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John Lewis Foodhall

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Type: Foodhall

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      17.02.2010 00:35
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      Supermarket shopping made fun.

      A woman strode past me today in Bluewater's John Lewis food hall booming 'There's no sense to this place'.

      There was a moment of insanity when I took it as a personal attack (I LOVE the food hall at Bluewater), then I had to agree with her. The layout does appear completely random.

      But for me, that is the strength of this food emporium. If you can learn to live with it, you'll learn to love it.

      Bluewater is the largest undercover shopping mall in Europe located on the North Kent coast near Dartford. It's always gone for an upmarket ambience; All Saints and Hobbs rather than Primark and Peacocks. So there's always a sense of frivolity about a visit there. Yes, there is a Boots and a WHSmith but there's no hardware store, no pet shop and definitely no supermarket. The boundary between fun shopping and the weekly chore is well defined.

      Marks and Spencer have had a small food hall there for years but it's never particularly appealed to me other than to buy a sandwich and a soft drink to keep up the energy levels for a full day's shop.

      The Food Hall at John Lewis however ......well it's something else entirely.

      The difference is there as soon as you walk into the 16,500 sq ft Food Hall area. Instead of the rat run of aisles typical of most supermarkets there are interesting little sections dotted around the area. For a short a**e like me, the psychological difference is a revelation. I love being able to look right across the area and dart from one tempting display to the other. The result, however, is that there appears to be no sense to the place.

      As you first walk in, the layout appears reasonably traditional; fruit and vegetables are nearest the door. It's an attractive display, reminiscent of a European market place with a good selection of organic produce in addition to 'normal' produce.

      But then you notice that much of the central area is taken up by specialist stands, including several where you can sit and have something to eat and drink.

      There is a 360 degree butcher's stand where helpful staff will cut meat to order. The Patisserie has the most gloriously mouth-watering display of sweet things where you can sit breakfast bar style and order up 'a little something' as well as buy cakes and pastries to take home. A Charcuterie Bar seats about 10 people and serves beers as well as soft drinks and coffee. Against the walls, there is a cheese room (just to stand and sniff is an experience!), a wine bar where you can enjoy either a glass or a bottle and a riotously coloured florists. The mix of personal service and self service supermarket works very well and the fact that the butcher's stand for example, is placed 'in the round' means you are constantly tempted by the things on display.

      John Lewis Food Halls are stocked with Waitrose branded items. I don't usually shop at Waitrose so I can't say whether the selection in the John Lewis Food Hall is different to that found in other Waitrose stores. However, I do get the sense that it isn't quite the normal weekday shop that people are doing at Bluewater. There seem to be more 'fun' items; interesting looking loaves rather than the normal white sliced; coloured pasta of all shapes and sizes rather than plain spaghetti; fresh olives rather than baked beans.

      Of course, such frivolity comes at a price. If you're buying a pack of rainbow coloured pasta, the price is going to be ten times what you'll pay for Tesco's basic macaroni. But other items seem very good value. For example, I bought a pack of noodles for much less than the Sharwood's equivalent yet they cooked up almost like fresh noodles with a lovely texture and taste. Just after Christmas, I was fortunate enough to be there when they were selling off mince pies for just 5p a box. And they were some of the scrummiest shop bought mince pies I've ever had - whatever the price. Unfortunately, their stock rotation must be particularly good because such bargains are hard to find.

      There are 'normal' items of course; milk, eggs, sausages and so on, so it's useful if you've had a hard day shopping to be able to drop in and buy something for supper or stock up on the essentials. However, I defy anyone to walk in and buy only what's absolutely necessary. The design of the space makes you feel like an explorer and I think that encourages you to buy things you'd never normally consider.

      The apparently random layout might take some getting used to but treat it like an adventure and you're bound to find treasure.

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