ITHACA, N.Y. — If you’ve driven down Route 79 near Caroline Elementary in the past week or so, you’ve probably seen a new sign that caught your eye, and perhaps your imagination – “COMING SOON: WHOLE FOODS”, the modest wood-framed billboard advertises.

It certainly caused quite a stir. A high-profile upscale grocer setting its sights on Tompkins County and the City of Gorges? For those who’ve wanted a Whole Foods alongside the incoming Trader Joe’s (which is still coming, the fixtures and coolers are being installed right now), it seemed a dream come true. Others were merely curious and intrigued enough to reach out to the Voice.

At last check, my inbox has fifteen emails about the topic, as well as six Twitter messages and a pair of cellphone texts. On the one hand, thank you for the tacit vote of support; the other staff of the Voice and I try our best to be your go-to sources of information for what’s going on in and around town.

On the other hand, like any good news outlet, we do the due diligence and report on the results, good or bad. For some of you, this news might twist at your heartstrings a little, but we can comfortably declare — this is a prank, and a fairly well-executed one.

The first step was to check with the Town of Caroline. The site, a large farm field, isn’t impossible for a new big-box store like Whole Foods, although it would be extremely odd. Large-scale retail tends to cluster, congregating in high-traffic corridors and complementing other offerings. The only two areas Whole Foods could effectively do that is the South Meadow retail corridor, and over by the mall in Lansing. However, the Town of Caroline doesn’t have zoning, so in theory, if they wanted to do a store there, they could.

But according to Caroline Town Supervisor Mark Witmer, nothing has been filed with the town. Witmer stated the town was aware of the sign and had received a few inquiries themselves, but when they reached out the landowner, the reply was “they couldn’t talk about it”.

Next up was a check with Whole Foods. An email inquiry with their Media Relations office was not returned. But a list of future locations on their website does not include anything in or around Ithaca. The New York locations in the works are almost all downstate, except for one in the tony Rochester suburb of Brighton. Whole Foods prefers to be in highly-educated, affluent communities that are part of larger metropolitan areas, which is where Tompkins County really falls short. If the Rochester metro is only just getting a store and it has over 1 million people, it seems unlikely that Tompkins County, population 105,000, would be landing a Whole Foods anytime soon.

Now onto the third step, an analysis of that sign that’s caused so much intrigue. As pointed out by one astute reader, look at the logo on the sign, and compare that to the official branding of Whole Foods:

Notice how the flourish over the “O” in “Whole” is incorrect. It’s the type of thing that someone driving by at 35 MPH wouldn’t be likely to catch with a brief glance, or at least, it wouldn’t register as being off unless you knew exactly what to look for. It’s also just different enough to avoid getting into legal trouble, if Whole Foods decided that this joke wasn’t very funny.

It’s a joke, ladies and gentlemen. A fairly well-crafted one. The landowner, or whoever among their friends and family that came up with this prank, knew how to pull the wool over the eyes of passersby just enough to confuse some drivers on 79.

If the prankster wants to come forward and tell me the story behind this stunt, your lunch is on me.

Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.