Taken As A Whole
How well is Whole Foods embracing its multiple missions in Monterey?
Thursday, November 12, 1998
Whole Foods Market, the nation''s largest natural food retail chain, presents itself as a new kind of food retailer, the grocery store for the ''90s.
Brandishing the motto "whole foods, whole people, whole planet," the company consciously strives to actualize a carefully articulated vision of a progressive food store. The company''s Web site lays out its "core values:" selling the highest quality natural and organic products available, satisfying customers, making employees happy, caring about the community and the environment, and "creating wealth through profits and growth."
Since its inception in Austin in 1980, Whole Foods has taken on a formidable task: combining, in one entity, the offerings of a health food store, a gourmet food shop and a supermarket giant. That means trying to duplicate the natural food industry''s emphasis on providing organically grown, healthful products with a minimum of processing and pesticides; the gourmet food industry''s emphasis on high quality, "interesting" food products that look beautiful on the shelf; and the "big box" supermarket''s emphasis on low prices and wide product selection.
It''s a concept that evolved naturally out of the changing world of retail food marketing, says Whole Foods'' Monterey store manager Tim Gates. "Over the last 20 years, we''ve seen an evolution of the natural foods and the gourmet foods industries, bringing them closer and closer," he says.
In addition to trying to please all customers, Whole Foods adheres to certain progressive, ''70s-era political maxims. The company is committed to buying from small, independent wholesalers whenever possible, creating a progressive, open-door work environment that values employee input, and contributing actively to the local community through sponsorship of events, paying employees for their time spent volunteering, and donating 5 percent of all after-tax profits to local nonprofits (more than $1 million nationally in 1996).
That''s a lot for one company to do--and arguably, one that helped kill the food co-op movement of the 1960s. Too much, some would argue. How, critics argue, can one store reconcile such opposing values as the small, neighborhood health food store''s focus on organic produce, and the supermarket''s emphasis on making as much money as possible?
Indeed, Whole Foods has come under fire nationally for its anti-union stance, particularly its refusal to sign a UFW-sponsored pledge supporting better work conditions for California strawberry workers; for "pretending" to be a health food store while selling conventional, non-organic products; and for paying workers less than the big-box supermarket chains (see accompanying story, p. 13). In both Santa Cruz and Monterey, there was some public opposition to the company even setting up shop, particularly as it appeared to replace popular independently owned natural foods stores.
In a way, Whole Foods has set itself up for this criticism. In the words of a popular TV ad for Hebrew National kosher hot dogs, the company "answers to a Higher Authority," in this case, CEO John Mackey''s New Age business philosophy rather than God''s presumed dietary commandments.
"They are kind of like a lightning rod," agrees Todd Loomis, owner of The Granary in Pacific Grove since 1979, the local natural food store that "merged" with Whole Foods early this year. The natural food industry attracts people passionately committed to high standards of environmental, political and nutritional concern, he says. "They are exceptional people, who care a lot about the work they do," he says. "For many, it''s an extension of their lifestyle. It''s inevitable that Whole Foods would be seen in that ''touchstone'' way."
In fact, the bulk of the local criticism against Whole Foods in Monterey comes from former employees of The Granary and Cornucopia, a natural foods store in Carmel. Whole Foods employees who came from Lucky, Safeway and other conventional supermarkets are, for the most part, counting their lucky stars. "Oh, sure, working here is so stressful," laughs Arleen Hardenstein, who came from Lucky to work in accounts payable at Whole Foods. "Seriously, this is a great place to work," she says.
Few former Granary employees are unhappy with their pay or benefits at Whole Foods. In fact, most of them are making more money than colleagues who hadn''t worked for the Granary. Many even remained at the same salary scale, as if they had made a lateral move from the Granary to Whole Foods. Few fault employee-management relations, either.
Those who do have criticism of Whole Foods describe their feelings as being ideologically based, a feeling that Whole Foods has "sold out" and is using the facade of a natural foods store to disguise its real corporate identity. And they say they feel personally let down by what they describe as the company''s inability to live up to its image as a politically progressive, environmentally concerned, health-conscious purveyor of natural foods.
"When it comes to organics, that''s where they really drop the ball," says Eric Andersson, a Granary employee for seven years who made the shift to Whole Foods in June, but lasted just three days. "At the Monterey store, the majority of the produce is not organic. And they sell their own pasta sauce, made without sugar, right next to a sauce with sugar that you could buy at Trader Joe''s. You really have to seek out the organic stuff."
Whereas a progressive health food store should favor local growers over produce trucked-in from outside, Andersson says, Whole Foods buys all over the world and indicates "local" produce with a small sign reading "grown within a 150-mile radius."
"That''s fine if you want to be a multi-million dollar corporation, but hiding behind the facade of being a natural food store really irks me," he maintains.
Do Andersson and other natural foods aficionados have higher expectations for Whole Foods than what the company actually promises? Perhaps. Whole Foods does not pledge to offer only organic produce. Whole Foods states its goal is providing the "highest quality product that also offers high value for our customers." When that means organic, so much the better. If not, then not. "We believe that it is important to be inclusive and open-minded, and not overly restrictive or dogmatic," the company states on its Website.
