With the stock market no longer sinking like body parts tied to bricks, there's a lot of noise in the ether about economic recovery on the horizon. Many forecasters still see nothing but parched desert and cow skulls, but there's a growing chorus of analysts willing to admit to a shimmering sight of date palms, camels and belly dancers just up ahead.

These new economic optimists may be hallucinating out of sheer desperation, but if there's one market that is truly bullish in bear times, it's the supermarket. Especially niche markets: Whole Foods Market's shares are up significantly in 2009.

How is Whole Foods hanging on when retailers across the globe are dropping faster than Alaska politicians? It's pitching value, and people are buying it. The stuff you bag at Whole Foods might seem expensive, but apparently there's a lot of bang for the hundred bucks.

Santa Fe, though, lives by its own rules.

Whole Foods may be thriving here simply because very few people would ever get laid again if our pre-eminent cruising locale were to close down.

Maybe it's the need to lock eyes with a stranger across the olive bar that generates the unholy amount of "natural-food dollars" spent in Santa Fe. Mike Gilliland, CEO and founder of Sunflower Farmers Market, says he can't explain how such a small population with such a low average income manages to spend so much money at fancy markets, but it's prompted him to open two stores in Santa Fe this year. "There's no reason for the volume of natural food sales in Santa Fe," he says, "but it's there."

Gilliland is a co-founder of the Wild Oats empire but left in 2001, shortly after the company went public. The following year, he opened his first Sunflower Farmers Market in Albuquerque and has been building the new brand ever since. A flagship Santa Fe store has its grand opening in the DeVargas Center on Wednesday, Aug. 12, and a second location opens on the Southside in November.

Whole Foods may have successfully pitched "value" on some products, but price point is the whole game plan for Sunflower, a company that trumpets discounts more in the manner of a car dealer than a grocer. Gilliland says he's after "crossover" customers who might be natural-foods-curious, but have stayed away due to the perception of high prices. "But our customers are also people who want value and don't care if the food is natural or organic or what," Gilliland says. "We'll beat Walmart on produce prices every day."

Sunflower offers "local" fare as well, which it defines as goods produced in the same state as the store that sells it. But what impact Sunflower will have on regional farms and food producers is an open question. There may be a positive boost in competitive distribution options or there may be further price devaluation that not many area farmers can afford. Those of us who do a fair amount of shopping at La MontaƱita Co-op hope this is the kick in the ass needed to get the store to sell beer and wine, something its members voted in favor of long ago. Sunflower promises a decent alcohol selection.

Sunflower is bound to make a big splash, but for a newish market on the Santa Fe scene that fills a real niche, we must not forget Ziggy's International Market.

It's a hole-in-the-wall next to Susan's Fine Wine & Spirits that specializes in Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and North African supplies. It's no Talin Market, but it carries a host of spices, pastas and products on the serious cheap, not to mention the occasional five-gallon bucket of feta and local, organic meats and cheeses.

On a recent trip, Ziggy's had giant mortar and pestle sets on sale for under $7. The pestle was big and textured enough to be described as "ribbed for pleasure." How's that for value?

Sunflower Farmers Market
199 Paseo de Peralta (in DeVargas Center)

Ziggy's International Market
1005 St. Francis Drive (in Crossroads Center)