Iwas standing in the first Whole Foods Market in Downtown Austin when I learned Jeff Bezos was buying my grocery store. It wasn’t unusual or remarkable that I was standing in a Whole Foods when I heard the news. I stopped there once in the morning for an espresso and usually later on in the day to pick up something for dinner or an item my family had just run out of. In the middle of the day, I often meet my partner for a quick lunch from the hot food bar.
Articles, reports in the news, Mackey himself (the founder of Whole Foods), claimed the acquisition of Whole Foods Market by the richest man in the world, wouldn’t change the culture and shopping experience Whole Foods is known for.
But, as soon as the deal was done and Amazon acquired one of the most profitable supermarket chains in the world, things changed at Whole Foods.
I walked into the flagship store the next day and, upon entering, right next to the flower section, was a display of Alexa speakers, and Echo Dots, where the homemade soap endcap used to be.
I started shopping at Whole Foods when it was decidedly uncool and crunchy. Before they had baristas on the inside, sit down restaurants and burger bars, and long before it was called “Whole Paycheck.” Before the masses knew the Whole Foods’ experience. Long before, there was one in every major city.
I was shopping at Whole Foods before Whole Foods was Whole Foods, at a whole-foods-type market located near Harvard Square in Cambridge called Bread & Circus — a natural food store chain in MA where I went to college. I didn’t know it at the time, but its parent company was Whole Food Company, purchased in 1988 by a small natural food store called Whole Foods Market in Austin, TX. Whole Foods Market started buying natural grocery stores in Massachusetts and California, renaming them Whole Foods Market.
The History — Whole Foods Market
The quick success of Whole Foods Market was in part because of its swift expansion and acquisition of stores already doing what they were doing in Austin and out west, taking over these natural food stores, like the one I loved in Cambridge.
“Beginning in 1984, Whole Foods Market began its expansion out of Austin, first to Houston and Dallas and then into New Orleans with the purchase of Whole Food Company in 1988.
In 1989, we expanded to the West Coast with a store in Palo Alto, California. While continuing to open new stores from the ground up, we fueled rapid growth by acquiring other natural foods chains throughout the ’90s: Wellspring Grocery of North Carolina, Bread & Circus of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, Mrs. Gooch’s Natural Foods Markets of Los Angeles, Bread of Life of Northern California, Fresh Fields Markets on the East Coast and in the Midwest, Florida Bread of Life stores, Detroit area Merchant of Vino stores, and Nature’s Heartland of Boston.”
Bread & Circus was like no other grocery store experience I’d had up until that point. It was small, dimly lit, with no glaring florescent lights and bulk sections made up of containers filled with bulghur wheat and exotic raisins.
For a college student, it was a cheap way to buy food — in bulk.
I found foods I couldn’t find in most grocery stores — food in their wholeform without preservatives, fillers and pesticides. A pleasant grocery store experience was foreign to me. Back then and still now, the average grocery store is loud, bright, with aisles of food that leave me unsatiated, bloated, and lethargic. Most stores sell either sad looking wilted vegetables or vegetables sprayed with so many chemicals they looked perfect, but lack taste.
Bread & Circus was different; their food had taste. I didn’t recognize any of the brands. No Campbell’s. No Pillbury. No Cheerios or Hershey’s. It was like walking into a foreign land each week, like taking a trip to a different country.
It was where I found good quality chocolate for the first time in a grocery store. Buckets of Lake Champlain Honey Caramel filled dark chocolate from Vermont singly wrapped, lined the check-out counter in buckets for .25 apiece. The individual chocolates were covered in gold foil. I’d grab as many as I could afford on a college student’s budget (now I order them in bulk from Lake Champlain directly).
Back then, before the internet, when you couldn’t get anything any time you wanted it with the click of a button, Bread & Circus was unique because it offered specialty items — like bulgur by the bulk, chickenless nuggets, meatless meatballs and unique cheese from California. The experience made me love grocery shopping and cooking — two tasks I viewed as chores until I found stores like Bread & Circus.
After I left Boston to head west, Bread & Circus became a Whole Foods Market.
When I came across a Whole Foods in San Francisco, again, what attracted me was the experience; it was Bread & Circus on steroids. After shopping there once, I didn’t shop anywhere else, and it was still relatively unknown. There wasn’t even one in New York City yet.
No glaring lights, no brightly colored packages, no boxes and bags filled with preservatives, fillers, and artificial coloring.
Here are some of the “foods” banned at Whole Foods:
“Hydrogenated fats, high-fructose corn syrup, sweeteners like aspartame, sucralose and saccharin — along with more than 100 colors, preservatives, flavors and other ingredients from all of the food we sell in our stores.”
