Does Whole Foods' C.E.O. know what's best for you?
by Nick Paumgarten
January 4, 2010
John Mackey, the co-founder and chief executive of Whole Foods
Market, refers to the company as his childnot just his creation but
the thing on earth whose difficulties or downfall it pains him most
to contemplate. He also sees himself as a "daddy" to his fifty-four
thousand employees, who are known as "team members," but they may
occasionally consider him to be more like a crazy uncle. To the
extent that a child inherits or adopts a parent's traits, Whole Foods
is an embodiment of many of Mackey's. A Whole Foods store, in some
respects, is like Mackey's mind turned inside out. Certainly, the
evolution of the corporation has often traced his own as a man; it
has been an incarnation of his dreams and quirks, his contradictions
and trespasses, and whatever he happened to be reading and eating, or
A year ago, Mackey came across a book called "The Engine 2 Diet," by
an Austin, Texas, firefighter and former professional triathlete
named Rip Esselstyn. Basically, you eat plants: you are a rabbit with
a skillet. Mackey had been a vegetarian for more than thirty years,
and a vegan for five, but the Engine 2 book, among others, helped get
him to give up vegetable oils, sugar, and pretty much anything
processed. He lost fifteen pounds. This thinking about his body
dovetailed with a recession that left many shoppers reluctant or
unable to spend much money on the fancy or well-sourced food that had
been the stores' mainstay. Mackey, in a stroke of corporate
transubstantiation, declared that Whole Foods would go on a diet,
too. It would focus on stripped-down healthy eating. Fewer organic
potato chips, more actual potatoes. He told the Wall Street Journal
in August, "We sell a bunch of junk."
The repudiation was rash, since Whole Foods would still be selling
junk, of a kind. Mackey, an unrepentant foot-in-mouther, as often a
fount of exasperation as of inspiration, tried to explain that his
comment had been misunderstood. Mackey has been bewildered by the way
some things that he has said or done have brought trouble on him and
Whole Foods. Public opinion can be capricious andwhen you're a
grocer, a retail brand, and a publicly traded companyhard to ignore
Two years ago, Mackey passed through one of the roughest stretches of
his life. The Bush Administration, in an uncharacteristic spasm of
antitrust vigilance, was fighting Whole Foods' purchase of a
competitor, Wild Oats, contending that the merged company would
unfairly corner what the Federal Trade Commission called the "premium
natural and organic supermarket" sector. Meanwhile, the Securities
and Exchange Commission was investigating Mackey: for nearly eight
years, he had been secretly logging onto an Internet message board
devoted to Whole Foods stock under the sock puppet, or pseudonym,
"rahodeb" (an anagram of Deborah, his wife's name), praising his own
company, disparaging Wild Oats, and throwing in a flattering remark
about his hair ("I think he looks cute!"). Mackey, for years a media
and stock-market sweetheart, was suddenly recast as a monopolist, a
fruitcake, and a sneak. The share price fell, and, even though the
government eventually let the deal stand (with a few concessions from
Whole Foods) and gave the sock puppetry a pass, many wondered how
Mackey managed to hold on to his job.
During this period, Mackey sought succor in spiritual practice. He
engaged a friend, a follower of the Czech transpersonal psychologist
Stanislav Grof, to guide him through a therapeutic session of
holotropic breathing. "I had this very powerful session, very
powerful. It lasted about two hours," Mackey said in an inspirational
CD set he released last year called "Passion and Purpose: The Power
of Conscious Capitalism." "I was having a dialogue with what I would
define as my deeper self, or my higher self." He had a pair of
epiphanies, one having to do with severed relationships that needed
healing. The other was that "if I wanted to continue to do Whole
Foods, there couldn't be any part of my life that was secretive or
hidden or that I'd be embarrassed [about] if people found out about
it. I had to let go of all of that," he said. "I'm this public figure now."
He couldn't "embarrass the company," he told me. "I have to grow
up"he is fifty-six. "I can't have affairs with women. One of the
things that happened was you have more money and you have more
opportunities for such things. And those are sort of off-limits. You
can't do that. Think of Mark Sanford, in South Carolina."
His vows of discretion apparently allow for a great deal of latitude.
He talks openly about his fixations and eccentricitiesmost of them,
anyway. ("I am not going to talk about my sex life," he told me,
without my having asked him to.) His blend of guile and guilelessness
is peculiar. "I no longer drink alcohol around journalists," he said.
He worries that he reveals too much. He can't help but speak his
mind, out of which spring confounding ideas and conventionally
irreconcilable contradictions. The man who has perhaps done as much
as anyone to bring the natural-foods movement from the crunchy fringe
into the mainstream is also a vocal libertarian, an orthodox
free-marketer, an admirer of Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan, and Ayn
Rand. In the 2008 Presidential election, he voted for Bob BarrRon
Paul wasn't on the ballot.
The right-wing hippie is a rare bird, and it's fair to say that most
of Whole Foods' shoppers have trouble conceiving of it. They tend to
be of a different stripe, politically and philosophically, and they
were either oblivious or dimly aware of Mackey's views, until the
moment, this summer, when Mackey published an op-ed piece in the Wall
Street Journal asserting that the government should not be in the
business of providing health care. This was hardly a radical view,
and yet in the gathering heat of the health-care debate the op-ed,
virally distributed via the left-leaning blogs, raised a fury. In no
time, liberals were organizing boycotts of Whole Foods.
(Right-wingers staged retaliatory "buy-cotts.") Mackey had thrown
tinder on the long-smoldering suspicion, in some quarters, that he
was a profiteer in do-gooder disguise, and that he, and therefore
Whole Foods, was in some way insincere or even counterfeit. No one
can say that he hasn't brought it on himself.
