other shoppers.

It doesn’t hurt that a lot of Erewhon’s sculpted young employees look like they just finished practicing Ayurvedic yoga on the Ionian Sea. So, not surprisingly, Erewhon workers often find themselves being chatted up by patrons wanting to take home something spicier than turmeric root tea. Take Tamar, for example, who radiates intelligence and a “Venus on the Half-Shell” vibe and works in the supplement section of Erewhon’s Beverly Hills outpost. (I witnessed one customer slyly asking if the medicinal tonics “might make a good mix with gin.”) This kind of thing happens so frequently to Tamar that her coworkers joke about making PA announcements to help rescue her from overly interested customers. (Though she currently isn’t dating, she’s managed to deftly swat away her supermarket suitors with an air of cool professionalism.)

In any case, by 2020, Erewhon had new stores sprouting up across the city, but then, just as the chain was starting to take off, the pandemic hit L.A. Suddenly, squeezing through Erewhon’s extra-cozy aisles seemed less like a sensual dance with strangers and more like a deadly high-wire act. Like every other business here and in the rest of the country, foot traffic at the stores slowed to a crawl. Even Erewhon’s most devoted customers retreated into their homes, resorting to Grubhub for their meals and apps like Hinge, Raya, and Match (or Pornhub) for their social needs.

But in recent months, as life in L.A. has approached something resembling normalcy, Erewhon found itself perfectly positioned to exploit a postpandemic resurgence in real-life romance. “People were enjoying solo sex 25 percent more during the pandemic, and that rate seems to be holding,” notes sexologist (and longtime Westside resident) Dr. Rob Weiss. At the same time, he adds, “interactions on apps began trending away from hookups and toward cultivating real intimacy.” In other words, a lot of singles were both self-satisfying and sick to death of screen time. “Apps don’t allow for authenticity,” explains a Studio City Erewhon-habitué who’d met his fiancé in the parking lot.  “But what’s more real than grocery shopping?” (Who cares if it’s a corporately choreographed authenticity?)

For singles once again looking for the kind of oxytocin-charged, one-enchanting-evening-style encounters that, in pre-digital times, used to take place in singles bars and dance clubs, this kind of “dating experience,” as Weber characterizes it, can be had through Shop & Shag.

PUPPY LOVE. In Venice, shaman Mychal Prieto and actress Jennie Jaturapatporn bond over their dogs.

The post-pandemic inaugural event on Monday night drew a slew of these neoromantics, ranging in age from early 30s to late 50s—an undeniably attractive crew in drapey garments suggesting they were either so relaxed or smoking-hot that the fabrics were melting off their bodies. Also, there are lots and lots of dogs. Shoppers at Erewhon saunter past the numerous signs announcing Erewhon’s no-animals-inside policy without second thought. But as a regular reminded me, “There’s a saying: If you’re single in L.A. and don’t have a dog, what are you doing?”

I discreetly eavesdrop on a few of the attempted sacral connections.

“I’m a van lifer,” Zian, a vegan, tells Jackson, a 37-year-old paleo devotee, extolling the virtues of her mobile housing lifestyle.

“Oh, cool, where do you shower?” he asks her.

“At your house?” she suggests with a sly smile.

While no one has yet compiled stats on the success rates of relationships struck up at Erewhon, there is anecdotal evidence that suggests some of them have staying power. Jason Stuart, a fiftysomething comedian, tells me that he once stopped into the Beverly Hills market after a gym workout and made meaningful eye contact with a fetching Italian in the snack section. Then, when Stuart sat down for a nosh outside, the Italian—who turned out to be a chef named Antonio—took one look at Stuart’s pasta lunch and said, “I could make that so much better.” Antonio did just that during their two years together, until he returned to Rome.

Juliette Hohnen, a well-known L.A. realtor, isn’t looking for love herself but has plenty of clients who are, many of whom hold memberships at fancy coteries like NeueHouse, Soho House and the San Vincente Bungalows. “But they don’t meet people to date there,” she says. Where do they meet? “The parking lot at Erewhon.”

Another longtime customer shares that he often catches shoppers in the Venice parking lot checking their hair and teeth in his Tesla’s side mirrors, which have motion-activated sensors that can record footage. (They were all probably on their way to the arbored garden, which is known as ground zero for Erewhon hotness). “I just came from a photo shoot,” hairstylist Jerrod Roberts told me as he sipped on a tropical turmeric smoothie. “A model I know told me this is the hot place for dating.”

As it happens, there is no shortage of sexy shoppers at any of the chain’s locations. “Our client base is very attractive!” explained an employee at the Silver Lake market as we watched customers sashay through the store as if they were walking a runway rather than wandering the aisles. Everyone seemed to embody that patented Eastside loucheness—baggy silk pajama bottoms with anime characters, Miu Miu jackets, nails like knives, kitten ears over cashmere beanies. After a few minutes of this impromptu fashion show, he headed off to do his own grocery shopping at the cheaper Ralphs. “But I’d rather meet someone here,” he said, because, you know, “the attractiveness.”

Back at Shop & Shag, Mychal, a holistic life coach sporting a jade necklace gifted to him by a Mayan timekeeper, had stopped in at the tonic bar with his partner. Instead of the soup line, he favored a no less saccharine opening. “What’s your favorite chocolate?”

(It worked for me. During my visit, I scored a “Honey Mama Lavender Rose Indulgence,” a cakey confection infused with a scent reminiscent of your grandmother’s linen closet, that left me swooning.) Sure, go ahead and roll your eyes, if you must, but I found the whole evening endearing. When setting off on a new relationship, we need to see a potential partner through rose-colored glasses. But rose-petaled chocolate certainly doesn’t hurt.

Maybe my Golden Milk latte just boosted whatever it was supposed to boost, but in addition to the $83 I spent on sprouted-nut snacks, I bought into what Weber, the brains behind Shop & Shag, told me about her event: “Inspiring more meaningful, loving relationships—this, to me, is the solution to all of the world’s problems!”

Just remember to bring a dog.

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