Love it or hate it, Whole Foods Market has become one of the best-known and most revolutionary food stores in America.
But even if you refuse to shop for food anywhere else, we bet that there are some things you didn’t know about this insanely popular chain.
Like most companies, Whole Foods started off small. It was the brainchild of founders John Mackey and Renee Lawson, who in 1978 borrowed $45,000 to open a natural foods store in Austin. They called it SaferWay, a spoof of popular supermarket brand Safeway. In 1980 they merged with a health food shop called Clarksville Natural Grocery, and the resulting first Whole Foods Market opened September 20, 1980.
The next several decades are a story of rapid expansion and increasing cultural influence. Whether Whole Foods inspired the current movement toward eating healthier and less processed foods or is simply piggybacking on it is up for debate, but you can’t deny that the company plays a major role in the current conversation about what we put into our bodies. They were the first nationally certified organic grocer in the country; all their meat is antibiotic- and hormone-free, and animal welfare is a top priority; their private-label 365 products are free of artificial flavorings, colorings, sweeteners, preservatives, and hydrogenated fats; and nearly 4,800 products sold at Whole Foods are Non-GMO Project-verified.
Whole Foods definitely came along at the right time, and today there are about 420 locations, with $12.9 billion in revenue (and $551 million in net income) in 2013. John Mackey is still with the company as CEO and is today one of the most influential voices in the organic food movement. A Fortune 500 company, it’s also the 30th most productive retailer in the country in terms of revenue.
Any way you slice it, it’s clear that Whole Foods is on a roll.
1. It Expanded Primarily by Acquiring Its Competitors
Like many companies that expand rapidly, Whole Foods swallowed up everything in its path. It purchased the Whole Food Company in 1988, and throughout the 1990s and 2000s acquired other natural food stores everywhere it went, including Wellspring Grocery in North Carolina, Bread & Circus in Massachusetts, Fresh Fields on the East Coast and in the Midwest, Mrs. Gooch’s in Los Angeles, Merchant of Vino in Detroit, Bread of Life in Northern California and Florida, and Food For Thought in Northern California.
2. The Founders Were Forced to Live at the First Store
Shortly after opening SaferWay, Mackey and Lawson were evicted from their home because they stored food products there. To save money, they decided to live at the store, which had no shower because it was zoned for commercial use. They bathed by using a shower hose attached to the dishwasher.
3. The First Store Was Completely Destroyed a Year After It Opened
On May 25, 1981, a year after the first Whole Foods opened, it was completely destroyed when the most damaging flood in 70 years hit Austin. Four hundred thousand dollars’ worth of inventory and equipment was ruined, and the company had no insurance. But customers, neighbors, staff members, investors, vendors, and even creditors pitched in to help get the store back on its feet, and it reopened less than a month later.
4. It Has Struggled in the United Kingdom
The company opened its first full-sized U.K. store in 2007, three years after acquiring seven Fresh & Wild stores. By September 2008, however, three of the Fresh & Wilds had shut down, and due to financial troubles they weren’t meeting profitability goals. Things are beginning to turn around, however: Today, there are nine Whole Foods locations in the U.K., the majority in London.
5. Employees Aren’t Allowed to Interfere with Shoplifters
While some locations hire security guards, many have no protections against shoplifters. The company has a “no heroes policy,” so store employees are strictly forbidden from trying to stop shoplifters.
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