"I have my own views, and they're not necessarily the same as Whole
Foods'," Mackey told me. "People want me to suppress who I am. I
guess that's why so many politicians and C.E.O.s get to be sort of
boring, because they end up suppressing any individuality to conform
to some phony, inauthentic way of being. I'd rather be myself."
"He's a ready-aim-fire guy, and he's not real disciplined in how he
speaks his mind," Gary Hirshberg, the C.E.O. of Stonyfield, the
organic milk and yogurt producer, told me. "He has a really hard time
reconciling his public and private selves." Mackey's resilience has
surprised even those who, like Hirshberg, hold him in high esteem.
"John has that Clintonesque ability to hang in there," Hirshberg
said. "He is Whole Foods management's greatest asset but also, at
times, its greatest challenge."
Depending on where you are on the spectrum of epicurean cultural
politics, you may consider Whole Foods to be a righteous grocer or a
cynical con, a prod to self-improvement or a gateway to decadence, a
neighborhood boon or a blight, a force for social good or a place to
pick up chicks. To the likes of Wal-Mart and Costco, it has been an
impetus to carry healthier, more judiciously sourced food. To small
neighborhood natural- or gourmet-food shops, it has sometimes been an
impetus to go out of business. It has enabled organic and artisanal
producers to scale up, and put pressure on the giants to at least
pretend that they are scaling down. It has less than a one-per-cent
share of the American grocery market, yet it has unquestionably
transformed the way Americans produce, buy, and eat food. Its name,
justifiably or not, is shorthand for a food revolution.
To some, Whole Foods is Whole Paycheck, an overpriced luxury for
yuppie gastronomes and fussy label-readers. Or it is Holy Foods, the
commercial embodiment of environmental and nutritional pieties. To
hard-core proponents of natural and organic food, and of food
production that's local, polycultural, and carbon-stingy, Whole Foods
is a disappointmenta bundle of big-business compromises and
half-steps, an example of something merely good that the perfect can
reasonably be declared an enemy of. It's a welter of paradoxes: a
staunchly anti-union enterprise that embraces some progressive labor
practices; a self-styled world-improver that must also deliver
quarterly results to Wall Street; a big-box chain putting on
small-town airs; an evangelist for healthy eating that sells
sausages, ice cream, and beer.
The most perplexing paradox of them all, and in many respects their
root source, is Mackey himself. I met him in a conference room at the
company headquarters, in Austin. He slipped in through a door in the
conference room and made a comment to a colleague about a book of
Wendell Berry poems. We talked briefly about Frisbee golf, his game
of choice. He was dressed in khakis, a pleather belt, trail shoes,
and a green polo shirt with a Whole Foods logo. He is not a guy who
cares a lot about how he looks, unless he cares a lot about appearing
not to care. He has angular eyebrows and tousled hair. His
disposition was serene, but you could sense a prickly, Jesuitical
undercurrent coursing beneath it. He speaks softly, with a gentle Texas twang.
The health-care op-ed's headline, "THE WHOLE FOODS ALTERNATIVE TO
OBAMACARE," was the Journal's, Mackey says, but the sentiments were
his. Mackey's prescriptions ranged from the obvious (people need to
eat better) to the market-minded (promote interstate competition
among insurers) to the dreamy (the corporations will take care of
us). The gist was that, together, they'd obviate the need for a
federal plan, and that the course being pursued by the White House
and the Democrats would have disastrous consequences. He led with an
epigram attributed to Margaret Thatcher: "The problem with socialism
is that eventually you run out of other people's money."
Before submitting the op-ed, he showed it to Lanny Davis, the former
Clinton White House special counsel, who represented Whole Foods in
its antitrust battle. Davis told me that he "prodded John a little to
think like a liberal," and he reckons that the Thatcher quote was
ill-advised. Still, he blames "left-wing McCarthyism" for the outrage
that greeted the piece.
"I was so viciously attacked for two reasons," Mackey told me. "One
is that people had an idea in their minds about the way Whole Foods
was. So when I articulated a capitalistic interpretation of what
needed to be done in health care, that was disappointing to some
people." He begrudges the extent to which people have projected onto
Whole Foods an unrealistic and idealistic vision of the company. "The
C.E.O. of Safeway, Steven Burd, wrote an op-ed piece in June
advocating, basically, market solutions to the health-care problem,
and nobody gave a shit," he said.
Of course, Whole Foods has always held itself up as a paragon of
virtue. It is an article of faith that it is, as Mackey often says, a
mission-based business. It has seven "core values," which are,
broadly speaking, commitments to the fulfillment and equitable
treatment of all "stakeholders"customers, employees, investors, and
suppliersas well as to the health of the populace, of the food
system, and of the earth. Whole Foods' claim to righteousness is, in
many respects, its unique selling point. If the mission is sincere,
so is the commitment to making money. Mackey is adamant, and not
merely unapologetic, that his companyany companycan and should
pursue profits and a higher purpose simultaneously, and that in fact
the pursuit of both enhances the pursuit of each. "Whole Foods itself
is a market-based solution," he said. "We're a corporation. We are in
capitalism. We have to compete with Safeway and Wal-Mart and Kroger
and Wegmans and Trader Joe's. What's odd about it is that that's what
we've always been. We're not a co-op." To "the people that really
dislike us," he said, "Whole Foods is a big corporation, so they
think that we've crossed over to the dark side. Kind of the Darth
Vader myth, that somehow or another we've become bad because we've
The second reason people got so angry about his Journal column,
Mackey says, is that he exposed what he calls the issue's "shadow
side." "The shadow side is when you bring up arguments, or a
position, that people have never reflected upon and never really
thought through, and it's threatening to them," he said. "It's a
shadow. It's underneath. And, rather than deal with it, they lash out
in anger and fear and hatred. In that op-ed piece, I was trying to
make the argument that health care is really not different from
anything else we provide for ourselves"he had mentioned food and
shelter"and that capitalism is better than socialism at providing
those things." He added, "You certainly can articulate that I would
rather live in a society where there's universal health care. I think
that's my personal preference, but all I can do is articulate that
it's not intrinsic in the nature of human beings to have a right to
health care. And, so, kill the messenger."
