John Mackey and Whole Foods: Biting The Hands That Feed Them

My local Whole Foods Mkt.

My local Whole Foods Mkt.

When I first moved to Boston in 1967, there was an amazing natural food store on Newbury Street called Erewhon. It was started by Michio Kushi and his wife Aveline and focused on Kushi’s macrobiotic diet. You could get all kinds of interesting foods there like tamari sauce, miso, natural peanut butter made out of just peanuts, and all kinds of strange grains, beans, and vegetables. The store had sawdust on the floor and big barrels with foodstuffs in them. I used to take the T downtown to shop there and then drag my purchases home in great big cloth bags. Eventually Erewhon expanded and opened a store in Cambridge and it got easier to shop there. Erewhon was a pioneer in making organic foods available to the public.

In the late 1970’s another natural foods store opened in Brookline. It was called Bread and Circus, and the company soon expanded into Cambridge, Wellsley, and a few other Boston suburbs. It was a great place to shop and didn’t have the “health food” aura of Erewhon, where you would see lots of sickly-looking macrobiotic mavens. Unfortunately, in the early 1990’s Bread and Circus was bought out by the Texas company, Whole Foods Market. And it’s been pretty much downhill from there. The prices are sky high and the standards for what constitutes “whole foods” have slipped.

Under co-founder and CEO John Mackey, Whole Foods is much more focused on marketing than on health. Mackey is an obsessive libertarian, who in 2009 wrote an obnoxious op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in which he suggested that Obama’s health care initiative was socialistic. Here’s just a taste.

With a projected $1.8 trillion deficit for 2009, several trillions more in deficits projected over the next decade, and with both Medicare and Social Security entitlement spending about to ratchet up several notches over the next 15 years as Baby Boomers become eligible for both, we are rapidly running out of other people’s money. These deficits are simply not sustainable. They are either going to result in unprecedented new taxes and inflation, or they will bankrupt us.

While we clearly need health-care reform, the last thing our country needs is a massive new health-care entitlement that will create hundreds of billions of dollars of new unfunded deficits and move us much closer to a government takeover of our health-care system. Instead, we should be trying to achieve reforms by moving in the opposite direction—toward less government control and more individual empowerment.


In 2010, Mackey tried to save the company some money by punishing employees with exercise and garcinia cambogia supplementation for those whom he deemed to be too fat, giving them smaller discounts for their purchases from the stores than thinner employees got. The reaction was swift and negative, and from what I can tell, the initiative was quietly dropped. The company would have been sued over it anyway. Oh, and Mackey hates unions too.

I don’t know who shops at Whole Foods in Texas, but around here it’s mostly the ex-hippies like me along with what we used to call “yuppies” and other politically liberal types. As Mackey found out in 2009 and 2010, his libertarian lecturing doesn’t go over too well with his clientele. After each of these episodes, I became less interested and wasting my “whole paycheck” at Whole Foods. I still go there sometimes, but usually only to buy things I can’t find anywhere else. After today, I’m going to feel even less enthused about shopping in Mackey’s Markets.

I’m sure you’ve heard by now that today Mackey told NPR that Obamacare is worse than socialist–it’s fascism! It’s seems Mackey has a new book out called Conscious Capitalism. He told NPR that his goal is to convince people that corporations aren’t really “primarily selfish and greedy.”

Mackey sat down with Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep to discuss his philosophy and the new book he co-authored, Conscious Capitalism. Part 1 airs Wednesday, Part 2 on Thursday….

When Inskeep asks him if he still thinks the health law is a form of socialism, as he’s said before, Mackey responds:

“Technically speaking, it’s more like fascism. Socialism is where the government owns the means of production. In fascism, the government doesn’t own the means of production, but they do control it — and that’s what’s happening with our health care programs and these reforms.”

Apparently NPR has been dissing Whole Foods for awhile now. There was funny piece about it at The Atlantic in 2011: NPR Is Slowly Breaking Up with Whole Foods. Mackey would probably be more comfortable appearing on right wing talk shows; but he wouldn’t reach his target demographic that way, so he has to go on NPR. There’s a real mismatch between this CEO and his customers.

Well, around here, lots of the supermarkets carry organic fruits, vegetables, eggs, butter, dairy products and meats now, so there isn’t as much need to go to a specialty store with sky-high prices. My biggest problem is that Whole Foods recently bought out a local food chain that ran the most inexpensive and convenient store in my neighborhood. By next fall, the closest grocery store to me will be a Whole Foods. Can I resist stopping there and drive 15-20 minutes to get to another store when I’m in a rush or tired? It won’t be easy but I’m going do my best.

Anyway, this is an open thread. What’s on your mind tonight?


16 Comments on “John Mackey and Whole Foods: Biting The Hands That Feed Them”

  1. Eric Pleim says:

    Idk how Whole Foods, not so affectionately known as whole paycheck, survives. Trader Joes does a lot of what they do, a lot cheaper. Even the healthy, international or :”organic” sections of my local Shaw’s beats it. The only reason to really go there is to be amused by the kind of people who go there, IMHO. Yah I followed the story of that market that got bought out, and it’s terrible. People saying the old store was dark and dirty, and whole foods would be a step up. Not if you can’t afford better than dark and dirty. That’s a real shame.

    • bostonboomer says:

      Bread and Circus wasn’t dark and dirty. Maybe you mean Erewon. I guess it was kind of dark, but it was a great place. Actually in Boston public complaints forced Whole Foods to stick to B & C’s no-sugar, mostly organic policies for a few years.

