Whole Foods Marks 30th Anniversary The home of hydroponic arugula and hemp granola has come a long way -- from a little hippie grocery in Austin, Texas, to the nation's largest chain of natural and organic foods supermarkets. The company has 302 stores in three countries, and is traded on the Nasdaq stock exchange. But as it turns 30 years old, some wonder if the grocery chain has gotten so big that it has lost its way.

Whole Foods Marks 30th Anniversary

Whole Foods Marks 30th Anniversary

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The home of hydroponic arugula and hemp granola has come a long way — from a little hippie grocery in Austin, Texas, to the nation's largest chain of natural and organic foods supermarkets. The company has 302 stores in three countries, and is traded on the Nasdaq stock exchange. But as it turns 30 years old, some wonder if the grocery chain has gotten so big that it has lost its way.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

Some wonder whether the grocery chain has gotten so big that it's lost its way. NPR's John Burnett reports.

JOHN BURNETT: If you shop in Whole Foods' extravagant flagship store in central Austin, you may see a wiry, bemused man in his mid-50s in hiking shorts, striding determinately past the blue foot mushrooms and mung bean sprouts.

MONTAGNE: My wife gave me a grocery list, so I've got - I'm looking around here. I got to get some pine nuts, tofu, fruits, brown rice, spinach, toilet paper.

BURNETT: Say what you will about Whole Foods - the prices, the piety and Mackey's mouth - it made healthy food cool, even glamorous. The CEO sits at a conference table at company headquarters above the store, ruminating on how his world has changed.

MONTAGNE: Thirty years ago, food was almost only sold on the basis of price - didn't matter where it came from, didn't matter how it was grown. And today, there are other values that matter to people besides just how much something costs. What's the nutritional value of it? How are the workers affected? What about the harm that might occur to animals? Is this a sustainable way of agriculture? So, these are all types of things - I think Whole Foods has helped move those more into mainstream consciousness.

BURNETT: All this because of, and in spite of, the controversial CEO. In the latest episode, Mackey, an outspoken libertarian free-marketeer, wrote an op-ed piece last year opposing the president's health care reform. He argued that Americans have no intrinsic right to health care and he laid out his own ideas on the subject. The column sparked boycotts from some customers and won praise from others.

MONTAGNE: Everybody should have the right to express their opinions and they shouldn't be punished for expressing their opinions. I'm a great believer in the First Amendment and thought the whole thing was very bizarre.

BURNETT: Critics still grouse that Whole Foods has become the whole-mart of organic foods. Mackey impatiently points out that his company has less than 10 percent of the organic market.

MONTAGNE: It's sort of a ridiculous comment. And we've got more competition today than we've ever had before. Organic foods are more widely available now than they ever have been available before, sold practically everywhere.

BURNETT: In recent years, Whole Foods has done some soul-searching. Executives say new stores are smaller and prices on many items have come down to counter the well-worn saying: Whole Foods, whole paycheck.

MONTAGNE: You know, they get called "whole paycheck" by everyone - and it's true. A lot of time there's sticker shock when you buy something here.

BURNETT: Kate Thornberry writes about food for the Austin Chronicle. She stopped in the parking lot of Whole Foods after a quick trip for shampoo, butter and parmesan rolls.

MONTAGNE: But it's also true that you get what you pay for. If you're going to be buying animals that live outside and have at least a decent life for a year or two before they're slaughtered, whose meat is not going to be full of pesticides and antibiotics, you're going to pay more for it. That's just how it is.

BURNETT: Walter Robb, who's co-CEO with Mackey, stands beside the store's popular chocolate fountain.

MONTAGNE: You can take essentially anything you want in the store, a piece of fruit, whatever, and dip it in chocolate. The height of decadence.

BURNETT: But has Whole Foods compromised its healthy philosophy by letting in molten chocolate, organic potato chips, and 300 brands of beer? During its self-examination, Whole Foods asked itself the same thing.

MONTAGNE: I think it's fair to say we drifted to the edges, but I think we're rebalancing that interest with fundamental focus on core, healthy food.

BURNETT: You're not going to turn off the chocolate fountain?

MONTAGNE: No, not going to turn it off, but also probably not going to stick it in every store and stick it right when you walk in the front door. Fresh fruits and vegetables, you know, this is the heart of any healthy diet, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINE RUNNING)

BURNETT: To that end, Whole Foods has begun an educational campaign in its stores, politely haranguing its customers, like their mother, eat your vegetables.

MONTAGNE: I am making an Energize Me. It's a veggie juice with lemon, parsley, spinach, celery, kale and cucumber.

BURNETT: John Burnett, NPR News, Austin.

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