Mackey was brought up in a conventional middle-class home in a suburb
of Houston. His father, Bill Mackey, was a professor of accounting at
Rice University, and his mother gave up school teaching to raise John
and his two siblings. When John was sixteen, in 1969, Bill Mackey
became the C.E.O. of a health-care company, which was sold, fifteen
years later, for nearly a billion dollars. Bill could be a
domineering dinner-table debater and an occasionally wounding
plain-speaker; he was the best man at John's wedding, the first
investor in Whole Foods, and, until John was in his late thirties,
the presiding object of his efforts to succeed and please. People who
saw them interact, during the years when Bill Mackey served on the
Whole Foods board of directors, observed a conspicuous inheritance of
certain traits, and an equally conspicuous struggle to lay sole claim
to them. Bill Mackey died in 2004, after suffering from Alzheimer's.
Mackey says that he was not as close to his mother, who died in 1987.
"The last thing she asked me, she said, 'John, promise me you'll go
back to school and get a college degree.' I said, 'Mom, I'm not going
back to school. I'm doing Whole Foods.' She said, 'I wish you'd just
give up that stupid health-food store. Your father and I gave you a
fine mind, and you're wasting it being a grocer.' " That was their
final conversation. "I was so proud of my own honesty and my own
candor and my own integrity. But she died thinking that I was a
failure and that I didn't love her, and, I mean, why put your mother
through that on her deathbed? I wish I could take that back."
In high school, Mackey was an indifferent student, a late bloomer,
puberty-wise, and a fanatic about basketball, science fiction, and
girls. Before his senior year, he was cut from the varsity basketball
team, and he persuaded his parents to move so that he could switch
schools and play. "That changed my life, because for the first time I
realized that if you didn't like the hand you were dealt you didn't
just have to feel sorry for yourself. You could do something about it."
He went on to Trinity University, a small school in San Antonio, and
the world flowered before him, as it did for so many in those days.
"I was reading a lot of philosophy and religion," he said. "And I did
a lot of those experiments that young people do when they're in
college. I'll not name those. We can't be candid about everything in
our society. You can't kick the door down. What people were doing in
the early seventies, I was doing it, too." He quit playing basketball
and, for the next several years, went back and forth between Trinity
and the University of Texas, in Austin, taking only courses that
interested him, and therefore hardly advancing toward a degree. He
settled in Austin, in a house of ten or so men. He worked part-time
as a dishwasher and spent his nights reading in the library. He had a
beard and long bushy hair. Eventually, he moved into a co-ed
"I had no interest in a vegetarian life style," he said. "But what I
was interested in was alternative life styles. And I thought,
honestly, that I'd meet a lot of interesting women. And I did."
He began to care about food. His mother had been of the generation of
women emancipated by frozen and processed foods, and he hadn't really
ever paid particular attention to what he had been given to eat. Now
he started cooking for the collective and working part time at a
natural-foods store called Good Foods. "I loved it," he said. "I
loved retail. I loved being around food. I loved natural foods. I
loved organic foods. I loved the whole idea of it. And a thought
entered into my mind that maybe this is what I could do."
The Whole Foods shopper at some point experiences a pang of surprise
upon discovering that the chain started in Texas, rather than in,
say, Berkeley or Boston. But Austin isn't really Texas. It is the
People's Republic of Austin. In the seventies, it was a cheap and
groovy little town, much smaller and less commercial than it is now.
There was no Dell or Intel or AMD. Its particular countercultural
contribution was the cosmic cowboy, the dope-smoking redneck, so
perhaps it was fitting that, amid a burgeoning natural-foods scene
(there were a dozen or so spots: the Hobbit Hole, the Juice Factory,
Wheatsville, etc.), a kind of complement took root: the brown-rice capitalist.
In 1978, with forty-five thousand dollars from friends and family, he
and his girlfriend at the time, Renee Lawson, decided to start a
store of their own, which they called SaferWaya takeoff on Safeway.
The store was on the ground floor of a Victorian house; they lived on
the third floor and ran a small restaurant on the seconda rustic
prototype for today's prepared-food extravaganzas. The house didn't
have a shower, so they bathed in the store using the hose from a
dishwasher, a creation legend that the company holds dear.
He soon noticed that a number of much bigger natural-foods stores had
sprouted up around the country, such as Mrs. Gooch's and Frazier
Farms, in California. He persuaded Craig Weller and Mark Skiles, the
owners of a store called Clarksville Natural Grocery, to merge with
him and Lawson (in part, by implying that he might put them out of
business), and, in 1980, the four of them opened the first Whole
Foods, in a former night club. It was ten thousand square feet. They
stocked not just lentils and granola but, in contravention of the
co-op ethos, indulgences like meat, beer, and wine; there were aisles
full of five-gallon bottles of distilled water, to avoid the
embarrassment of empty shelf space. The idea was to go beyond the
movement's old tofu severity, the air of judgment and
self-abnegation. Their version of decadence seems Spartan now, but at
the time it represented a cultural shift.
Skiles, who left the company in the mid-eighties, after some friction
with Mackey ("It became clear I was less my own boss than I'd
expected to be," he said), and who now has a pizza shop in Austin
called Pizza Nizza, told me, "We realized that if we have guys who
come in to buy a bag of sprouts and then sit around all day reading
we'll go out of business quick. You need people to shop, to have the
inclination to push a cart around and fill it up."
