Whole Foods Market is here. Yes, it’s finally coming to Fort Worth, as the Austin-based natural foods specialty grocer announced last week. Are there enough incense-burning, VW bus driving hippies in Fort Worth to make it a success? Well, it was our top story online and it also rang a bell or two with our other social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook. I think Whole Foods is way beyond the VW bus crowd now. Say hello Foodies and other specialty grocery fans. I’m a Whole Foods acolyte, I admit. I’m not sure I’ve made a trip to Austin in the past 20 years without making a stop there. Friends of mine in Austin used to have serious discussions about which high-end, ‘Can you believe they have this obscure food item!?’ grocer was better – Whole Foods or Central Market? It was really like the argument of who was the better rocker, Jerry Lee Lewis or Elvis? The real answer is, ain’t it great to have both?
But the Whole Foods that will open its shiny consumer-friendly doors at Waterside in 2016 will be a far cry from the first Whole Foods I visited, probably around 1980 in Austin. Then, it really was a niche market, basically for hippies and old Texans who remembered when you knew the person who grew the food you bought. Even then, you realized Whole Foods had a clue about consumers, though nothing like the corporate operation now. Compared to other cramped, poorly-lit health food stores, Whole Foods had 10,500 square feet – a closet to the planned Waterside’s 45,000 square feet – but much larger than competitors at the time.
The founders, John Mackey, a college dropout, and Rene Lawson Hardy, must have known they were onto something. In 1981, Austin floods destroyed the inventory and ruined much of the equipment. The losses totaled $400,000 – all uninsured. But one aspect of the hippie and Texas aesthetic was helping your fellow man when he was down and that came into play. Customers and neighbors helped the staff to repair and clean up the damage. Somehow creditors, vendors and investors held off until the store got up and running as it reopened 28 days after the flood. That surely let the company know they had something that would work. When I moved to Houston in 1984, Whole Foods expanded there and the store was, smartly, near the newly-gentrified Montrose area and it was a hit. It was also close to the Fairchild Publications office, so I was a frequent visitor. It was also where I overheard a conversation between a fairly typical Whole Foods employee, then at least, and a businessman in front of me in line. Businessman: Hey, aren’t you Melissa Maven?
Employee, searching deep within her memory banks: Melissa Maven? Businessman: I’m Bill. Didn’t we go to high school together? Employee: Oh Bill, you knew me before I got my star name. My name’s Chrysanthemum now. Businessman, somewhat puzzled and maybe a little scared: Yeah, you were Melissa then. Employee: I’m Chrysanthemum now. I got my star name five years ago. Businessman, pointedly not asking what a “star” name is: Good to see you again.
Now Whole Foods trades on the NASDAQ under the WFM symbol and had sales of approximately $13 billion in 2013 from 373 stores in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. And yes, some of the gray-beards bemoan the corporate culture of the company as they listen to their Grateful Dead albums. But the company has been ranked for 17 consecutive years as one of America’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” by Fortune magazine. And they do support causes such as fair trade, sustainability and their stock-in-trade organic farming, so they’ve certainly not lost touch with their roots. Now they’ll be here in Fort Worth and I’m sure they’ll fit in fine. I mean look at Central Market. Try and squeeze in there on the weekend. Now if they had opened in Fort Worth in 1978? That might have been a different story, but we’re either hip enough for them now or they’re straight enough for us. Either way, I’ll bet the parking lot will be filling up with VW busses – and BMWs – when it opens.