"We sell the least adulterated, cleanest, best-tasting product on the planet," says manager Gates. "Ninety-nine percent of the time, that means organic. We are the leading supporter of sustainable agriculture as a retailer."
Gates concedes that Whole Foods is consciously trying to attract a "crossover" customer base, drawing both folks who usually shop at small natural foods stores and the Lucky or Safeway shoppers who would never think of shopping at a health food store.
"In the ''70s, in the natural food industry, a product didn''t have to look good or taste good, and it would still sell," Gates says. "Some people today still have that perception that natural foods means dirty, hippie Mountain Mama." It''s a perception Whole Foods is trying to dispel through meticulous attention to product appearance and store layout. At the Monterey store, in line with national Whole Foods policy, the tomatoes are red, the lettuce leaves glisten, and the aisles are spacious, well-lit and scrupulously clean.
That''s what the store''s target customer wants, Gates explains. The hippie, health-food generation of the ''60s and ''70s has grown up--they''re making more money, they travel, they eat in fine restaurants, but they are more health-conscious and environmentally concerned than their parents'' generation. They still want their apples organic, Gates says, but they want those apples to look nice, too.
Some ex-Granary workers feel Whole Foods isn''t as participatory as it says it is. Sarah K. lasted just a few weeks at the Monterey store, and says she left because of dissatisfaction with the work environment.
"The things we heard at the beginning, that Whole Foods promotes the ''team'' concept, that everyone has a voice in how things are done, it all sounded great," she says. "In reality, I never felt part of any team, or that my comments were listened to. I believe that when John Mackey started the company, that''s what he wanted. But as the company grew, he lost control of it and relied on others to carry out his beliefs, which they didn''t always do."
Sarah says that in her new job at Whole Foods, she "spoke up when [she] thought things aren''t right," but "quickly learned that''s not what they want to hear."
Other ex-Granary employees at Whole Foods offer the same complaint. One, who wished to remain anonymous because he still works at the Monterey store, says that when a longer version of Eric Bates'' article appeared recently in Santa Cruz Metro, a fellow employee was asked by his team leader what he thought of it. "He said, ''There were a lot of things in it I agreed with,'' and instantly he was called into the back office [to talk with management]," the source relates.
But most of the complaints seem to stem almost from nostalgia, a feeling of personal loss connected to The Granary''s demise, a desire to return to "the old days" when they worked like one family in a small, neighborhood store under Loomis'' benevolent gaze. One disgruntled Whole Foods worker speaks longingly of the spacious employee''s kitchen at The Granary, which he compares to the "cramped" employee space and the "fluorescent lighting" at Whole Foods. Others talk about the "family atmosphere" at The Granary, the slow pace of work and the "frenetic pace" at Whole Foods.
"The majority of shoppers liked the intimacy of The Granary, the one-on-one," says Velvet Brown, a Granary employee for five years who worked for a few weeks at Whole Foods.
Brown was disturbed by what she perceived as Whole Food''s emphasis on selling. "Their major incentive is making money," she charges. "Before work, they''d have this chant over the intercom, ''We made this much money yesterday, let''s do even better today.'' There''s something Stepford about it; it''s too EST for me."
Brown gets all choked up when she talks about The Granary. "The Granary was the best place I ever worked," she says. "It was heartbreaking for me to go from that to this. I don''t know if I''ll ever find that loving, caring, nurturing environment again."
If it was hard for Granary employees to see their store close down, imagine how hard it was for Loomis.
Co-founder of The Granary in 1979 and sole owner since 1987, Loomis says he was financially ready to talk when he was approached by Whole Foods in April ''97 with the merger offer. Loomis says The Granary "maxed out" in ''92, in terms of parking space and lack of selection, and he''d been "treading water" for five years, unable financially to move to a bigger store location yet unwilling to sell out and shut down. The Whole Foods merger offer was, he says, "the most viable and intriguing solution to the problems I''d been grappling with."
"It was a hard transition, yeah," he sighs. "But I was more than ready to turn it over. Still, I cared desperately how that would happen." He was impressed with Whole Foods'' style, and felt it was the best way to carry over his natural food values into a new era.
Loomis was given a key role in easing the transition for Granary employees and customers, as initial manager of the new Whole Foods store. "I felt very good about the merger," he says. "It offered a new level of opportunity to those employees who wanted to grow in the industry, more than I could offer as a small independent owner. And it offered a more central location, wider selection of products, longer hours of operation, better parking--everything our customers had asked for years."
But, Loomis admits, there was a trade-off. "Everything comes at a price," he says. But, realistically, he insists, he had no choice but to merge with Whole Foods, which he sees as the true wave of the future. "Having a store that offers all this demands a huge capital investment," he says. "I don''t think people appreciate that. That''s why there are so few independent natural foods stores. They are a dying breed."