The first Whole Foods thrived, with a setback or two. (Another
cherished legend: in 1981, a flood inundated the store with eight
feet of water, and a battalion of customers helped the founders
clean, repair, restock, and reopen it.) It became something of a
local hot spot. "I did all the hiring the first five years," Skiles
said. "I had a field day, man. Everyone wanted to work there. It was
like hiring bartenders at Studio 54. I became famous for hiring
gorgeous women as cashiers. Hey, that's what we were selling:
vitality and sensuality." ("That's not my recollection," Mackey said.)
They built two more stores in Austin and expanded to Houston and
Dallas. Then they bought a store in New Orleans called, of all
things, Whole Food Company, settling on a strategy of buying existing
stores in pursuit of a kind of nationwide Pax Austinia. The owner of
the New Orleans store, Peter Roy, eventually became the company's
first president. (Lawson left the company in 1981, to move to Belize.)
Next came Palo Alto, which happened to be next door to a good deal of
venture capital, and Mackey and his partners spent months plying Sand
Hill Road. Of the twelve V.C.s they went to see, all but three turned
them down. As Mackey recalls in "Passion and Purpose," "One of them
said one day: 'You know, I really think you're just selling hippie
food to hippies. I gotta tell ya that I don't think it's gonna work.
But if it does work, Safeway's gonna just steal it from you and
you're not going to be able to exist anyway.' " Mackey, for one,
always feared that Safeway, or some other big chain, would do just
that, but for a long time it did not.
A key contributor to Whole Foods' success, and to its reputation and
self-image as a progressive business, was the company's structure.
Whole Foods is divided into a dozen regions, which in some ways
operate almost as separate businesses, to encourage creativity and a
sense of ownership. (This arrangement can make life complicated for
suppliers.) The stores, too, have a high degree of autonomy. There
are regional oddities: Venice, California, has a kombucha bar;
Portland, Maine, is the only store that carries live lobster; in
Dallas, you can hit "The Spa by Whole Foods Market" while a team
member shops for you. The team is the fundamental Whole Foods work
unit. Teams participate in selecting their bosses and their products,
and are accountable for their performance.
"We've been making it up as we've gone along," Mackey said. "I never
took any business classes or worked for other companies. I don't like
After the successful opening of a Chicago store, in 1991, the company
went public, and embarked on a shopping spree. The new vassals
enriched what had been a fairly clumsy enterprise with their
particular wisdoms; for all his curiosity and drive, Mackey was not
an expert grocer. In 1991, Whole Foods bought Wellspring Grocery, in
North Carolina, and kept its co-owner Lex Alexander to run its
private-label business. In 1992, it bought Bread & Circus, in Boston,
whose owner, Tony Harnett, was known for his procurement of seafood.
Next came Mrs. Gooch's, and with it Sandy Gooch and her head for diet
supplements and the merchandising of meat.* And so on, until Whole
Foods grew to be the cornucopian gourmet grocer that we now either
want or find wanting. It has two hundred and eighty-seven stores.
(Mackey recently told the magazine Reason that the key variable in
deciding where to put the new stores is the number of college
graduates within a sixteen-minute drive.) The company has sales of
about eight billion dollars a year, enabling it to affect the
food-supply chain, for good and ill.
"When you look at the power to move billions of dollars through the
agricultural economy to address some deep and unconscionable
problems, you have to credit Whole Foods for being one of the pivot
points," Hirshberg, of Stonyfield, said. "It deserves a lot of the
credit for breaking us out of a cul-de-sac in terms of food and
health, and the health of the planet."
Mackey is an example of what you might call the auteur C.E.O. Like
Steve Jobs's, his personality is entwined in his company's. He
doesn't bother with day-to-day operations; he's not a technician or a
face man. When he's asked what it is he does, exactly, he describes a
kind of philosopher-king, who brings big ideas to bear. Mackey, an
outspoken critic of executive overcompensation, pays himself a dollar
a year. No one at the company can have a salary more than nineteen
times what the average team member makes. (On average, an S. & P. 500
C.E.O. makes three hundred and nineteen times what a production
worker does.) Last year, the highest salary went to Walter Robb, the
co-president and chief operating officer, who made just over four
hundred thousand dollars (supplemented by a bonus and stock options).
The average hourly wage was sixteen dollars and fifty cents.
Whole Foods has made Mackey a wealthy man. He owns roughly thirty
million dollars in stockless than one per cent of the companyand
has sold millions more over the years. Still, he flies commercial and
drives a Honda Civic hybrid. He has houses in Boulder and Austin, and
a seven-hundred-and-twenty-acre non-working ranch an hour outside of
town, where he and Deborah spend many weekends. They married eighteen
years ago. She's an adherent of Sufism. This fall, for a Halloween
party, she dressed Mackey up as a Qigong master, and herself as a
Chinese opera singer; in the costume competition, they came in fifth.
They believe in havingand, being childless, have the luxury of
havingseparate lives, in addition to a life together. In "Passion
and Purpose," he talks about a conversation they had at a spiritual
seminar: "She told me how she only wanted to be with me in this love
connection, this heart connection. She wanted to be there for all
eternity. I started to get nervous, I started to get freaked out. . .
. She said, 'What are you afraid of?' . . . 'I like love, I like
being with love, but I don't want to be trapped in the love space.' .
. . That's a joke now between us all the time, whenever I start to
withdraw. . . . 'Are you afraid of the love space?' "
The non-love space in his house is his study, which she avoids.
