THE TWINSETS and tea sets have gone. Where Kensington ladies once lunched, hard-hatted workers are busy at work, building restaurants, a pub, a wine bar, treatment rooms, a fair-trade emporium, giant escalators wide enough for shoppers and their trolleys and row after row of wood-lined aisles. Later this year the world's first organic department store is due to open in the old Barkers of Kensington.
In the US, Whole Foods Market is the grocery shop of choice for Hollywood stars, including Angelina Jolie, Kirsten Dunst and Cindy Crawford. It now seems likely that when it hits London it will be the talk of the town and the place to be seen.
The chain is a food retail phenomenon. In the States it is growing faster and piling up profits higher than any other large food retailer - organic or conventional. It now has almost 200 stores across America and annual sales of $5 billion. Sales there are expected to top $12 billion by 2010, and in the process, it is transforming the way Americans shop and eat.
It sells organic as well as chemical- and trans-fat-free food at prices far higher than its rivals but it appeals to the growing number of consumers who want something better for themselves and the environment, and are willing to pay for it. And now the jolly green giant, as it is known in the US, wants to be number one here.
Its grand opening on Kensington High Street will be this autumn but it is already shaking things up on the high street - all the major supermarkets are relaunching their organic ranges to coincide with Whole Foods Market's opening.
Tesco, the UK market leader, has cheekily introduced a range of dried fruit, nuts and pulses under the label "Wholefoods", and has devised a four-week wholefood eating plan. "Wholegrain, wholemeal, wholewheat, wholefoods ...
whole seems to be the latest buzz word in healthy eating," says the supermarket's new advertising.
Sainsbury's is phasing out trans-fats and flavour enhancers from its processed food and drinks and is launching an Organic Box service. From next month customers will be able to order a Soil Association-certified box of eight types of seasonal organic fresh produce delivered to their door.
"We're making a huge push for the UK organic industry," says Sainsbury's organic produce buyer, Russell Crowe.
Waitrose is launching a campaign to remind customers of its organic pedigree - it has been selling organics since 1983 - and its British sourcing policy.
"Almost 90 per cent of Waitrose organics are sourced from the UK," says the firm's Gill Smith.
Asda is trebling its range of organic fresh produce and reducing prices.
"We're trying to make organic food more affordable and we aim to have 1,000 organic lines in stores by Christmas," says company spokeswoman Jennifer England.
Meanwhile, Marks and Spencer is introducing a new range of organic children's food next month.
By the time Whole Foods Market opens, London's Pounds 1 billion organic food market will be the most competitive in Europe - which makes it an odd place for the firm's first store outside North America.
Whole Foods Market's boss, Texan-born John Mackey - who plans to open 40 stores across London and the South- East before expanding to the Continent - acknowledges that the capital offers great organic food quality. But he says it lags well behind the US when it comes to customer service.
By combining the best local organic food with US-style customer service, he reckons he will make the market grow by 20 per cent. "Customers want highquality food, good service and good store experience, and most retailers fail to deliver on those," he says. "We'll do things that people have not seen before and make supermarket shopping something you want to do, not have to do."
The first store in Kensington will bear little resemblance to the bean, lentil and muesli merchants who began the wholefood boom back in the Sixties. …