Gawker has published a couple of stories about disgruntled and generally former Whole Foods employees, here and here. The short version is some of these folks are not happy about Whole Foods behavior toward its employees, the environment, recycling, and so forth, how it’s bad to eat the prepared foods, about how WF fights unions, etc., etc.
I’m interested in this because Whole Foods is where I buy most of the groceries (and I should point out that I do most of the food shopping in my household because I like to do it and Annette does not). I like shopping at Whole Foods for reasons I’ll get to in a moment, but I realize it can be a disingenuous and even ironic experience. I keep a little tumblr blog of called Food Whole Shopper where I mostly repost snarky and funny things other people post about Whole Foods. I am sure a lot of these employee complaints are true and valid (though I will point out that it’s pretty easy for a lot of twenty-something hipsters to get “outraged” at all kinds of things), and I’ve seen some of that as a customer first hand. I read The Omnivore’s Dilema and I largely agree with Michael Pollan’s fairly extensive critique of both Whole Foods and mass produced pseudo-organic food. I have had some friends and past grad students who have worked there in the recent past who have said both good and bad things, and I’ve seen some kind of sketchy reasons for firing a Whole Foods fish dude.
On the other hand, none of this is entirely unexpected, is it? Whole Foods isn’t a charity and it isn’t a co-op. It’s an enormous corporation with international interests and it is designed to make money. My Whole Foods even posts the close of business stock price for the company on a chalk board behind the customer service desk– and I wish I had purchased some stock a few years ago. And having a lot of faith in Whole Foods, Inc. is a lot like having faith in Ben and Jerry’s, Starbucks, Apple, Google, etc. Sure, not all corporations are equally “evil,” but every corporation I’ve ever heard of– even the relatively “nice” ones I list here– has been criticized for various bad practices which generally revolve around the requirement of making a profit. Please insert your own critique of the advanced capitalist state here.
I look at it like this: when I can, I shop at places like the farmer’s market, and we’re members here of the Tantré Farm CSA program, one of those localvore options that progressive agriculture people love. But I can’t get all the food that way, and of my grocery store choices, I think Whole Foods is my best overall option. And since Whole Foods is a grocery store, that ought to be the point of comparison.
So, for example, going to Wal-Mart or Target or Meijer is pretty much my last choice. I freely admit that I’m a bit of a foodie/food snob, and I’m willing to pay more for better products and better service, meaning that the only kinds of food products I buy in those places are sealed in containers that can last a long time– soup in cans, cereal in boxes, chips in bags, etc. We have a couple local chains here, and the one that is nicest/closest to us is Hiller’s. They have great produce, a lot of very hard to find items (especially Japanese food items– for whatever reason, the Ann Arbor Hiller’s really stocks a lot of that kind of stuff), a good beer selection, pretty decent meats, pretty decent prices. A lot of my grocery shopping trips involve a stop at Hiller’s as well, especially when I want/need something like Doritos. But I much prefer Whole Foods’ seafood counter and wine selection, and (and I realize this is an odd complaint) we’ve had problems in buying milk from Hiller’s.
I could go into much more nuanced detail here, including who has the best cheddar cheese (Whole Foods) and who has the best hummus (Hiller’s). Did I mention I’m kind of a food snob and/or picky about these things?
And look, even if it is fake, the employees at Whole Foods seem a lot happier than the employees of the other grocery stores I visit, and I guess I’m willing to pay a premium to have a perky, happy, and tattooed young person ask me if I found everything I was looking for and to ring me up.