Sometimes he watches sports therehe roots for the Rocketsbut most
of the time he reads. He sits in a recliner, surrounded by stacks of
books. He gives them a good working over, marking them with
underlinings, highlighter, and Post-its. He is, as he says, an
intuitive-thinking type, on the Myers-Briggs scale. When I asked him
recently what he was reading, he named half a dozen books and then a
few days later had a press person send me a list of thirteen. Among
them were a critique of Keynes ("It's been proven it doesn't work,
but Keynes was such a brilliant and fascinating guy that he
hypnotized this whole generation of economists"); biographies of
Booker T. Washington, Peter Drucker, and Ayn Rand ("She wasn't a
business person. And I am. And I know something about the market.
And, by telling people that it's all about selfishness, you're
alienating a huge potential part of the market unnecessarily. She
really meant self-interest. Enlightened self-interest. So why use
'selfishness'? It's a bad brand"); books about "bourgeois virtues,"
"integral consciousness," health-care reform, fasting, and
basketball; and "Pride and Prejudice." ("I've gotten old enough so
that my masculinity is not in question.")
One of the books on the list was "Heaven and Earth: Global
Warmingthe Missing Science," a skeptical take on climate change.
Mackey told me that he agrees with the book's assertion that, as he
put it, "no scientific consensus exists" regarding the causes of
climate change; he added, with a candor you could call bold or
reckless, that it would be a pity to allow "hysteria about global
warming" to cause us "to raise taxes and increase regulation, and in
turn lower our standard of living and lead to an increase in
poverty." One would imagine that, on this score, many of his
customers, to say nothing of most climate scientists, might disagree.
He also said, "Historically, prosperity tends to correlate to warmer
Mackey likes to say that he does things primarily for fun, including
Whole Foods. His definition of fun blends self-denial and
self-indulgence, and a will to perfection. In 2001, he came across a
book called "Beyond Backpacking," by Ray Jardine, the father of
what's called "ultralight" hikingthe discipline of selecting gear
and material of nearly unimaginable low weight. He got his pack down
to around twelve pounds, excluding food and water. He talked the
board of directors into granting him a five-month sabbatical to hike
the Appalachian Trail, and recruited a few friends; the following
spring and summer, they walked from Georgia to Maine. His trail name
is Strider. Since then, he's gone backpacking every summerhe was on
the Appalachian Trail in August, when controversy over his
health-care column brokeand has bought a controlling interest in a
company called Gossamer Gear. His pack weight is now less than seven
pounds. Ultralight hiking is, in some respects, like the grocery
business: each requires strict attention to inventory and a fondness
for a slog. The problem is that the grocery business involves other people.
"Well, it's less fun when people are calling you an asshole and
writing you hate mail, but generally I'm still having fun," Mackey
told me. "Yeah, I am self-actualizing myself. You want to use
Maslow's hierarchy of needs? I am fulfilling my inner desires, in
terms of reaching my fullest potential as a human being. I became a grocer."
In 1994, H-E-B, a Texas supermarket chain controlled by the San
Antonio billionaire Charles Butt, opened Central Market, a huge
gourmet grocery store, in Austin, in a shopping center north of the
university. It siphoned off some Whole Foods shoppers. I heard it
said in Austin that "Central Market is of the people and Whole Foods
is of the Man." Mackey may not be Che Guevara, but, in fairness,
neither is Butt. Central Market's incursion spurred Whole Foods to
open, in 2005, a store beneath its new headquarters, at the edge of
downtown. The store is eighty thousand square feet.
At lunchtime and in the early evening, the store teems. The layout is
diffuse, with a series of food stationspizza, seafood,
Indianoccupying the slack space between the packaged goods and the
meat, cheese, and fish. (One Austin resident and Central Market
partisan told me, "The store is a reflection of Mackey's personality.
It has a fuck-you layout.") You can buy a bottle of wine, and drink
it there. My first day at the store, lured by the smell of mesquite,
I found myself in line at the barbecue station. The counterman pulled
out a brisket that had been in the smoker for fifteen hours and
distributed samples. Engine 2 this was not. A very large man was
eating a tacobrisket rolled up in a flour tortilla with jalapeños,
onions, pickles, and sauce. He said, "If you get one, you'll want
another. If you get two, you'll know you had brisket." I ordered two,
and it was so: I possessed the knowledge of having had brisket. The
next day, I dined at the vegan counter. I decided on a "gyro"seitan,
cucumbers, tzatziki, seaweed. Afterward, I wanted another.
Earlier, I had got a cheese primer from the head buyer, Cathy Strange
(her desert-island cheese is Mt. Tam, a stroke-hastener from Cowgirl
Creamery, in Marin County, which sells for about thirty dollars a
pound) and before that a tour of the store from Walter Robb, who had
overseen its design and construction. Robb had found inspiration in
the KaDeWe department store, in Berlin, which, when the city was
divided, served as an advertisement for capitalistic abundance.
This store, like most, led with produce. "Nothing more whole foods
than produce," Robb said. "Look at all the colors." There were thirty
varieties of apples. "Most markets say, Let's throw the food out
there and stick it in your bodies. No, it's a beautiful, stimulating
experience. It's a visual experience." Sometimes the store deploys
"dummies," wooden or cardboard devices hidden under mounds of
produce, to create an illusion of greater supplysupermarket
Wonderbras. At the meat counter, he described the differences in
sheen and texture of grass-fed and grain-fed beef.
Robb is a tall and fit Bostonian who went West to attend college at
Stanford in the early seventies. His then-girlfriend had
back-to-the-land parents up in Trinity County, and while reading
Wendell Berry and helping them crack their own wheat he decided to
start a natural-foods store there. He eventually opened one in Mill
Valley, which Whole Foods bought in 1991. (It was store No. 11.)
We passed the candy counter, with its "chocolate-enrobing"
fountainyou can have anything dipped in chocolate, even salmon. "We
got caught up a little in the foodie stuff of the nineties," Robb
said. "We have in some ways, as we've been making our way along here,
contributed to the feeling that this"he gestured to the store"is
not something that people can afford, or it's not accessible to them,
or it's over-the-top. We have our share of responsibility in that.
