Whole Foods Market, the large grocery retailer based in Austin, Texas first opened for business in 1980 and now operates 365 stores in three countries, with even more new stores in development. A publicly traded corporation, Whole Foods has revenue close to $20 billion and employs more than 58,000 employees.
I grew up in the suburbs of Washington DC and during the 1970s and 1980s there were no such thing as a ‘natural food’ store, save for a couple of old, dusty co-ops- holdovers from the 1960s and supported by a small but dedicated clientele of aging hippies and vegetarians. As a young kid and teenager, I wasn’t even aware of those co-ops. My family got our food from Safeway and Giant Foods, two of the dominant grocery chains around the DC metro area. Those stores were characterized by their bland interiors , bright fluorescent lighting, grumpy employees, and sorely neglected produce sections. Whenever I accompanied my mom on a trip to the neighborhood Safeway, I wanted to get in and out as quickly as possible.
In the mid 1980s, I landed in Austin, Texas to attend university. For two and half years, I existed on dorm and student union food, supplemented with outings to local fast food joints. Then, in 1987, I started dating a new girlfriend and I noticed that she had a number of interesting fruit juices in her refrigerator, with names like ‘pineapple-coconut’ and ‘hibiscus’ and ‘cherry-lemon.’ When she offered me a taste, I invariably ended up drinking the entire bottle. Sheepishly, I offered to go to the store to replace them. “By the way, where do you buy all this delicious stuff?”
“Oh, I do a lot of my shopping at Whole Foods Market.”
“Whole Foods Market? What’s that?”
“Oh, that’s the cool hippie natural foods store down on Lamar Boulevard. Come on, I’ll show you.”
And so I took my first trip to a real natural foods store. I’ll never forget it. It was a revelation. When I walked through the door, I couldn’t believe that I was in a grocery store. Instead of the harsh fluorescent lighting of Safeway, the lights were soft and unobtrusive. Hip music was playing over the speakers. Employees milled about, most with smiles on their faces, and appeared to be enjoying their work.
At the front of the store was a juice bar, something I had never heard of , selling bizarre stuff like grass put thru a modified crank. Not only could you get a fresh squeezed carrot or fruit juice, but you could also add on a host of extras like bee pollen, vitamin C, and spirulina, a blue-green algae which an employee assured me was very healthy.
After trying to digest all that, I wandered over to the produce section and turned to my girlfriend and said, “Oh my god, everything looks so delicious!” The fruits and vegetables were arranged and displayed artfully, piled high in beautiful ceramic bowls and earthenware. Signs on the wall proudly stated that all of the produce was organically grown.
Going further, I encountered the spice section. Small and large mason jars by the dozens lined an entire wall, filled with what seemed to me to be every spice known to mankind. From Anise to vanilla bean, the aromas beckoned me. Starting at the beginning of the alphabet, I took down the jars, unscrewed the caps, and began to smell each one. My nose was introduced to a multitude of new and exciting smells and bouquets. After the spices, I dove into the essential oils. It was intoxicating to smell Basil, Bergamot, Cedarwood, Clary Sage, Eucalyptus, Grapefruit, Jasmine, Lavender, Patchouli, Peppermint, Pine, Rosemary, Ylang Ylang,..My girlfriend had to eventually pull me away and said,”We don’t have all night you know.”
From that day on, I was constantly pestering her to drive me down to Whole Foods. Having no money at the time, I didn’t buy much. I really just enjoyed wandering around the store and familiarizing myself with all the new foods, fruits, vegetables, spices, herbs, flowers and essential oils that I was finding.
Our Saturday itinerary was usually the same: Spend an hour or two at Whole Foods , then go over to Book People for a couple of hours, followed by a trip to Barton Springs.
This time, during the late 1980s was what I now refer to as the ‘good old days’, before WFM expanded, went public, and went on to become well known all over the country. Even before the company went public in 1992, it had started to expand into other states and to acquire competitors in the natural foods retailing market. It voraciously bought out most of its competition, including well established companies like Wellspring Grocery, Bread and Circus, Mrs. Gooch’s , Bread of Life, Fresh Fields, Nature’s Heartland, and Fresh and Wild.
In 1994, I finally fulfilled one of my dreams and got a job with the company, in a new store in North Austin. I would later work in one of their new stores in Washington DC, as well as in smaller co-ops and natural foods markets, in Austin, Washington DC, and San Francisco. Speaking with WFM employees in the early 90s, I noticed that they were excited and yet more than little trepid about the company’s explosive growth. Rumors swirled that within a few years, WFM would have 100 stores! At the time, it seemed almost inconceivable.
Yes, my beloved Whole Foods, where I had received my baptism into organics, juicing, vegetarianism, veganism and so much more, had sold its soul to the devil. Expanding your business is one thing- going public and getting in bed with Wall Street, as well as destroying your competition is something else altogether.
Expanding so quickly and so aggressively is inevitably going to earn you some enemies, and WFM was no exception. With its strategy of buying out the competition and fighting unionization of its employees, it has earned the enmity of many erstwhile supporters, including myself. Other controversies have popped up over the years, including CEO John Mackey coming out vigorously against universal health care and continuing to sell GMO foods, while at the same time continuously proclaiming that it is a ‘natural’ foods store.
My bitterness and disappointment in WFM and the direction it went does not go so deep that I boycott the company. Whenever I visit or live in a city where there is one, I still shop there, occasionally. Their store designs still set the industry standard and even now, 27 years later, I get a kick out of wandering through the stores and admiring the eye-popping displays, and unparalleled selection of international foods.
Also, the impact that WFM has had on the old guard grocery retailers cannot be overstated. Without WFM’s impact, many cities and towns across the USA would still be stuck with those horrifically bland and unimaginative stores. Almost every grocery store in the country, from tiny co-ops to the largest big box stores, has had to redesign itself to compete with WFM and become more warm and user-friendly. The ones who were belated in doing so lost customers to WFM. Now though, many have caught up and added large organic sections and are consequently drawing in some of Whole Foods’ customers. The game goes on in the cutthroat world of food retailing.