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Whole Foods lures expat employees home

Rob O'Connor was happy chopping fruit and making guacamole at his job at Whole Foods in Rhode Island, but Western New York still tugged on his heart. So, when he heard his employer would open its first store in the Buffalo region, he jumped at the chance to transfer back home.

He's not alone. When Whole Foods opened its first local store to much fanfare in Amherst on Friday, it brought a handful of other Western New York natives home with it.

And local consumers were happy to have them. The store, at 3139 Sheridan Drive, had 400 people lined up around the corner awaiting its 8 a.m. opening. One customer wore a shirt that said, "I died and went to Whole Foods." Others sampled giant jackfruit, snapped up $2 sunflower plants and sipped "bulletproof coffee" – coffee mixed with grass-fed butter instead of cream.

More than 400 customers line up as Whole Foods opens in Amherst

"Buffalo is the first place I've lived that didn't have a Whole Foods," said Darnelle Parker, who lived in Dallas, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Kansas City before relocating to North Tonawanda. "I was devastated there was no store here. Now I'm so happy."

The construction of the region's first Whole Foods opened the door for some of the company's employees to move back.

O'Connor left North Tonawanda to attend culinary school at Johnson & Wales University and started work at the Providence Whole Foods after graduating in 2011. Each time he returned home, he noticed how many big changes he was missing.

"I'd come back at Christmas and Thanksgiving and, every time, there was something new popping up like a restaurant or a brewery," O'Connor said. "There was always something new to check out."

Now, after some leadership training, he has been promoted to lead the Amherst store's produce department. He is settling into his new home on Hertel Avenue near the Deep South Taco and Lloyd restaurants he likes so much, and is keeping an eye on the city's rebirth.

"It's really exciting," he said.

Customers line up as store employees prepare to open Whole Foods in Amherst. (John Hickey/ Buffalo News)

The new Amherst store is a godsend for Zak White. He signed on with Whole Foods in Pittsburgh in 2008 after being offered a meat-cutter apprenticeship. Originally from Randolph in the Southern Tier, he had been wanting to return home so he, his wife and children could be near family. But he didn't want to leave what he called "a really good job" and wasn't sure he would be able to find anything as ideal for him in Buffalo. He had never expected he would be able to move back to Western New York and bring his job with him.

"When I heard they were opening in Buffalo, there was no doubt in my mind," White said. "I was coming home."

White was promoted to meat and seafood assistant team leader at the Sheridan Drive store. Now, he and his wife live in South Buffalo and their daughters Ramona, 6, and Sophia, 4, often get to spend with their grandma, aunt and uncle who live in Lockport. His in-laws are still located in Randolph and, even though they're a 9o-minute drive away, the family is closer to them than they have ever been.

"I've seen more family in the last two months than I have in the last two years," White said. "They're happy; we're happy. We're really lucky."

Photo Gallery: Whole Foods opens in Amherst

As associate store team leader, Bradley Benz will be second-in-command at the Amherst Whole Foods. He grew up in North Buffalo's University Heights neighborhood and attended the University of Pennsylvania after graduating from City Honors. After a stint in Philadelphia and one more year back in Buffalo, he found himself working in the seafood department at Whole Foods in New York City. The Columbus Circle store where he most recently worked is one of the chain's busiest, raking in $2 million in sales a week. His department did $100,000 per week alone.

An employee at Whole Foods since 2006, he has never stopped boosting Buffalo. Nicknamed Buffalo Brad, he returned home for the Buffalo Bills' season openers and he told anyone who will listen how beautiful the Queen City is. Though he enjoyed his time in New York City, he said his trips back home to places such as Riverworks and Big Ditch Breweries made him feel as though he was missing out.

Photo Gallery: Smiles at Whole Foods opening in Northtown Plaza

If the opportunity to return to Buffalo had materialized even a year ago, he might not have been ready to leave the Big Apple. But with his mother getting older and after experiencing a death in the family, he realized he was losing precious time with his loved ones, and decided now was the time to return home.

"I'm excited to be part of my city again," Benz said. "As much as I love New York, I've always felt like a spectator there. Here, I feel like I can contribute."

The store's opening on Friday morning was packed, with 17 registers ringing at once and plenty of people wheeling out carts with groceries, natural beauty products and flowers.

Don Turlington of Wilson has lived in 10 different states and has been to about that many Whole Foods locations.

"Look at that seafood section. It's like Pike Place in Seattle," Turlington said.

Dressed in a camouflage shirt and baseball cap, he sipped his usual wheat grass shot and raved about the chain.

"This is what we need," he said. "It's not a grocery store. It's more."

It's a grocery war in Amherst, with 8 stores in 1.5 miles

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