We're not here to sell cheap food, but we've been working hard on our
When I asked Robb about Mackey, a look of something like temperancea
flash of mirthcrossed his face. "I would write about him being the
guy who, at these sort of inflection points that every business
faces, seems to show up with ideas that are original and thoughtful
and attuned to the moment." He divided those into "true-ups, let-gos,
and big steps."
The healthy-eating initiative is a bit of all three. Copies of "The
Engine 2 Diet" were stacked by the entrance, next to a booth occupied
by a newly deployed nutritional counsellor, a "source-a-tarian," who
can advise shoppers on conveyances for leafy greens. Around the Whole
Foods headquarters, employees obsess over kale (which, according to
the nutrition scoring system that the company has adopted, has more
nutrients per calorie than any other food) the way bond traders do
over swaps or Tiger Woods. Employees can compete in a three-month
nationwide derby, a health nuts' Hogwarts House Cup, in which teams
get points for exercising and for using mass transit. Beginning in
2010, they will be able to earn better employee discounts by lowering
their cholesterol and losing weight. This doesn't mean that Whole
Foods is scrapping its cheese counter or its beer alley or its
chocolate-enrobing apparatus. At Whole Foods, the customer is still
always mostly right.
With Mackey, it's natural to wonder: is he at heart an entrepreneur,
who discovered, in natural foods, a worthy vehicle for
self-actualization and self-enrichment, or a missionary, who
discovered in the grocery business a worldly vehicle for change?
"So that's a very interesting question," he said, leaning forward.
"How are they opposed to one another? People think that they are, but
why do you think they're opposed?"
I said that I didn't think they had to be.
"I don't, either. In fact, I think they're very connected together.
This is a paradigm that has polarized our country and led to bad
thinking. It's holding the nation's progress back. It's as if there
were a wall. And on one side of the wall is this belief that
not-for-profits and government exist for public service, and that
they're fundamentally altruistic, that they have a deeper purpose,
and they're doing good in the world, and they have pure motives. On
the other side of the wall are corporations. And they're just selfish
and greedy. They have no purpose other than to make money. They're a
bunch of psychopaths. And I'd like to tear that wall down. Human
beings are obviously self-interested. We do look after ourselves, but
we're capable of love, empathy, and compassion, and I don't see that
business is any different."
He went on, "We're trying to do good. And we're trying to make money.
The more money we make, the more good we can do." By this, he had in
mind not the traditional philanthropic argument that more money
earned equals more to give away but, rather, that a good companythat
is, his companywhich sells good things and treats its employees,
shareholders, customers, and suppliers well, can spread goodness
simply by thriving.
This was a variation on what he calls "conscious capitalism," which
some people, smelling an oxymoron, or worse, snicker at. His idea is
that business should have a higher purposethat, just as doctors heal
and teachers educate, businesspeople should be after something
besides money. It may be an easier argument for a grocer to make; he
feeds people, and if he feeds them properly he heals and educates
them, too. But it borders on humbug when you apply it to, say, Wall
Street. Consciousness, as it relates to capitalism, is in the eyes
not so much of the beholder as of the capitalist.
Whole Foods routinely ranks high on those lists of companies that are
the best to work for. The health and retirement benefits are
relatively generous. Mackey regards his blend of paternalism and
sovereignty as a recipe for proper governance, an expression of both
compassion and creativity. This view is not shared by unions, which
have complained that Mackey prevents unionization among his
employees, notably at a store in Madison, Wisconsin, where team
members had voted to unionize. Unions have picketed store openings
and, as activist investors in Whole Foods stock, have called for
In the early eighties, Mackey told a reporter, "The union is like
having herpes. It doesn't kill you, but it's unpleasant and
inconvenient, and it stops a lot of people from becoming your lover."
(That quote, to Mackey's dismay, won't go away, either.) His disdain
for contemporary unionism is ideological, as well as self-serving.
Like many who have come before, he says that it was only when he
started a businesswhen he had to meet payroll and deal with
government red tapethat his political and economic views, fed on
readings of Friedman, Rand, and the Austrians, veered to the right.
But there is also a psychological dimension. It derives in large part
from a tendency, common among smart people, to presume that everyone
in the world either does or should think as he doesto take for
granted that people can (or want to) strike his patented balance of
enlightenment and self-interest. It sometimes sounds as if he
believed that, if every company had him at the helm, there would be
no need for unions or health-care reform, and that therefore every
company should have someone like him, and that therefore there should
be no unions or health-care reform. In other words, because he runs a
business a certain way, others will, can, and should, and so the
safeguards that have evolved over the generations to protect against
human venalityagainst, say, greedy, bullying bossesare no longer
necessary. The logic is as sound as the presumption is preposterous.
His belief in the power of the individual is such that blame falls on
individuals, too. In his view, it tends to be the fault of the
unhealthy or fat person that he or she is unhealthy or fat. People
just need to eat better. He told me, "If I could, I would wave a
magic wand so that Americans ate better, because the diseases that
are killing usheart disease, cancer, diabetes, multiple sclerosis,
Alzheimer'sthese diseases have a high correlation with diet. And
that is something that most people do not understand."
It matters less to him that our food system, for a dozen reasons, as
Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, and many others have chronicled, has
been rigged to deliver unhealthy food at artificially low cost to a
misguided public. People have the power and the means to choose rice
and beans over Big Macs, and when they fail to do so they bring ruin
on themselves, and on everyone else. In his Wall Street Journal
column, Mackey wrote of "the realization that every American adult is
responsible for his or her own health. Unfortunately, many of our
health-care problems are self-inflicted: two-thirds of Americans are
now overweight, and one-third are obese." Inarguable as this
assertion may be, it struck a discordant note. People who may look to
Whole Foods to agitate for changes in the food system, or who have
been bankrupted by medical costs despite eating right, might wonder
if it was quite the moment to be preaching personal responsibility.
