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This article by Pat Tanner was prepared for the September 22, 2004
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
For Foodies, a Supermarket of Their Own
Not all that long ago it would have seemed absurd to team the term
"natural foods store" with descriptors such as "upscale supermarket"
and "international business." Not to mention "corporate juggernaut" –
and one that is traded on the Nasdaq no less. But that was before the
advent of Whole Foods Markets Inc., which made its debut in central
New Jersey on Thursday, September 16, when it opened the doors to the
newest and largest of its 161 stores, at the Windsor Green shopping
center on Route 1 South in West Windsor. The new store occupies the
spaces that once housed Pathmark and Zany Brainy.
At 62,000 square feet, the Princeton store (as it is being called) is
twice the size of the average Whole Foods market, surpassing even the
much-ballyhooed store that opened in February at the Time Warner
Center in New York City. (Princeton will relinquish the title of
largest later this year, when Whole Foods opens its new 80,000-square
foot flagship store in its home base of Austin, Texas.)
Since its inception in 1980, Whole Foods has grown to be the largest
natural foods grocery chain in the world, in part by expanding into
the top 25 metropolitan markets in the U.S. It did this in good
measure through acquiring rivals, which have included Bread & Circus
and Fresh Fields on the East Coast. Whole Foods has stores in 28
states, Washington, D.C., Canada, and Great Britain. Princeton is the
company’s seventh location in New Jersey; other stores are in
Edgewater, Madison, Marlton, Millburn, Montclair, and Ridgewood.
As the market for natural and organic grows at a pace of about 20
percent a year, according to the Organic Trade Association, Whole
Foods has positioned itself to offer one-stop shopping to its baseline
customers. Its customer profile goes like this: concerned with the
purity of their food, leaning favorably to organics, and worried about
the environment. But they are also "foodies" who are educated and well
traveled and therefore fierce about quality and taste. They have an
abiding interest in ethnic foods and are willing to pay a premium for
products with an "artisan" label – and they have the means to do so.
This customer profile was foremost in my mind as I, a bona fide
foodie, toured the Princeton store just days prior to its opening,
escorted by Brian Brossa, whose title is associate store team leader.
Whole Foods, it turns out, has no employees, only team members.
Worldwide, there are roughly 27,000 team members. The team concept is
reinforced by egalitarian company-wide policies. For one thing, new
hires undergo a trial period at the end of which they are given
permanent positions only if two-thirds of their fellow team members
vote them in, "Survivor" style. Other practices include: the
publishing of every employee’s pay – with names attached – in a binder
accessible to all, a stipulation that company executives cannot earn
more than 14 times the salary of frontline employees, and the right of
store teams to have a say in what gets stocked in their own
The Princeton store has eight distinct teams, each responsible for a
traditional section, such as meat, seafood, produce, or prepared
foods. Overall store management is the responsibility of Evan
Schmiedehaus, store team leader. He has been with the company for 12
years and transferred from Chicago to take the position. He is
assisted by two associate store team leaders: Joel Sanchez and my tour
guide, Brossa, both of whom come from Houston branches. All three are
notable for their youthful appearance, energy, likeability, and
palpable enthusiasm for the company.
Brossa looks much younger than his 30 years, with a mop of curly black
hair and stylishly small, red-framed eyeglasses. This day he is
wearing a t-shirt extolling the virtues of the Ginger Man restaurants,
known for their beers. Although raised in Houston, he was born in New
Jersey and still has family in Eatontown and Red Bank. He will have
been with the company 10 years in November. "I took the job because I
liked the atmosphere," he explains. "It was just a $5-an-hour job, but
it had potential for growth."
When he explains the basic responsibilities that store team leadership
entails, he sounds a bit like an evangelical Christian, or perhaps a
young Republican. Without naming specific competitors, he declares,
"Our customers will get service and quality of product. We are going
to be the best. We have the freshest coffee, for example, because we
roast our beans right here on site. Twenty varieties." He waxes
eloquent about the gelato bar, which will offer that same number of
hand-dipped flavors each day, and declares the Princeton store to be
"the most well laid-out store in the Whole Foods universe." He says he
is "excited about eating lunch here on a daily basis," because of the
exceptional prepared foods team the store has assembled under the
leadership of Marc Grika, who has worked in high profile restaurants
such as Philadelphia’s Alma de Cuba, where he was general manager.
