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Erewhon: A Wellness Trap

There’s a certain pretentiousness that clings in the air when you walk into the oh-so-luxurious and exclusive Erewhon. Shelves explode with a muted color palette that only millennial and Gen-z graphic designers can achieve, a mix of warm-toned mauves and oranges with art deco influences, and a retro font to go with it. Tiny boxes of neatly packed and well-massaged kale along with pre-cut cups of fruit are begging to be picked up for an on-the-go snack of at least $15. Beside the to-go-bar, what seems like hundreds of kombucha bottles line the fridge in those same muted colors, a dizzying array of choice in a single drink form. Looking closer, each label has some kind of combination of vegan, gluten-free, immunity-boosting, non-GMO, or soy-free, as if the majority of its customers are allergic to at least one food group. This is Erewhon, the rich-people simulation of grocery shopping – but how did Erewhon make its rise to fame, and why are people like us – “the normal, everyday citizens” – so entranced by it? 

If you don’t know already, this celebrity-raved grocery store has gained much attraction over the last couple of years, particularly Los Angeles, where it now boasts six locations in the county area. As stated on their website, “Through our markets, we endeavor to provide exceptional organic products that inspire good decision-making and healthier communities.” And when they mean “exceptional”, they mean exorbitantly overpriced groceries. Yet despite the price tag, Erewhon is every clean-girl’s aesthetic dream, and has culminated in an almost-cult following on social media. 

The Making of Erewhon

Although this chain grocery store took off during the pandemic, its origins humbly began in 1966 as a natural foods store. And, surprise, it was founded in Boston by Michio and Aveline Kushi. The Japanese couple pioneered the macrobiotic diet, with Michio busy fermenting foods right in his basement. Erewhon provided exclusive organic produce and stock from Japan imported by the Kushis, focused mainly on organic and fermented foods. 

Erewhon then made its move to the West Coast, where it first opened in the early 70s. In 1975, the Kushis sold the business. Since then, the Boston location has closed, but the business kept its goal of exclusivity and niche throughout the generations of ownership. 

The celebrity magnet store we know today has blossomed under its current owners, Tony and Josephine Antoci, who oversaw the store’s California takeover since rapid expansion in 2011. Down to its business model, Erewhon strives to stock entirely organic and non-GMO products, even partnering with local businesses, such as biodynamic farms to small-shop vendors in what Tony describes as “craftsmen.” 

But more than just a grocery store, Erewhon is an experience, a community devoted to kombucha, among other things. Even the name itself is an anagram of “nowhere” from Samuel Butler’s 1872 novel of a utopian society. That elusive and otherworldly community only adds to the illusion of a high-class community, one that came together in the face of a pandemic. 

During Covid-19, Erewhon adapted quickly: opening early for senior citizens, offering a dedicated tonic bar that offers immunity-boosting shots, and even giving out chlorophyll water for free. Among other safety measures, Erewhon became a paparazzi hotspot to sneak a snapshot of A-list celebrities on their weekly grocery runs during the pandemic. 

Marketing Wellness 

Although the branding of natural foods has been at its genesis core, Erewhon’s rise into the limelight follows a growing trend, and now an entire industry, of wellness that seeps into every marketing strategy in the lifestyle realm. No longer are buzzwords like “diet” and “bikini-body” used in health marketing, as the rise in body positivity subserves the highly toxic diet culture of the early 2000s. At the same time, has wellness co-opted diet culture, remarketing it into something more sophisticated? 

The wellness industry is now worth $1.5 trillion dollars. It encompasses physical health, fitness, mental health, and even spiritual health. The wellness industry expands the old fitness world, where abs and low-carb diets were all the rage. Wellness is, supposedly, better than that. 

This switch in consumer interest from physical to holistic wellness profoundly changed the way we look at food. Clean-eating is simply the second wave of an adaptable diet culture that continuously markets off of people’s desire to lose weight. But instead of in-your-face calorie restriction, like the famed and failed Atkins diet, food now revolves around the obsession over “clean” labels like gluten-free, vegan, non-GMO – sounds familiar? 

Food is reduced to its nutritional value and gain, with little emphasis on the community food brings, or even acknowledging complex and often joyful experiences with food as human beings. Juice detoxes are to clear the mind, fermented foods alleviates gut issues linked with anxiety, organic and non-processed food helps with depression – these are the practices of marketing wellness, and it’s working. In the words of Naomi Wolf from her book The Beauty Myth, “health makes good propaganda.” 

The Wellness Trap

Erewhon is simply the pinnacle of this wellness trap. On top of following clean-eating trends, Erewhon takes it a step further by selling astronomical prices to an exclusive clientele, making wellness a brand of wealth. Other stores like WholeFoods and Trader Joe’s sell the appearance of wellness just as strategically with a broader audience. 

As much as wellness has reversed the more severe damages of diet culture, with its emphasis over holistic health rather than physical appearance, wellness remains a marketing strategy to sell to us: the consumers. Yet still, in a world where food remains restrained with restrictive labels disguised as health, we are still miles away from approaching food with sheer joy without the whispers of punishment.

Ask yourself these questions: Am I guided by health regulations that aren’t related to my own physical needs? Is my relationship with food transactional? Do I think eating a certain dish makes or breaks my wellbeing? Am I listening to myself or the industry? 

Taking a deeper look at Erewhon’s massive following provides a lens to understand the inner workings of the consumerist mind toward wellness. After all, health is priceless, or rather you can’t put a price tag on health – so why not pay for a $17 blue smoothie  in exchange for glowing skin?

Cover photo courtesy of Erewhon

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