"That was a disappointing statement: 'What's wrong with you? Just
stop eating,' " Theresa Marquez, the chief marketing executive of
Organic Valley, the giant farming coöperative, told me. " It's not
just an individual thing. It's a societal and systemic thing. I said
to Walter Robb, 'Walter, why are you letting him do this?' "
A grocer, typically, wants to hide what goes on in back. A grocery
store is a theatrical production, designed to dazzle the customer,
and to disguise the artifice and hard work behind the scenes. Over
the years, grocers have helped keep their customers happily ignorant
of the food's originsof the horrors of the slaughterhouse, the
miseries of the onion fields, and the absurdities contained in a can
of soda or a bag of chips. Our interface with the food chain ended
with the stock boy and his sticker gun in Aisle 6.
Whole Foods sought to change that. It began to sell information and
narrative, along with the food. It told stories about where the food
came from, putting up displays by the seafood counter with
photographs and descriptions of the real fishermen who had caught it
alla genre that Michael Pollan, in "The Omnivore's Dilemma," called
The profusion of provenderthe array of colors and shapes, the
gleaming fruits, fishes, and meats, the grains and cakes and ranges
of artisanal cheeses and beersis as much an apotheosis of America's
abundance and reach as it is any kind of refutation of it. Whole
Foods may aim to be a rebuke to the excess that comes of
petrochemical might, unconscious gluttony, and corn-bloated
immoderation. But it is also an imperial presentation of progress's
spoils, like a king's Christmas feasts. The business depends on it,
even if the brand image does not. The layout encourages impulse
purchases. This is how a weekend grocery bill there can easily run to
four hundred bucks. It may be that the prices of items that you'd buy
elsewhere are the same at Whole Foods, but you come across stuff at a
Whole Foods that you would not at a Stop & Shop, or at some dusty
Yorkville Gristedes. The stingy shoppera slayer of leftoversmay
wonder whether there is some Potemkin in the profusion; it is hard to
imagine people buying, much less eating, all that before it goes bad.
But the stores can't afford to waste vast quantities of food merely
to send subliminal signals. Those prepared-food teams are adept at
converting forlorn vegetables into casserole.
But might there be some Potemkin in the entire enterprise? Pollan
argued that the impression left by the store's displays was
misleading; "organic" often meant that the food came from gigantic
monocultural operations owned by the big food conglomerates, which
abided by the letter but not the spirit of the term, rather than
from, say, the Edenic chemical-free family farm that you pictured
when you paid a dollar more for the organic soy chips. Pollan's
specimen was asparagus, flown, in January, from Argentina. It was
organic, by U.S.D.A. standards (which a Whole Foods executive had
helped to devise), but it had travelled six thousand miles, and it
tasted like cardboard. The irony, then, was that Whole Foods, in
lifting one veil from the food industry, was complicit in replacing
it with another. Whole Foods was, in Pollan's account, kind of a phony.
In 2006, when "The Omnivore's Dilemma" came out, Pollan went to
Austin to do a reading in a bookstore, which, it turned out, Mackey
partly owned. Mackey requested a meeting. They talked for a few
hours. Mackey was angry about how Whole Foods was depicted and handed
Pollan a five-page single-spaced letter, which he then posted on his
Web site. Pollan wrote a lengthy response, and for months they
carried on an exchange of polemics that culminated in an onstage
debate in Berkeley. The upshot was that Mackey acknowledged certain
shortcomings and vowed to make changes, among them greater
commitments to local farming and grass-fed beef.
Still, he chafes at Pollan's exaltation of the little. "America has
kind of a love affair with small business," Mackey said. "A local
farmer is a businessman. He's selling stuff. But he has apparently
not been corrupted. He's still small, he's still pure. But at some
point, if he was to grow, he would cross over. People used to think
Whole Foods was cute and cuddly, and now we're this industrial,
pastoral, organic monster that cares only about money and is selfish
Mackey has on several occasions acted on criticisms. At a shareholder
meeting in 2003, animal-rights activists staged a protest over duck,
which led him to examine the meat business more closely. This
inspired his vegan conversion, and persuaded him to overhaul the
meat-procurement process. Some criticize Whole Foods for selling meat
at all. A few years ago, Mackey told Grist, a Seattle environmental
magazine, "Sure, I wish Whole Foods didn't sell animal products, but
the fact of the matter is that the population of vegetarians in
America is like 5 percent, and vegans are like 25 or 30 percent of
the vegetarians. So if we were to become a vegan store, we'd go out
of business, we'd cease to exist. And that wouldn't be good for the
animals, for our customers, our employees, our stockholders, or
anybody else. If I were to take Whole Foods in this direction I would
be removed as CEO."
Mackey is, by all accounts, fiercely competitive. Years ago, the
traditional executive-retreat volleyball games had to be scrapped,
owing to Mackey's intensity and his ill-disguised scorn for less
capable teammates. (Mackey says that he simply got too old for
volleyball.) Still, cutthroat competitiveness is pretty much the norm
among corporate bosses and successful entrepreneurs. So is a taste
for self-assertion, and a wake of bruised feelings and thwarted dreams.
Certainly, Mackey's relationships with many former colleagues seem
fraught. They won't talk about him on the record, out of concern for
propriety, ongoing business dealings, or non-disclosure and
non-disparagement agreements they signed when they left. (It is
ironic that a company so outspoken about transparency has produced a
diaspora of such wary silence.) But one gathersfrom their demurrals,
Mackey's own comments, and other reportsthat Mackey can be hard to
work for, that he has perhaps inherited his father's talent for
hurtful direct talk, and that, while he may be, as he used to say, an
"accidental grocer," he is not always an accidental accumulator or
practitioner of power. Of all the grocers who came to Whole Foods
after it purchased their businesses, only Walter Robb remains.
