10 Fascinating Facts About Erewhon, America's 'Most Cultish' Grocery Store
Celeb-favorite grocery chain Erewhon has been a topic of conversation in certain Los Angeles circles for years. Now, the East Coast decided to dig into the phenomenon of the super-healthy, new-age grocery experience in a new feature from New York Magazine.
With 10 locations all in Los Angeles and plans to expand across the country, Erewhon is famous for its sky-high prices (including $18 smoothies and $23 camel milk), its ban on ingredients like processed sugar, and its devotion to macrobiotics. New York Magazine explored both the place Erewhon holds in today's wellness-obsessed culture (especially prevalent in Los Angeles) and how this store came to be back in 1966.
Here are ten fascinating things we learned about this beloved grocery store that you should know.
1. Its founders were strong believers in a macrobiotic diet.
Erewhon co-founder Aveline Yokoyama was a devotee of a sage named George Ohsawa, who preached a macrobiotic diet that banned things like sugar, meat, potatoes, and milk, and emphasized whole grains and vegetables. She moved to America in 1951 and married a man named Michio Kushi, who had also studied with Ohsawa. Together they both preached his teachings and ultimately started Erewhon. The store's offerings are based on Ohsawa's "Unique Principle"—a philosophy of macrobiotics that claims far-reaching benefits.
2. Erewhon is named after a satirical Samuel Butler novel.
Erewhon is named after Samuel Butler's satire novel of the same name, one of Ohsawa's favorite books. In the sci-fi world of Butler's Erewhon, being sick is a crime and people who have been found guilty of contracting illness are sent to prison.
3. It began as a bulk food store in Boston.
The first iteration of Erewhon was a tiny bulk food store in Boston run by the Kushis (Aveline changed her last name after marriage). It was described as being stocked with "bins full of loose grain and seeds," where you could buy "ten pounds of bulk food for a couple of dollars." Some of the earliest employees included two men, Bill Tara and Paul Hawken, who came across Ohsawa's book Zen Macrobiotics and believed his dietary teachings cured an ulcer and asthma, respectively.
4. Even the founders' kids had to follow their parents' beliefs.
The Kushis practiced what they preached at home in terms of following a strict macrobiotic diet and keeping their children on the same program. When their son Phiya was one day forced to buy a school lunch of meatloaf, Aveline showed up at the school and bribed an administrator to give her son a religious exemption that would allow him to only eat macrobiotic food.
5. The first Erewhon was raided by the FDA after a woman died.
While the Kushis were running their store in Boston, Ohsawa's teachings were growing in popularity across the United States. After the Ohsawa Foundation popped up in New York, a local woman named Beth Ann Simon began following the strict macrobiotic diet and lost a drastic amount of weight. She possibly developed scurvy in the process and ultimately died shortly thereafter. After this, the Ohsawa Foundation was shut down and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) raided the Kushis' store in Boston. They had been selling copies of Ohsawa's Zen Macrobiotics at the store but hid these upon arrival of the FDA.
6. The founders claimed a macrobiotic diet could cure everything from cancer to AIDS.
According to New York Magazine, the Kushis taught that "their diet could cure basically any malady, cancer in particular," and in 1981, started claiming that their diet could also cure AIDS.
7. Their youngest son co-founded Peloton.
The Kushis' children appear to have been greatly influenced by their parents' devotion to healthy living. Their youngest son, Hisao Kushi, ultimately became the co-founder of the fitness company Peloton, which has a similar cult-like following to Erewhon.
8. Early iterations of Erewhon banned alcohol and red meat, but not cigarettes.
Though the Kushis and other Ohsawa devotees were exceptionally strict about what they would allow themselves to eat, there seems to have been a blind spot among these believers when it came to cigarettes. In early iterations of the store, both alcohol and red meat were deemed "poison" and banned from the premises, but you could buy American Spirit cigarettes, which the owners at the time (employee Tom DeSilva and his wife) deemed "organic." Founder Michio Kushi was also known for giving consultations about how to balance your yin and yang via a macrobiotic diet while smoking.
9. Erewhon's interiors were designed to mimic the vibe of NYC living.
Designer Yuval Chiprut was hired to create the interiors of seven of the ten Erewhon locations, and he told New York Magazine that the stores are intentionally designed to be more cramped and close together than most of the experiences you'll have in Los Angeles.
"When you get home after a day in New York, you get home and you're, like, you're tired. You've interacted with people, you rub shoulders, people have violated your personal space," Chiprut said. "In L.A., I could get into my car in my little bubble. I could drive to work. And I could literally not touch somebody for five weeks if I didn't want to." To create something that contrasted this, Chiprut designed Erewhons as "an experience of connective energy" with narrow aisles, tall shelves, and purposely penned-in spaces that require you to interact with other people as you move through the store.
10. It was Hailey Bieber's idea to have a signature Erewhon smoothie.
One of the most famous offerings at Erewhon is Hailey Bieber's Strawberry Glaze Skin Smoothie, a concoction featuring strawberries, avocado, almond milk, maple syrup, coconut cream, dates, collagen peptides, hyaluronic acid, and sea-moss gel. Erewhon vice-president Jason Widener told New York Magazine that "Hailey came to us" about collaborating, demonstrating Erewhon's enormous cachet in elite L.A. circles. "She was at the bar," Widener told the outlet. "She said, 'Why aren't we doing a smoothie together?'"