15 Organic Facts About Whole Foods

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images / Spencer Platt/Getty Images

With more than 500 stores across the country, Whole Foods—which was purchased by Amazon for $13.7 billion in 2017—has become synonymous with both vigilant eating habits and losing weight via your wallet. Before you make your next stop to select the perfect mango, take a look at these 15 facts about the company and some of its more unusual policies.

1. The Whole Foods co-founders lived in their first store ...

When John Mackey and Renee Lawson Hardy opened their first all-natural foods store in downtown Austin, Texas in 1978, they didn’t particularly care whether it was a storefront or a residence—though Mackey thought it would be “fun” to operate out of a home. After finding a house zoned for commercial use, the two converted the first floor to a sales area featuring food, produce, and coolers. A cafe was on the second floor, and the third floor was an office and sleeping area, where Mackey and Hardy spent their nights. (They had been evicted from their apartment for storing food there.)

2. ... which means they had to bathe in the dishwasher.

Because the property wasn’t approved for use as a residence, it had no shower facilities. When Mackey and Lawson couldn’t grab a shower elsewhere, they cleaned themselves using the dishwasher hose intended for their cafe dishes.

3. The first "official" Whole Foods store got flooded.

By 1980, Mackey had merged with another health food store, Clarksville Grocery, and neither had wanted to keep their original name. (Mackey’s had been called SaferWay, a dig at the Safeway grocery chain.) The two settled on Whole Foods, and the new store an smoothly for about a year—until the worst flood in Austin’s history hit, causing $400,000 in damages. In a testament to the consumer loyalty the company had already managed to create, several non-employees volunteered to help with the clean-up. It re-opened less than a month later.

4. Whole Foods acquired a food and toy store.

Part of the Whole Foods expansion plan throughout the 1980s and 1990s was acquiring a series of natural foods stores. The most unusual was the Bread & Circus chain out of Massachusetts, which paired healthy food selection with an inventory of wooden toys.

5. Whole Foods employees can see what everyone else makes.

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Mackey, who is now CEO of Whole Foods, enforces what he calls “no secrets” management. Every store has a ledger in which the annual salaries of all employees—even executives—are available for any worker to see.

6. At Whole Foods, an employee's cholesterol level affects their discount.

In an effort to keep their workforce from keeling over, Whole Foods arranges their employee discount percentage on a sliding scale. All employees get a standard 20 percent discount starting on their first day of work. But if they're a non-smoker, their cholesterol levels are within range, and their blood pressure and BMI is in check, they're eligible for up to a 30 percent discount. (The program is voluntary, so employees are under no obligation to meet these guidelines.)

7. Whole Foods employees get "voted in" by other employees.

Most Whole Foods stores are broken up into various branches: front end, produce, meats, etc. If an employee wants to join a particular team, he or she is given a 45- to 90-day probationary period. At the end, existing team members can vote on whether they want a person to stay on permanently. Since company bonuses are tied to performance, it’s not really a popularity contest: teams want workers who can raise profitability.

8. Only two Whole Foods store sells live lobsters.

Citing an inability to control lobster treatment across the country, only the Portland, Maine and Hyannis, Massachusetts Whole Foods stores makes live lobsters available to customers. Each one is kept in its own tank to avoid overcrowding. Once purchased, the crustaceans are killed via mild electrical shock (from a device called a Crustastun), sparing them from having to endure the inevitable boiling pot of water.

9. Some Whole Foods locations used to sell rabbit meat.

Bunnies: adorable pets, or satisfying, protein-enriched meal? If you’re partial to the latter, several Whole Foods locations in 2014 began a trial sale of rabbit meat due to what they claimed were “repeated customer requests.” Bunny activists incited a series of “hopping mad” headlines by protesting the decision, In 2015, the company ceased sales of the meat.

10. Whole Foods employees can't stop shoplifters. (Unless they want to be fired.)

Whole Foods takes a hard line when it comes to someone playing hero: no employees are allowed any physical contact with customers, and that extends to shoplifters. In 2007, employee (and former Marine) John Schultz was fired after he chased and detained a shoplifter outside of a store in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

11. Whole Foods used to have an English-only language policy.

Prior to 2013, speaking any language other than English while in the store would have been a violation of company policy for employees. When two Albuquerque, New Mexico employees complained about the edict, they were suspended. According to the New York Daily News, Whole Foods asserted the employees were penalized for other reasons; regardless, the policy was revised.

12. There's an ice rink at Whole Foods company headquarters.

The company’s flagship store in Austin has become something of a tourist destination, with a domed ice skating rink on the building’s rooftop, which is open during the winter months.

13. Some of the dairy products at Whole Foods were milked by prisoners.

What better sustainable labor than our nation’s penal system? In 2014, Fortune magazine discovered that cheese maker Haystack Mountain had an agreement with Colorado Corrections Industries that allowed prisoners to milk goats for a salary of $300 to $400 a month. The resulting cheese wound up being sold to Whole Foods and other retailers. In 2015, the company announced it would no longer be buying products made with prison labor.

14. Whole Foods once confessed to overcharging customers.

The perpetual joke about the chain being renamed “Whole Paycheck” for its pricey inventory got a little more real after New York’s Department of Consumer Affairs found that area stores were exaggerating the weights of prepackaged items, sometimes overcharging by as much as $15. In a YouTube video released in July 2015, Mackey and co-CEO Walter Robb admitted the company had made mistakes but had not intended to mislead consumers.

15. Whole Foods can help prevent "porch pirates" from stealing your stuff.

Thanks to their acquisition by Amazon, some Whole Foods locations offer Amazon lockers where customers can have their packages sent. While this has the benefit of reducing the potential for thieves to steal packages, it's not exactly altruistic. The company is hoping people who stop in to pick up their deliveries will stick around to shop. It's working: Whole Foods stores with lockers saw their "micro" shopping visits, which range between three to five minutes in length, go up by 11 percent.

This story has been updated for 2019.