By Tom Foster | June 22, 2015 | People
Ten years after opening Whole Foods' flagship, cofounder John Mackey is still forging frontiers of healthy living.
“At a young age, I became clear about death,” John Mackey says. “I got clear at age 19 that life is short, we are just passing through here, and we are going to die.” He draws that last word out, rubbing his bare knee, exposed by the hiking shorts he wore to the office. “None of this stuff lasts, so why be attached to too much of it? What matters to me is fulfilling my own purpose in life, loving people, and being a good person.” Pause. “That’s not to say I recommend it for anyone else.”
The 61-year-old cofounder and co-CEO of Whole Foods Market is in some ways a reluctant front man for the company that has defined his entire adult life. He has been burned by the press in the past, he feels, especially when he’s made controversial statements based on his avid libertarianism, so he’s trying to watch his words and not seem like a proselytizer. The fact is, though, that Whole Foods’ almost four decades of success have made Mackey one of the most influential lifestyle gurus in America, whether he wants to be famous or not. His perspectives on healthy eating have changed American appetites forever, and his views on “conscious capitalism,” a call for companies to serve wider purposes than just profit, have resonated with many. Although he’s no longer involved in the day-to-day running of the company— co-CEO Walter Robb and other executives do that—he’s perhaps more active than ever as a thought leader for Whole Foods.
As the grocery industry evolves, those visionary ideas are critical. Mainstream grocers like Kroger and Walmart have moved aggressively into the healthy-eating and organic markets, Trader Joe’s has carved out a niche of its own, and upstart health-food chains such as Sprouts have expanded nationally. Whereas Whole Foods largely flew under the radar for the first couple decades of its existence—“people just thought we were a bunch of hippies,” Mackey says—today the company faces competitive pressure from all sides. “We have to up our game.”
The company did just that in May when it revealed that next year it will roll out a brand of lower-cost stores aimed at millennials. “We see more demand than ever for healthier, high-quality foods that are value-priced,” Mackey says. “We can meet this demand at a faster clip by introducing a fresh, fun store concept. With a streamlined design, it will complement our highly successful Whole Foods Market brand.” More details are expected by Labor Day.
There’s no better place to witness Whole Foods’ focus on staying ahead than at the 80,000-squarefoot downtown Lamar Boulevard flagship store, which opened 10 years ago this spring, after Robb was inspired by a trip to the Berlin department store and food hall Kadewe. On a weekday at lunchtime or happy hour, the Lamar store transforms to a full-fledged bar and restaurant scene. Mackey says, “It’s the highest-volume restaurant in Texas, or certainly Austin. There’s no other restaurant that comes close.”
The fact that the Lamar store is as much a hangout as a grocery-shopping destination points to a wider shift. “We are a lifestyle brand,” says Mackey. “When you shop at Whole Foods, you are making a statement about who you are and what you care about. We were the first grocery brand to escape the anonymity and interchangeability that most people associate with supermarkets.” The company demonstrated its care for the community in May when it offered $1 million in no-interest loans to neighboring businesses affected by record-breaking floods.
Mackey says Eataly, the growing chain of gourmet food halls started by the celebrity chef Mario Batali and his partners, has been an inspiration for Whole Foods in recent years, and he even hints that a standalone Whole Foods dining concept is not out of the question. More immediately, he expects in-house brewpubs to spread to as many as 100 Whole Foods locations, after the runaway success of a microbrewery within Houston’s Post Oak store.
At the same time, Whole Foods has been working hard to bring a string of innovations to its grocery business. Last year Whole Foods became the first national chain to work with the Silicon Valley darling Instacart for one-hour home delivery, and it became one of the first major retailers to sign on with Apple Pay. Among the bounteous fruit and vegetable displays, a new program rates products based on the sustainability of their suppliers (good, better, best), and bold signs advertise bargains (a recent example: five avocados for $5) that were once unimaginable here. Equally improbable, the company earlier this year rolled out its first-ever national ad campaign—something Mackey resisted for years but eventually accepted after a sustained dip in the company’s stock price last year—and has started a rewards program for frequent shoppers.
Robb, who’s worked with Mackey for 25 years— 20 of them in various roles before co-CEO—says his friend has great foresight and flexibility. “John is an iconic business leader,” Robb offers. “He’s way down the road in thinking about how the world is going to evolve; he’s a long-term thinker. But he’s also willing to change his mind when evidence is presented that he is wrong. He and I have gone at it many times when we disagree, and we always come out in a better place.”
Indeed, Mackey, who has not taken a paycheck from Whole Foods since 2006 and until recently drove a Honda Civic hybrid (he finally replaced it with an Audi TT Roadster because he got tired of having poor acceleration), is the type of leader who constantly challenges convention. “The joke around the company is that when he goes on long hikes,”—he’ll sometimes spend weeks on the Appalachian Trail—“he’s going to come back with all these ideas,” Robb says. “When John goes hiking, his brain is just cranking.” He’s also the type of leader who answers e-mails immediately, at all hours, and works constantly whether he’s in the office or not. He splits time these days between a ranch in the Hill Country and a house in Old West Austin, and reads incessantly.
What all that reflection comes down to, Mackey says, is a personal mission to help other people lead healthier lives. He’s writing a book with the working title Whole Foods Diet (“I can’t tell you when it’s coming out,” he says, “because I don’t want to pressure myself”), and he’s especially interested in helping Whole Foods’ employees get healthy. The Total Health Immersion program, a Mackey brainchild, takes at-risk employees on weeklong, all-expensespaid wellness retreats. “I have seen Type 2 diabetes reversed for dozens of people,” Mackey says. “I have seen people lose 100 pounds in less than a year, heart disease reversed.” Similarly, employees get shopping discounts above the standard 20 percent when they improve their scores on specific health benchmarks.
It’s been a long time since Mackey was the afrowearing philosophy and religion major who dropped out of college to start his first crunchy store, Safer Way Natural Foods, at Eighth and Rio Grande Streets in 1978. Today Whole Foods is a publicly traded company, the second largest grocer in the country by market capitalization, and Mackey himself is one of the most outsize and enigmatic characters to emerge from a city that’s created its fair share of them. “To truly understand me, [know that] I am a seriously idealistic person,” Mackey says. “There’s a lot of pain in this world, and there are a lot of things wrong on this planet. I’m interested in using my mind and my abilities to help solve some of these problems—and help Whole Foods be successful.”
photography by Wynn myers