About 20 employees in the Princeton store are transfers from other
Whole Foods, a practice that the company’s founder has termed "yogurt
culture," because it works like starter bacteria to imbue the store
with the Whole Foods approach. Brossa had hoped to have 302 employees
on board by opening day, but with less than two weeks to go he was
still 70 short. "But we are not going to settle," he says. "I need to
know we have the best." Help from other Whole Foods locations has been
brought in to fill the gap temporarily.
Brossa acknowledges that working for Whole Foods is not for everyone.
"It’s not always the best fit," he explains. "You have to be
self-directed, for one thing. If you come to me with a problem, you’ve
got to have ideas to help me figure out how to fix it." How much
experience a candidate must have varies from position to position.
"Our grocery team leader has over 22 years in the business," he says.
More than 90 percent of the employees in the Princeton store are full
time, which exceeds industry standards. The company pays 100 percent
of health insurance for full time workers, who also qualify for stock
options and profit sharing. In addition, the workers get 20 hours a
year of paid time to do volunteer work for local non-profit
organizations of their choice. For these and other reasons, Whole
Foods has been listed among the Fortune 100 Best Companies to work for
each year since 1998.
The man behind all this is John Mackey, Whole Foods’ founder,
president, chairman of the board, and CEO. In 2003 Ernst & Young named
him Entrepreneur of the Year, describing him as "an unconventional
entrepreneur who brought the natural foods concept to the competitive
supermarket business" and lauding him for his "socially conscious
approach." Whole Foods’ sales in 2003 totaled $3.1 billion, with
earnings of $103.7 million. This is about three times the business
that competitor Wild Oats did during the same period, and represents a
one-year net income growth for Whole Foods of 22.7 percent.
The company got its start in 1978, when Mackey and a then-girlfriend
established SaferWay, a funky natural foods store in Austin. Two years
later the store merged with Clarksville Natural Grocery, also in
Austin, and opened the first Whole Foods Market with a staff of 19.
Mackey, who is 50 years old, was raised in Houston and reportedly
dropped out of three Texas colleges before opening SaferWay. While in
school, though, he joined a vegetarian group house as a way "to meet
cool women." In recent years he has become a vegan.
When it comes to stocking its shelves, the driving philosophy as
stated on the company website is "to offer the highest quality, least
processed, most flavorful, and naturally preserved foods." Whole Foods
strives to take the angst and confusion out of shopping for its
health-conscious, environmentally aware customers by barring products
with artificial additives, sweeteners, colorings, flavorings, and
preservatives, as well as hormones, antibiotics, and hydrogenated
oils. Stores carry mainstream items as long as they don’t contain any
of these. Hence, customers will find Newman’s Own products, but not
Coke or Pepsi. Boar’s Head deli meats, Brossa explains, are not
offered because they contain nitrites and nitrates.
The company supports organic farming "on a global basis," because it
considers it the best method for protecting the environment and farm
workers. But that doesn’t mean all its products, even in the produce
aisle, are organic. "We stock about 175 organic items in the produce
department," says Brossa, and that represents anywhere from 25 percent
to 40 percent of the produce carried. He hopes to establish a monthly
farmers market in the store’s parking lot, and to turn all profits
over to the farmers. "We have a big push for local products," he says.
"This is the Garden State after all."
At this point in the tour Brossa and I encounter three members of the
seafood team. They can’t seem to stop talking about what their
department will offer and how the company handles the complex and
murky issues of The chain, they tell me, does not stock Chilean sea
bass because of over-fishing. They add that all tilapia is farm raised
(although without hormones or antibiotics). If wild tilapia stock
comes back to acceptable standards next year, which it might, the
store will stock it once again.
To impress upon me how serious Whole Foods is about fish, they tell me
that the company has leased a salmon processing facility in Yakutat,
Alaska. Whole Foods employees are known for the depth of their
knowledge and interest, and these guys are living proof. They proudly
relate that local Native Americans, members of the Tlingit clans, are
finding employment in the plant. The company also has processing
plants in Seattle and Gloucester, Massachusetts, as well as a
distributor in Elk Ridge, Maryland. The store will receive deliveries
of fresh fish six days a week.