Mackey has experimented with various modes of self-discovery. During
one group session of breathing exercises, Mackey reëxperienced his
birth"I was a Cesarean." Afterward, some of his Grofian friends
suggested that he look at a book called "A Course in Miracles,"
written anonymously by two Columbia psychologists. The book's first
printing, in 1976, had been financed by Reed Erickson, a wealthy
transsexual living in Mexico.
The friends described the Course as a channelling from Jesus, and
Mackey assumed that it was baloney. He'd gone through a Christian
phase for two years, in his late teens (he'd had a crush on a devout
girl), but had since become an atheist. He took up the Course in
order to refute it. "I was reading the text one day and getting ready
to go argue with my friends, and I came upon this statement in the
text that just blew my mind. It saidI'm paraphrasingit said,
Lifetime after lifetime after lifetime you have been angry at God.
You have blamed God for all the problems in the world," he says in
"Passion and Purpose." "And not once have you ever looked at the real
sourceyou and all your brothers and sisters have created this state
of being that you're in. Not God. God is just pure love. . . . I got
up. I started running around my house, because when I read it, it
intuitively rang true for me."
He became a student of the Course. "This particular reality that
we're in is not the only reality that exists," he goes on in "Passion
and Purpose." "In fact, there are an infinite number of realities."
The Course places a strong emphasis on forgiveness. After his Grofian
epiphany two years ago, Mackey set out to repair sundered
relationships with his mother (posthumously), former lovers, and
ex-colleagues. Only one remains: a woman he lived with before he
married Deborah. "She scares me a little bit," he told me. "She's a
very powerful woman." On the CD, he talks about a two-day visit with
a former Whole Foods executive in South Carolina, who subjected him
to a catalogue of grievances. Geographical deduction indicates that
the South Carolinian was Peter Roy, the former president, whose
departure from the company, eleven years ago, had been particularly
contentious. (Roy declined to comment.)
"He needed a chance to just unload," Mackey told me. "It's not much
fun to have somebody do that, particularly when you don't agree. But
you know what? It was very healing for him to do that. I gave him an
opportunity to tell me why he thinks I'm such a jerk." He went on,
"There's also a Course of Miracles sayingand this is such a wise
piece of wisdomwould you rather be right or would you rather be
happy? Most people would rather be right, but that's bad strategy. So
my guy thinks I'm wrong and I'm pretty sure he's wrong. What
difference does it make? I just go in and say, You're right, I'm
wrong, and then you have the basis for healing."
"But you have a reputation for liking to argue," I said to Mackey.
"But I don't like to argue to be right. I like to argue because
that's how I get to the truth. I think dialectically."
Would Mackey rather be right or happy? Or would he, to put it
differently, rather the mission succeed or the business flourish?
Survival is hardly assured. A grocer typically owns no patents and is
vulnerable to a fickle marketplace. Mackey was determined, in the
late nineties, to build an Internet operationto become the
Amazon.com of natural and organic foodsbut the project came to
naught. The Wild Oats merger was a dud. Last fall, as the recession
deepened, Whole Foods' sales, and its stock, suffered badly, and the
company was forced to raise capital. Leonard Green & Partners, a
private-equity firm, bought seventeen per cent of the business, and
got two seats on the board. Yucaipa, a firm run by the grocery
billionaire and Democratic Party donor Ron Burkle, bought a
seven-per-cent stake and has been looking over Mackey's shoulder.
"It's like asking a parent, How would you feel if your kid was dead
when you were eighty-six years old?" Mackey said. "Would I prefer
Whole Foods to be very successful and people still ate terrible food
and were getting heart disease and cancer and diabetes when they
didn't have to? I fundamentally don't believe you have to get those
diseases. Or Whole Foods has gone bankrupt, but yet the world's
health is far better and everybody's eating a healthier diet? I'd
rather have the second one. Absolutely."
One wonders. Wal-Mart is now the biggest retailer of organic
groceries, carrying, among other products, Stonyfield. Hirshberg
said, "Wal-Mart being in the organic- and natural-food space presents
a real conundrum for John. On the one hand, he is justifiably proud
of the revolution he helped launch. But seeing the same products in
both markets can drive him crazy."
Mackey acknowledged that "Whole Foods has to continually evolve and
get better or we'll get passed up. And that's the way capitalism is."
He cited A. & P., which was the biggest grocer in America before
undergoing a precipitate decline. "What matters is that whatever
value we've created gets injected into the DNA of other companies and
the economic system as a whole. Just like, speaking as a biological
metaphor, Hey, your kids are here to replace you. Your DNA will move
on, but you yourself will be eliminated. Whole Foods will someday
die. Everything does. I'd rather mine not die while I'm still alive."
A third option is that the mission and Whole Foods both flourish, but
without Mackey. Companies have a way of outgrowing their founders. A
few weeks ago, I met Mackey again, in New York, at a midtown bar. He
was between appearances on financial cable-news programs, to talk
about fourth-quarter earnings. He had on a dark suit and pleather
shoes, and was drinking sparkling water.
I asked him whether he'd given thought to what might come after him.
"I don't have any plans to leave anytime soon, no matter how much the
unions would like me to," he said. Talk turned to food, as it often
does. "You only love animal fat because you're used to it," he said.
"You're addicted." He urged me to consider reprogramming my palate.
He also suggested that I try Grofian breathing.
After a moment, he got up to leave, and I watched him walk toward
Sixth Avenue, in a suit that looked a size or two too big, thinking,
or not thinking, about what he was going to say on the Fox Business channel.