You can’t get a package of Chips Ahoy cookies or a box of RITZ crackers in a Whole Foods because of the high-fructose corn syrup they contain; most harmful ingredients are kept off Whole Foods’ shelves. If you’re on a budget, you can buy bulk food in the bulk food section, which I still do (although not as cheap anymore). There are alternatives to every unhealthy food, like alternatives to ice cream made from dairy. When I had to give up dairy, Whole Foods made it easier with their many varied dairy alternatives. I love the choices and the emphasis on healthy eating.
When you walk into a Whole Foods Market, your senses are assaulted with fresh, organic produce welcoming you as soon as you enter any Whole Foods in the world. Bright red bell peppers, radishes, carrots with their tops on and beautiful exotic fruits from local farmers, organically grown, line the produce section, looking like it was just picked hours before. The vegetables taste different; they have flavor.
Shopping at Whole Foods coincided with me taking a nutrition class; I was getting into taking care of my insides, not just my outsides. I no longer wanted to eat the crap I was fed growing up, even if that meant buying groceries $20 a bag. Now it is close to $80 to $100 per bag, earning its “Whole Paycheck” moniker.
What drew me
I was getting into food in its purest, nutrient-dense form. Once you start eating this way, it’s hard not to, simply because you feel better; less bloating, fewer sugar cravings, less inflammation. Not everything sold in a Whole Foods Market is healthy. But there are more healthy choices for vegans, vegetarians and lovers of quality food. You must read labels; not everything at a Whole Foods is good for you.
Pre-pandemic, when they offered a hot food bar in nearly every Whole Foods Market, much of that food was cooked in canola oil. I believe canola oil is not good for you. And I bet it will be removed from Whole Foods ten years from now. There are plenty of other examples.
I read labels, even at Whole Foods.
What I loved most about it was the experience. I’m aware that’s a large part of what I’m paying for, and it is expensive. While I love to eat tasty, healthy food, the shopping for it, planning meals, and cooking, are a chore; Whole Foods makes it pleasant; I love the atmosphere — it’s fancy. We all have to eat, and unless you have a garden in your yard, you have to shop at a store or a farmers market.
The highly qualified and happy employees and customers made shopping there pleasant — the people who shop at whole foods like quality. Asking for help to find an item at Whole Foods (I no longer have to do this, I know where everything is in most Whole Foods) didn’t get the canned answer, “it’s on aisle five miss,” it got, “it’s on aisle five miss, let me take you there.” Personal attention is something I value. It is like the Nordstrom of grocery shopping. The customer comes first. The employees are called “team members” and have pride in the company. Team members have to be voted onto a team by the other employees on that team, and once hired to the team, team members receive health benefits. They are a valued part of the company. And you can tell by the way they treat their customers; they want their company to do well.
Until Bezos turned it into a warehouse shopping experience, similar to a Costco. A place I never step foot in.
Now young, obnoxious, in a hurry Instacart shoppers barrel by. The employees are not as happy, and thus, not as likely to be helpful. Instead of seeing beautiful produce, now, when you walk through the front door in many Whole Foods, the first thing you see is a bunch of lockers, like you just walked into your local YMCA. That is where Amazon shoppers pick up their orders. There is also another whole section, usually at the front of the store, where Amazon delivery people pick up bags of silver packages full of groceries (I won’t go into the waste produced from shopping for groceries online in this post) to deliver to Amazon prime members.
The prime parking spaces, which I always lucked into because I was so happy to enter a Whole Foods’ parking lot, my happiness guaranteeing me a spot in the first or second row, are now reserved. When I visit the Whole Foods store in Austin, I usually can’t find a parking spot because they’ve dedicated many of them to Instacart and Amazon shoppers.
Whole Foods is placing value on their online customers, turning Whole Foods into an Amazon warehouse for food delivery.
I used to live in Europe. In Europe, people stop by their local grocery each day on their walk home from work to buy the freshest ingredients for that night’s meal with their family and friends. That is how I shopped at Whole Foods.
When I lived in San Francisco on Nob Hill, a few times a week, I strapped on my backpack, walked the less than a mile walk to my local Whole Foods (this was still before it had caught on, before smartphones, before Silicon Valley was a known place and before dot coms changed San Francisco forever) filled my backpack with fresh ingredients, vegetables, fresh herbs and the freshest meat for that night’s meal, and took the cable car home.
It was the closest to Europe I could get.
I was after the experience of eating well, with intention, the highest quality ingredients before farm to table was a thing. The experience wasn’t the only thing that attracted me; I was after taste.
On weekends I walked to the Embarcadero Farmers Market, which is outside. Farmers come with their freshest produce and locally grown vegetables, fruits, dairy, and meats from Napa Valley and small farming towns surrounding San Francisco. What an experience in eating great food.
When you shop like this for years, it is hard to go back to any other way of eating. I realize not everyone has the time or the option to walk to a local farmers market, it is one of the many benefits of living in a major city, but when you do, your body is consuming foods of the freshest quality, meaning you can’t get any more nutrient-dense unless you grow it yourself. You feel good because you are supporting local farmers, and when shopping at a farmers market, the farmer and sometimes his whole family is at the market selling to you. You get to know them because you buy from them every week. Your connection to the food you put in your body is greater and more direct. This way of eating feeds your soul. You get used to food that bursts open on your taste buds and needs very little cooking or seasoning to make it taste good.