When we get to the deli section, Brossa points with pride to the long,
sleek, undulating deli case, nicknamed "the snake." "It is the third
of its kind to be used in the U.S., and the first in a Whole Foods
store," he says with pride. Four different kinds of prosciutto will be
among the offerings here. In the meat department, he points out that
some beef will be dry-aged on site and that handmade sausages will be
a specialty. A window will allow customers to watch the sausages being
made. These will then be cooked up for sampling each day, at a setup
within the department that includes an industrial restaurant-style
In the Cultural Foods department, Brossa points to 20-pound bags of
sushi rice. The Princeton store’s intention is to be a one-stop
shopping destination for the area’s diversified customer base. "When I
started at Whole Foods," he recalls, "you couldn’t get everything."
These days, he points out, entire lines of natural household cleaning
items and baby diapers are available. Whole Foods currently produces
six lines of private label products, ranging from the Premium Whole
Foods line to the 365 Organic Everyday Value line. That latter might
just be a response to the nickname the chain has earned from its
customers: Whole Paycheck. The 365-line’s organic soymilk, for
example, is competitively priced at $1.19 a quart.
Other first impressions? In the long dairy case, tofu gets its own
section. There are 23 lanes of checkout registers. In the extensive
selection of gourmet chocolates, Brossa has us taste the El Rey brand,
from Venezuela, which is stocked next to pricier Sharffenberger. "This
is a single variety. They use only one variety of cocoa bean," Brossa
offers. "Venezuela is now considered to have the highest quality
chocolate in the world."
At this point we run into Arlene Sadowsky of Titusville, who has been
hired to work in prepared foods. Sadowsky was executive chef at
Richard’s Market & Catering on Nassau Park Boulevard until it closed
last December. There she worked alongside owner Michelle Vaccaro
Everman. Before that, this graduate of the Culinary Institute of
America worked in such illustrious New York restaurants as Judson
Grill and the Hudson River Club. What attracted her to Whole Foods,
Sadowsky says, "are the people and the whole philosophy of quality."
Before she interviewed for the job she visited the Jenkintown,
Pennsylvania, store. "I was extremely pleasantly surprised," she
admits. "I bought a lot of prepared food and in my opinion it compared
favorably to, say, Dean & Deluca." For the last two months Sadowsky
has been training in other Whole Foods stores. "The other outstanding
thing for me has been meeting the team. I’ve been so impressed with
the quality of their commitment and that they are so customer
oriented. Everyone from the utility person on up attends a two-day
session on customer service."
Other highlights of the tour include the brick-oven pizza and calzone
section, the attractive gelato and coffee bar, and the baking area,
which will produce in-house fudge and from-scratch breads.
Baked-on-premises breads will comprise 80 percent of the store’s
offerings, well above the supermarket industry standard.
Simply roaming the aisles prior to the store’s opening does not come
close to portraying the Whole Foods shopping experience, which has
been described by customers as "gourmet glamour," "engaging theater,"
and "combining gourmet and organic – where style counts." Famous for
the copious samples available in many departments, Whole Foods stores
have become preferred sites for first dates. One 20-something from
California (who wishes to remain anonymous) told me, "It’s a low key,
low threat date, yet you can learn a lot about a person."
The carefully designed setting contributes in no small part to the
Whole Foods experience. In the front of the Princeton store is the
teaching kitchen, a half circle with walls of windows all around. An
oversize copper-colored range hood looms over the center island. The
cabinetry is sleek blond wood, with a black granite backsplash. The
nutrition aisles feature smooth, solid wood shelves left in their
Despite its size, this market feels welcoming and manageable to me,
just as the Whole Foods I visited recently in Houston did. All part of
the calculated design, I learn. Whole Foods stores in general – and
this store is no exception – are designed to feel airy, well scrubbed,
and welcoming. Aisles are extra wide and lighting is specially crafted
to be softer than that of typical supermarkets. As we move into the
prepared foods section, the ceiling height drops and the color of the
highly polished poured concrete floor changes. This is intended to
make the space feel intimate and warm. Yes, I think, why not try the
wood-fired pizza, the hand-rolled sushi, and the rotisserie chicken?
Why not wander over to the Seasonal Flavors Kitchen, where the "chefs
on show" will be preparing dishes from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily?
