The culinary capital of the world gets a new landmark

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The Independent Online

London's latest gastronomic dream world began assaulting the senses of shoppers in Oxford Street yesterday. Among the delicacies on offer were 109 types of cheese, 80 champagnes, Szechuan pepper chocolate bites and, for those who could not bear cooking, 30 luxury ready-meals to take away.

The John Lewis department store has finally entered the fray to captivate the capital's tastebuds, following a clutch of high-profile openings and refurbishments of rival food stores. As the owner of Waitrose supermarkets, John Lewis is, of course, no stranger to high-end foodstuffs.

But, at its flagship branch in the West End, it is stepping up a gear to take on other gastronomic meccas. The US-owned Whole Foods Market became the city's first organic mega-mall when it opened in the former Barker's department store in Kensington High Street in June. Fortnum and Mason, the supplier to the aristocracy for generations, has overhauled its Piccadilly shop to mark its 300th anniversary.

Among the 8,000 products in John Lewis's food hall yesterday, piles of fluorescent pink cup cakes were among the first to catch the eye. Counters heaved beneath the weight of pungent cheeses from across Europe, while iced slabs of freshly caught fish winked alluringly under the bright lights.

It is two years since senior managers at John Lewis declared their intention to convert the old basement into a new venue for upmarket food. Part supermarket, part boutique, the £64m transformation is now over.

Hundreds of hungry shoppers rose to the challenge yesterday, hurtling through when the doors opened at 11am to test the many free samples on offer. Chocoholics headed straight for the freshly moulded mint choc bites, which were being chilled in front of them. Those with more savoury palettes made a beeline for the cheeses, of which 50 were British-made. However, Max Marulli De Barletta – one of 19 specialists on hand around the store – recommended the French Brillat Savarin, which is made from gut-busting triple cream.

By late lunchtime, thousands of people had toured the new store, as John Lewis executives discreetly declared that business was 50 per cent higher than their predictions. The pink cup cakes had sold out within half an hour. The design of the hall and the purchase and sale of its contents is the responsibility of the group's Waitrose division. Most of the food is sold at Waitrose prices and it stocks a similar proportion of organic produce, about 7 per cent, to conventional Waitrose branches.

With a sales area of more than 17,500 sq ft – slightly smaller than an average supermarket – Lewis's food hall is intended to attract Oxford Street workers, tourists and the 22,000 or so local residents who may be tempted to do their weekly shopping there. Therefore, while most of the store showcases culinary extravagance from across the world, one corner is devoted to "store cupboard food" such as rices, spices, baked beans and ketchup.

Champagne ranges from the in-house Waitrose brand at £11.99 to a Pol Roger Cuvée Vintage 1996 at £99.99 and a Champagne Krug at £160. A special liquorice and elderflower sambuca, exclusive to Waitrose, costs £13.99. Shoppers will have the pleasure of discussing their preferences with Dora Tabacof, a sommelier recruited from Gordon Ramsay's restaurant empire.

John Lewis claims it received more than 2,500 applications for the 180 jobs available on the shop-floor. "Talking to customers, you get a real sense that they want to know more about their food, where it's come from and what makes it different to everything else that's available," said Noel Saunders, the store's managing director.

"That's what we are offering uniquely. This market is blossoming because a growing number of people take their food very seriously and are willing to spend more time and money investing in good quality."

Recent trends in the quality foods market support Mr Saunders's assertion. Earlier this week Sir Terry Leahy, the boss of Tesco, said its sales of healthy and premium-quality foods were rising at twice the rate of standard Tesco lines. Surprisingly, he said, the biggest sales growth was among households on lower incomes. Waitrose's like-for-like food sales, which strip out the effects of new store openings, were up by 3.2 per cent in the first six months of this year. This was one of the main reasons why the John Lewis Partnership's operating profit soared 43.5 per cent in the first half of 2007, to £160m.

The company plans to open another food hall in Cardiff in 2009. Its Oxford Street branch has already caught the eye of one potential rival. Sir Philip Green, the billionaire retail tycoon who has in the past expressed interest in buying Safeway and Marks and Spencer, was in the JL food hall yesterday scrutinising its soups.

The food hall in numbers

17,500 sq ft shop floor area

180 staff

8,000 food products, 237 of them exclusive to the store

109 cheeses

80 champagnes

3 different deli menus daily

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