And after 25 years in the natural foods business, Loomis may be a dying breed, as well. He lasted just one week as manager after the Whole Foods Monterey store opened June 24. "I realized I was in a different league of store management than I was prepared for," he admits. "It was a very demanding, fast pace, like going from the farm league to the majors." So he stepped down, and Gates was brought in from the company''s Los Gatos store, where he''d made a reputation as a kind of golden boy, someone able to turn a store around and make it a success story.
Today, Loomis still has a hand in the store, as an independent contractor consulting with the company on promotional and other activities. While still supportive of his former employees on a personal basis, he says much of their, and others'', criticism of Whole Foods is disingenuous.
Sure, the store doesn''t sell only organically grown produce. But with 166 of 250 produce items labeled "organic" on a recent week, they offer shoppers more organic items, in terms of raw numbers, than any other local store, Loomis says. And the company concentrates on building relationships with small organic growers, free-range farmers, producers of hormone-free milk and dairy products, and other such entrepreneurs, thus encouraging the natural foods market. That''s long-range thinking, the difference between giving a hungry person food and teaching him how to farm. "They''re responsible for more people doing organic food than any other company," he says.
Change isn''t easy, Loomis says, and people tend to cling to the familiar. The Granary stayed pretty much the same for years, whereas Whole Foods is a more dynamic company. "The company has grown so in six years," he says. "It''s always easier to grumble about what''s not working than to recognize that wherever there''s growth, there has to be evolution and change." It''s "unfair and premature," he says, for folks to castigate Whole Foods "before allowing things to unfold."
Loomis understands why his former employees might feel taken aback by Whole Foods. "The Granary was unique, a safe, secure, nurturing, relaxed place where the focus was on service first, and then the bottom line," he says. "I look back on it like Camelot."
About half the former Granary employees originally hired by Whole Foods are still working there. Some, like Blair Holland, are quite happy. Head of The Granary''s nutritional department for 13 years, she made a lateral transition to nutritional Team Leader at Whole Foods.
When she first heard about the merger at a Granary meeting more than a year ago, she was, like other Granary employees, dismayed at the thought of "outsiders" taking over. But she made the switch, and now feels Whole Foods is the right place at the right time.
"The rhetoric of the Whole Foods philosophy is inspiring, and part of my belief too, that you can have a profitable business that benefits the employee, customers and stockholders," she says. "It''s a different work environment, a different pace. But I didn''t expect it to be the same. As much as I loved The Granary, I was ready for a change."
A lot of people have a knee-jerk reaction against any corporation, she says; "but institutions are as good as the people in them. I haven''t met any profit-mongers here."
Jim Affinito, also formerly of The Granary, works in produce at Whole Foods. He finds the company''s policy towards employees "progressive," and praises the store for hiring "a diverse group" and for respecting "differences in work style."
But he is less happy with what he calls the store''s lack of a strong in-house ecological program. "We don''t recycle any more than Safeway does," he charges. And he wishes the store took a more firmly organic stance, instead of being so concerned that its produce look good. "It''s supposed to taste good, not be beautiful," he says. "Whole Foods caters to the upper crust, the top 30 percent. Seventy percent of people on the Peninsula can''t afford to shop there. Because of who it caters to, it has to make everything look shiny. That gives the impression of everything being better, when it''s really just the same."
Still, Affinito says, Whole Foods is "a step in the right direction, for a huge company like that," and calls the store "more progressive" than its big-box competitors. "They''re not a company that''s just trying to create drones," he concludes.
Despite its intentions, Whole Foods can''t satisfy everyone. Manager Gates says he "wasn''t surprised" to lose so many Granary employees. "I understand why some people want to work in a little store," he says.
"There are always individuals for whom bigger means more hectic," agrees Holland. "They''ll go out of their way to go to a small store, even if it''s not as competitive."
Choosing to patronize a locally owned store is a political statement, even when it''s not as convenient, Andersson says. "You have to decide who you''re going to support, Borders or a local bookstore," he says. "I''d rather go to the [farmers'' market in the] MPC parking lot and give a guy I know who grows avocados on his farm five bucks for four bitchin'' avocados. It''s not helping to pay dividends to some shareholder."
Whole Foods is already drawing more customers from conventional stores than from local health food stores, according to an informal survey of customers and team leaders on two recent weekdays. That percentage could change next week, when Harvest Natural Foods, a natural foods store consciously patterned after The Granary, opens in the Holman Building in downtown Pacific Grove. Owner David Crocker, a former Granary employee who even purchased his fixtures from The Granary, says he''s already hired some former Granary and Cornucopia workers, and has received "hundreds" of calls from former Granary customers, eager for him to open.
Tim Gates insists there will always be a place for small, independently owned health food stores. Loomis isn''t so sure. "The Granary had its time and place," he says. "Now it''s the 21st century. We took what we accomplished and moved it to the next level. Customers say Whole Foods doesn''t have the warmth of The Granary, and I say, that''s true, but give it a chance. It''s just been here four months. The Granary was here for 19 years. Things don''t happen overnight." cw