Glamorous displays, engaging staff, lots of freebies – what else can
the environmentally conscious gourmet want? For one thing, the
knowledge that the company does its part for the environment. Brian
Brossa points out the solar panels in the Princeton store’s high
ceilings. He estimates that with all the composting, recycling, and
food-bank pickup programs in place, the store trashes only about 10
percent of its waste. Whole Foods stores are encouraged to become
involved in their local community through food banks and neighborhood
events for non-profit and educational causes. Then there are those 20
hours of paid volunteer time for each employee each year. Foremost
among the company’s contributions to local charities are Five Percent
Days. The first one was scheduled for the Princeton store on Saturday,
September 18, when five percent of the day’s proceeds benefited
HomeFront, which provides services to homeless families in Mercer
How will the entry of Whole Foods into the Princeton-area marketplace
affect existing businesses? In terms of conventional supermarkets,
it’s important to note that, although the organics industry is
outpacing conventional supermarkets by growing at a rate of 20 percent
a year, the total market in the U.S. for organic and natural foods in
2003 was $13.5 billion, which represents only about 2 percent of the
total food market.
Of the local markets contacted for comments on Whole Foods, the only
competitor willing to weigh in was Princeton’s 34-year-old Whole Earth
Herb Mertz, president of the board for Whole Earth, did take pains to
differentiate that single-unit, locally based, non-profit enterprise
from Whole Foods. "When Wegmans opened a few years ago, we experienced
a drop in sales for the first few months. We expect to see the same
thing with Whole Foods," he begins. "We feel this will be short term.
The awareness of natural and organic foods continues to grow, so we
feel there is room for everyone in the marketplace. As a
not-for-profit retail store with an environmental mandate, we are
required to donate our after-expenses profits to local and national
environmental projects. As a locally owned business we buy all of our
services – such as marketing, printing, banking, legal, and accounting
– on the local market, so we spend our money within the community.
"We offer a vastly different shopping experience from Whole Foods,"
Mertz adds. "We are medium sized and in town rather than ‘big box’ and
out of town. Unlike most natural foods stores, our produce section is
100 percent organic and in season and over 35 percent of our produce
items come from local organic farms. The only meat we carry is raised
by local farmers who allow their animals to roam on pasture and who
finish their animals on pasture, on their farms. And all of our bakery
items are made on premises from scratch. All in all, we hope we will
all prosper together."
As Whole Foods Markets prepares to double the number of its stores by
2010, the question becomes, can it continue to further its stated
goals of sustainable agriculture and progressive labor practices while
providing upscale natural products? Brossa, for one, is guessing that
it can. He is proud that Whole Foods has gone international and says
with a smile, "I’m holding out for the store in Florence, Italy."
Green, Princeton 08540. Evan Schmiedehaus, manager. 609-799-2919; fax,
609-799-2918. Home page: www.wholefoods.com
Used to be that a grocery store was a place you went to buy groceries.
While that is still true, a plethora of competing grocery stores
planted just a few rolls of a set of SUV tires away from one another
means that putting puffed cereal and diapers out on the shelves is not
nearly enough. There needs to be lots more going on to lure customers
So, food stores are now also coffee houses, restaurants, cooking
schools, and even classrooms. The latter function is on full display
at Wild Oats, the specialty health food market on Nassau Street, on
Thursday, September 23, beginning at 7 p.m. "We’re having a diabetes
awareness night," says Katie DeTurk, the store’s full-time marketer.
Founded in 1988 by Mike Gilliland in Boulder, Colorado, Wild Oats made
its first entry into the eastern market 10 years later with the 15,000
square-foot Princeton store. The usual Wild Oats store is about 25,000
square feet, but the opportunity to replace the only downtown market,
Davidson’s, was just too tempting. Now the store is known as a place
where shoppers do not have to read labels to know they are not going
to ingest hydrogenated oils, and where the store’s personnel can
answer questions on nutrition.
Featured events for September 23 include a cooking class and nutrition
discussion by nutritionist Vindi Kauer, chiropractic screenings by
Brian Capra, and advice on holistic stress reduction by Kristin
Martini Baldassari. Representatives from the University Medical Center
at Princeton also will be on hand.
And, says DeTurk, "there will be delicious samples."