Farmers markets are usually only open on the weekends; I loaded up on food from the farmers market on the weekends and then supplemented it with shopping at Whole Foods during the week. I was willing to pay a little more for this because I value the experience and the quality ingredients I was getting at Whole Foods.
I never thought it would happen, but Bezos turned me into a Trader Joe’s shopper. It is now my regular grocery store. I won’t pay $80 a bag for groceries when I no longer get the experience that drew me to the store in the first place.
Instead of a relaxing trip to buy quality ingredients, Instacart employees zoom down aisles, crashing into me like they are on the Formula One track for grocery shoppers. They have no regard for other shoppers in the store because their time is literally money. The lines are too long, and the employees are not as happy.
Twenty years ago, when my friends were all saving money at Trader Joe’sand telling me how great it is, I couldn’t get over the simplicity of the place, how nearly every product sold at Trader Joe’s is one they came up with (although, they have amazing tasters in their kitchens who work on product development and come out with some great products). I was turned off by the store’s raw warehouse feel, the shelves looked like they needed one more sanding and some wood stain, how most of the produce comes in bags or boxes and the strange Hawaiian shirts the employees wear and how overly cheerful they are, it seemed forced. Cult-like. Whole Foods was sophisticated, Trader Joe’s was like the not so bright, but fun, simple cousin.
But when I saw the difference in how Trader Joe’s handled the pandemic compared to my local Whole Foods in Los Angeles, that was the last straw.
I can’t put my finger on it. I don’t have any anecdotes or science-backed evidence, I just have minutes, hours, years of experience of being a Whole Foods’ shopper, and I can tell the employees are not as happy, killing the vibe. I’ve shopped in Whole Foods stores in Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, Austin, and many Whole Foods stores in these cities’ surrounding rural areas for years. And there is a difference in the experience and in the employees since Bezos bought Whole Foods, which is reflected onto the customer, he changed the place’s vibe — gutted its soul.
Whole Foods failed at the beginning of the pandemic. Where I live in LA, Whole Foods didn’t know how to handle the hoarding, hysteria, the demanding customers in early March when we learned of the seriousness of the virus.
When I went into Whole Foods in the early days of the pandemic, Whole Foods employees didn’t know how to handle the customers. Instead of forming lines, as Trader Joe’s did right away, people were out of sorts and hysterical. Whole Foods roped off the dairy section in the upstairs part of the Pasadena Whole Foods, and it was like a scene from the end of the world. Which left people confused and angry. I know this speaks to the type of customer Whole Foods attracts, but the stores still didn’t handle it well. They closed for hours to restock shelves only to allow people in later to take as much stuff as they wanted as soon as the doors opened again, while Trader Joe’s limited the items in demand to two to four per customer.
Trader Joe’s implemented senior hours right away, so the most vulnerable members of our society could shop with less risk; it took nearly a month before Whole Foods implemented any policy. They couldn’t keep the shelves stocked, and when they finally restocked them, they allowed the first customers to take as much as they wanted, adding to the hysteria and panic.
The shelves were nearly always empty for the first few months of the crisis.
Already annoyed at the Whole Foods’ experience before the pandemic, I gave up and stopped shopping there altogether for months when the pandemic struck. I went to the Trader Joe’s across the street (ironically, my local Trader Joe’s was the first Trader Joe’s in the country, a tiny one, and sits across the street from a huge two-story Whole Foods) where they had a plan and protocol in place immediately.
Trader Joe’s only allowed a certain number of people into the store to keep everyone safe. They had a mask rule right away and roped off where you stand in line with covering for shade. Each morning a friendly employee told you which items were limited for that day, so you weren’t confused going into the store; you knew what to expect. They were doing what all great companies do, under promise and over deliver.
As someone who loves systems, I was impressed. I was incredibly impressed with Trader Joe’s swiftness in implementing new protocol and procedures, and the care and calm their employees brought to the situation, allowing their most vulnerable customers access to the store first.
After seniors were finished their shopping hour, shelves were still stocked. This brought calm to the community. There were only a few times in the very beginning days of the hoarding period I witnessed Trader Joe’s shelves empty while Whole Foods struggled for months to get a system down.
As a Whole Foods die-hard, this surprised me.
Trader Joe’s employees acted like they handled a pandemic all the time. Their lines were orderly, their workers were happy, confident, and polite. More importantly, each Trader Joe’s around me had the exact sameprotocol.
Whole Foods employees were confused, overwhelmed, and unhappy, lacking leadership, which always comes from the top.
I do most of my shopping at Trader Joes’ now. And while I’m saving hundreds, if not thousands of dollars each year on food, the experience is not the same.
I miss the Whole Foods’ experience.
I miss the soul of the place.