      The Shaws I go to is pretty good too, but their prices are much higher than my old neighborhood store that sold out to Whole Foods. It was called Johnnie’s Foodmaster, and I’ve been shopping there forever. They even had a community book exchange that I will really miss along with the long-term employees who were always so friendly to me.

      • Eric Pleim says:

        My mistake, I thought you were talking about the Hi Lo in JP that was sold to Whole Foods,and rendered a lot of folks without a local store they could afford to shop at, Different stoey. I used to like Johnnie’s Foodmaster too, the one near Tufts where I lived almost 7 years. I think that one is going or gone too….

        Shaw’s is high, but if you pay attention to the card specials and use your EBT judiciously, it is doable. For cheapness though, you can’t beat Market Basket.

      • bostonboomer says:

        Yes, Market Basket is the best. I go there when I have the time and energy. I have to drive out to Burlington to find one and it takes awhile. I do watch the specials at Shaws, and they’re good. But some basics regularly cost a dollar or two more than they did at Foodmaster–e.g., milk $4.99/gal.

        Whole Foods bought out the entire Foodmaster chain. I read that in Chelsea, they convinced Whole Foods to provide transportation for people to a further away store during the renovation, because it was the only grocery store available in the neighborhood.

  2. bostonboomer says:

    A couple of years ago, I was at my local Whole Foods in Cambridge and there were some men walking around the store like they owned it–accosting people and talking in very loud voices. This one guy kept stopping me and asking what I was looking for, etc. I mean he stopped me at least 4-5 times. I was getting so annoyed that I almost complained to the managers, but I got the feeling these guys might be company bigwigs. Well, guess what? Tonight when I was reading about Mackey, I realized that he is the obnoxious person who was making my shopping so difficult that day! He must have been in town for a visit.

  3. Fannie says:

    Well, we got a whole lot angry sheriff’s who say that they will not follow any laws from President Obama gun control measures. WTF. We have a constitution, it is the law of this land and we have three branches of government, we don’t have a fourth with the sheriff departments across this country. There is one fat sheriff, who took an oath 30 years ago, and he’s told his officiers that he is not going to enforce the law of the land when it comes to our President. Another office in Kentucky is doing the same, so by midnight the fight will be on. What they are doing is creating more anger and they are talking down our President……………..I’ll be on the phone tomorrow. You know, it doesn’t matter that it’s Obama, if Hillary were President, they’d be doing the same damn thing. The GOP and the anti-government movement and the NRA, and religious extremist have taken this as far as they can. We will be able to point our fingers and say we told you so. I am very suspicious and worried about the our law enforcers now.

  4. Eric Pleim says:

    The activist sheriff is a weird phenomenon. They’ve been watching too many movies where the guy with the star goes , “I AM the law” in some podunk western town. But they’re mostly a laughing stock it seems to me, and will have no relevance in the end. BTW, we got one in SE MA who charges his prisoners rent, and wants to bring back chain gangs, so it’s not all in the south and west.

    • bostonboomer says:

      A few years ago there was a sheriff up in NH who was stopping farm workers and demanding to see their papers!

    • socalannie says:

      We are among the thousands who refer to the Los Angeles County Sheriffs as the “Sheriffs to the Stars”. I could go on about them for hours. Bottom line, celebrities are their main concern, the rest of us can go jump off a cliff as far as they’re concerned.

  5. Riverbird says:

    I had not heard of Mackey’s book and I missed hearing Morning Edition today, so thanks for the heads-up. I’ll listen to it tomorrow.

  6. socalannie says:

    We have the same experience here my socal area. Whole Foods bought out my local small health food store chain, called Mrs. Gooch’s. Then they moved really close to us, I can walk to it in about 7 minutes, drive there in about 3 or 4. I do shop there for some stuff, mainly organic produce and dairy stuff. Theirs is cheaper and better than the other stores around me. There’s a lovely small-chain grocery store in the next town to me called Gelsons (celebrities love Gelsons, I’ve seen tons of them there), but they are more expensive, by quite a lot, and rarely have organic produce. I go there for a few things I can’t get elsewhere…and they have the best meat around. I don’t like that asshole Mackey either, but I already spend a ton of dough on food, so try to get what I want for as little as possible. btw, I used to work in the Natural Products industry (health food) and I’ve heard of Erewhon & Bread & Circus, and undoubtedly talked to them at trade shows.

  7. RalphB says:

    This bit is and absolutely brilliant 11 minutes. 🙂

    Jon Stewart: NRA is a Michael Moore-run conspiracy to discredit gun owners

  8. Marvel Rog says:

    Mr. Mackey is the worst kind of hypocrite. By paying phony and lofty lip service to the
    environment the just another crafty high power corporate hawk who just cares about the
    bottom line like those of his ilk. He charges high prices he pays Cooley wages. Shame
    on him!!

  9. deb says:

    i never shop at Whole Foods. It just feels like another big corporate chain to me (which it is!). All of my fresh produce, meat and eggs comes from farmer’s markets. i can and freeze it for winter, find winter markets and belong to a winter coop. It was definately a process, but once I quit the grocery store produce, it began to feel so wierd to buy apples from a grocery store. (i do buy a few tropical things: bananas, avacados, citrus. Otherwise, all dry goods i get at trader joes. i know this is another corporate chain, but i like their philosophy much better, and they’re my closest store – i can ride my bike there.

    thanks for this post. i didn’t realize quite how bad Mackey was (missed the npr too). I’m going to make an extra effort to steer clear!