With 474 stores across the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, Whole Foods has cornered the market on organic, high-end groceries. And while the company is currently undergoing changes (such as lowering prices on many items) due to Amazon’s recent acquisition, we got the 411 on what it’s like to work there now. Here’s an inside look at how employees feel about the store’s high prices, why they can’t do much about shoplifters, and what they really do with damaged fruit.
1. THEY HAVE MIXED FEELINGS ABOUT THE STORE’S PRICES.
Many items at Whole Foods cost more than at other grocery stores, and the company’s “whole paycheck” nickname has some truth to it. While some team members defend the store’s notoriously high prices, others admit that they can’t afford to shop there. As Whole Foods Culinary Content Editor Molly Siegler explains to PopSugar, the store has high standards. “We have a whole team that’s dedicated to using science and really heavy research to figure out what can and can't be in our stores,” she says. “At a minimum, we have no artificial colors, no artificial preservatives, no artificial sweeteners, and no hydrogenated fats. Every single thing in our stores meets those standards, and often people don't realize that.” Whole Foods also lets customers sample anything before they buy it, return anything for a refund or store credit, and use coupons to lower their grocery bill.
On the other hand, some employees admit that Whole Foods makes high margins on candy (such as fancy marshmallows) and Whole Body products, the section of the store that contains vitamins, supplements, organic makeup, and skincare. “A lot of the things we sell—there’s no way I could buy [them],” an anonymous Whole Foods employee who works at a store in Southern California tells Mental Floss.
2. THEY MIGHT PUT DAMAGED PRODUCE IN YOUR SMOOTHIES.
The juice and smoothie bar at Whole Foods may look like it offers a tantalizing mix of fresh fruit and pristine vegetables, but the reality might be less than picture-perfect. Employees at some stores reportedly put old fruit and spinach into green smoothies, while others use bruised and damaged apples to make discounted apple juice. Similarly, some stores may put lettuce, tomato, onions, or mixed greens that haven't sold yet (and will go bad in a day or two) in the salad bar.
3. THEY WISH YOU WOULDN’T USE THEM AS YOUR DOCTOR.
Whole Foods’ commitment to health and high-quality products means that some customers treat their visits to the grocery store more like visits to a doctor, pharmacist, or holistic nutritionist. Although employees in the Whole Body department can help you find vitamins and supplements, they can't diagnose you or suggest treatment plans. “I cringe to think about how much money people dump into trying to solve their problems by taking the advice of the perfect-looking community college student in the body and vitamin aisle when what they need is treatment by a medical doctor,” writes a former Whole Foods employee on Gawker.
4. THEY DON’T ACTUALLY MAKE ALL THEIR PREPARED FOOD IN-HOUSE.
You might assume that employees in each store’s kitchen bake or cook the items you see in the prepared foods section. But that warm loaf of bread, bowl of quinoa salad, or slice of tiramisu that tempts you at lunchtime might not be made in-house. Depending on the location and size of the Whole Foods, some items that appear to be freshly cooked are not. Most bread, for example, is shipped frozen to each store and then baked in an oven. (Bigger stores are more likely to have a full-service kitchen.)
“Little to nothing is actually made from scratch in the Whole Foods bakeries each day,” a former Whole Foods chef writes on her blog. “In the South region, Whole Foods has a huge mass-production kitchen in Alpharetta, GA. If you shop at any Whole Foods in the South and get food off of the hot bar, off of the soup bar, out of the deli case or in pre-packaged containers in the sandwich cooler or refrigerated prepared foods wall, there’s a good chance that your food was actually made in that kitchen in Alpharetta.”
5. THEY LAUGH ABOUT THE “ASPARAGUS WATER” INCIDENT.
In 2015, some stores notoriously sold asparagus water—a bottle of water with three stalks of asparagus in it—for $6. Customers expressed their outrage on social media, poking fun at the product’s cost and silliness. Whole Foods soon removed the water from shelves, claiming it was a mistake, but the blunder lives on. Asked on Reddit if asparagus water is delicious, a Reddit user named wfmworker replied in the affirmative. “Honestly though, that whole situation didn't even shock me. WF sells some weird stuff.” In 2016, the store removed another $6 item—pre-peeled oranges in plastic containers—after Twitter users mocked the product’s pointlessness and damage to the environment.
6. THEY KNOW HOW TO HACK THE SALAD BAR.
With an assortment of veggies, protein, nuts, and dressings, the salad bar at Whole Foods can be overwhelming, and it’s easy to pay a lot for a small container of food. But because items from the salad bar are priced according to weight, Whole Foods employees have some smart strategies on how to hack it. Some of their tips? Avoid heavier vegetables (like dense cauliflower or broccoli), skip beans, and use less dressing. According to a former Whole Foods Team Member who goes by psh_1_psh_2 on Reddit, you can also use the salad bar to save money on nuts. “The nuts on the salad bar are way less expensive than the nuts in bulk. You could theoretically just fill up your whole salad container with pecans or walnuts and save at least $2/lb,” he says.
7. THEY DEAL WITH SOME CRAZIES.
Whole Foods employees acknowledge that their customer base is unique. In general, the shoppers have a high disposable income, heightened interest in animal welfare, and a desire to support environmentally sustainable farming and fishing practices. But according to employees, it’s not uncommon to encounter customers who are demanding, entitled, or simply overshare their strange beliefs.
“In many cases, these customers have been privileged—financially and often otherwise—all their lives, which means many of them have massive entitlement complexes. It’s kind of hilarious to observe a building full of people who all believe that the world revolves around them,” says the former Whole Foods chef.
A former Whole Foods manager in California tells Thrillist that some customers discussed conspiracy theories with him. “I was so used to crazy people coming in that it became the norm. I had conversations with customers about chemtrails at a freaking grocery store. I had people go off on religious rants about Jews to me—and I'm Jewish, by the way,” he says. “People talk and run their mouths a lot and get too comfortable.”
8. THEY GO THE EXTRA MILE FOR THEIR CUSTOMERS.
It’s no secret that the store’s items can be pricey, so Whole Foods employees put extra effort into making their customers happy. “I can say as a decorator in the bakery that we give extra time for free to cakes for really nice customers,” says psh_1_psh_2. Customers who smile and engage in small talk can brighten an employee’s day, transforming the experience of bagging groceries from a mundane task into an enjoyable one. Kailee Ver Valin, who has worked as a Team Member for over a year at a Whole Foods in North Carolina, explains that most customers respond positively to her friendliness. “The customers are thankful and friendly. I love talking to people,” she tells Mental Floss.
Additionally, the store’s butchers will debone animals, and sometimes season the meat, all for free. “A lot of people do that in our offices for lunch, or it's a really easy thing to do right before you head home for dinner. And it's not just salt and pepper—there's interesting rubs and spice mixes,” Siegler says.
9. THEY CAN’T DO MUCH ABOUT SHOPLIFTING.
Most Whole Foods employees have at least one story of customers stealing food. Whether someone eats from the prepared foods section before (or instead of) paying for it or lifts a container of vitamins and then asks for a refund, shoplifting is a big problem. Reddit user Lifeoncloud_9, who works as a supervisor at a Whole Foods in Chicago, explains that the company forbids employees from pursuing or trying to stop shoplifters: “We can get fired for confronting them. Most of the time we have an undercover loss prevention guard on duty. When there isn't, the most we can do is notify the manager on duty and he or she can ban them from the store."