Natural Foods Merchandiser

Whole Foods will return to health food roots

Whole Foods Markets will return to its health food roots, trading chocolate fountains for nutrition classes and more detailed labeling.

John Mackey, founder and CEO of the Austin retailer, told Associated Press food writer Sarah Skidmore, “Whole Foods has a megaphone that almost nobody else does” to get a healthy-eating message across.

“There have been these two dominant values driving our products over the years,” Mackey told the AP. “One is food as health and the other one is food as indulgence. Those have battled, you might say, for the soul of Whole Foods.”

In 2010, Whole Foods will start providing nutrient-density labeling, add private label products for special diets and underwrite nutrition research. In a pilot program, it offered voluntary health improvement programs to employees. Those who post the biggest changes to basic health metrics such as cholesterol will earn bigger store discounts.

“Our team member base—they smoke as much as, or more [than] the population at large. Their weight is not thinner than the population [as a] whole. We sell a lot of healthy food, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the team members know how to eat better,” Mackey said.

In another interview last week with the Austin American-Statesman, Mackey said the downturn, which turned same-store sales negative for the first time in the chain’s 31-year history, forced Whole Foods to reconsider a business plan that “has been built upon continuous growth.”

Store openings were halved from a planned 30 to 15. Costs were cut and staffing was reduced by 5 percent, while Whole Foods raised $425 million from private equity firm Leonard Green & Partners in order to provide a cash cushion against falling sales and a high debt load.

“It’s unfortunate for us that we had made the decision to acquire Wild Oats when we did,” Mackey said. “We bought that company at the peak before everything came crashing down, or we obviously would have paid less.”

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