We Landed a Private Tour of Whole Foods’ Flagship Store — Here’s What We Learned

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Whole Foods Market)

The story of Texas’ most famous grocery store mirrors that of the city it grew up in. Just as Austin expanded beyond its liberal-minded, hippy roots, live-music-capital reputation, and famous “Keep Austin Weird” bumper-sticker identity, so too did its natural-foods emporium Whole Foods, which opened in the state capital in 1980.

Now Austin attracts more than 230,000 attendees for its annual South by Southwest Festival (a big difference compared to the 700 that attended the first event in 1987), and it serves as home to more than 100 tech companies, including Apple, Dell, IBM, Oracle, Indeed, and Amazon, which bought Whole Foods last year for $13.4 billion.

All that’s to say that Austin is growing — and so is Whole Foods (understatement of the year?). Curious to learn more about the giant grocery chain, I met up with Jamie Katz, global quality standards associate director, and Tara Treffry, culinary coordinator for the Southwest region, for a two-hour tour of the 80,000 square feet of the North Lamar store, which became the global flagship store in 2005.

Here are the highlights.

1. The original location is now a Goodwill.

The idea that became Whole Foods started as a small vegetarian food market named Safer Way Natural Foods. John Mackey and his girlfriend-slash-business-partner opened it in an old Victorian house in 1978. Two years later, Mackey merged with a revival store, moved to a larger store location, and renamed it Whole Foods Market. That physical structure still exists, but it sells used clothing and well-loved furniture — not organic bananas.

2. The quality standards team, which includes 14 members (all women), has a lot of work to do.

Katz and the team partner with buyers to decide what products should be sold, develop supplier partnerships, work as consultants to ranchers and farmers on a range of issues including animal welfare, and develop category standards for everything in the store — from produce and seafood, to cleaning and body-care products.

The store bans 75 ingredients in food, and customers know to expect no artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, or preservatives; no bleached or bromated flour; no high-fructose corn syrup; and no hydrogenated fats. If no organic standard exists for a category (for example, the FDA regulates personal care but has no organic standard), they develop it and create a third-party certification for it. “Our customer comes to us with the assumption that organic is organic — no matter where they are standing in the store,” Katz says.

(Image credit: Melissa Chessher)

3. Eggs are at the top of their agenda.

“Pasture-raised is a movement,” says Katz. It’s been called one of the most dramatic changes in the American food production system — a commitment to go cage-free by 100 grocery chains and 60 restaurant chains by 2025. But Whole Foods has sold only cage-free eggs since 2004. In fact, the farm-animal expert on their standards team visited 250 farms all over the United States and Canada last year, working with farmers to develop standards.

There’s even a 32-page PDF on the company’s website that outlines their egg standards and practices. Thanks to that work, customers choose from cage-free plus, outdoor access, pasture-raised, and mobile house. And the photos on their egg cartons feature actual hens from a farm that produced the type of egg in that carton.

(Image credit: Melissa Chessher)

4. Canned tuna is also a big priority.

Americans eat about one-billion pounds of canned or pouched tuna a year. All tuna on Whole Foods shelves is sustainably caught. The company earned kudos from Greenpeace in its 2017 Canned Tuna Shopping Guide, receiving a green ranking, and it was the only retailer whose private label landed a top score. Greenpeace also named Whole Foods as an industry leader for its storewide canned tuna sourcing policy, which requires all fisheries supplying canned tuna to use pole-and-line, troll, or handline catch methods.

5. Whole Foods doesn’t sell live lobsters (but one store in Maine does).

In fact, all fish sold is sustainably caught or responsibly farmed, and traceable to a fishery or farm. The wild-caught seafood comes only from fisheries certified sustainable by Marine Stewardship Council or rated either yellow or green by Monterey Bay Aquarium and The Safina Center, and all the responsibly farmed seafood is third-party audited to verify the grocer’s strict aquaculture standards are being met.

6. Whole foods also doesn’t sell foie gras.

Whole Foods’ fresh beef, chicken, pork and turkey are required to adhere to at least 100 animal-welfare standards to meet the first step rating by third-party animal welfare auditor Global Animal Partnership. Beyond that, there are no antibiotics and no added growth hormones in the beef sold (USDA doesn’t allow those in poultry and pigs). And no animal biproducts in feed.

7. Whole Foods has a fancy certificate.

Whole Foods is a certified organic retailer and has been since 2003, the first year that distinction was available by the United States Department of Agriculture. No other national grocer possesses this distinction.

(Image credit: Melissa Chessher)

8. The store is protective about its produce.

Every store receives at least one annual audit, and being a certified organic retailer also means that stores and distribution centers have a system and a log in place that dictates and records how organic produce is grown, gathered, distributed, and placed in the store. Team members receive extensive training on how to uphold the integrity of organic items. For example, if organic products need to go on a shelf with a water sprinkler, they always go on a top shelf so that water from the non-organic produce doesn’t drip or fall onto the organic produce.

(Image credit: Melissa Chessher)

9. The bananas do more good than you realize.

Bananas were the company’s first Whole Trade product, a program that began in 2007 and donates one percent of sales to Whole Planet Foundation, which provides funds to pro-poor mirco-finance institutions. Many of the bananas are also EARTH-designated, which means they are grown by EARTH University in Costa Rica, a private, international, nonprofit university focused on sustainable agriculture. Profits from the sale of these bananas help provide scholarships to students earning a degree in agricultural sciences and natural resources management and cultivates leaders who contribute to the sustainable development of their home countries.

(Image credit: Melissa Chessher)

10. This is the store to go to if you need wine.

Devon Broglie, a master sommelier (one of only 249 in the world) and the company’s market global beverage buyer, curates a special hand-selected program for only this store. The store highlights limited cases of funky, won’t-find-anywhere-else, small-batch, small-vineyard wines. These offerings demonstrate a mix of accessible pricing and splurges, are seasonally driven, and are only available as long as bottles last.

(Image credit: Melissa Chessher)

11. This is the place to stock up on cheese.

This store’s cheese section boasts more than 700 varieties of cheese and four certified cheese professionals, which means they passed the Certified Cheese Professionals Exam overseen by the American Cheese Society. Just like in produce, the knowledgeable staff members will cut anything for you to taste.

12. This is the best spot to pick up dinner.

The in-store eating opportunities are plentiful here. This location has a sushi and seafood restaurant; ramen station; barbecue venue; rows of salad and hot-foods buffets; pizza, burrito, and taco areas; made-to-order sandwiches; and a juice and smoothie operation, making it difficult to avoid lingering.

(Image credit: Melissa Chessher)

13. Whole Foods is trendier than you are.

Whole Foods was the first major retailer in the United States to sell CocoWhip, a soft-serve, gluten- and dairy-free treat made from coconut water. The store also offers mochi ice cream, small orbs of ice cream covered in a thin layer of pounded sticky rice. The prepared foods section has Paleo-centric offerings and there are plenty of ways to sub vegetables for starch (think: beet noodles and broccoli and cauliflower rice).

(Image credit: Melissa Chessher)

14. The parking lot sometimes smells like a BBQ joint.

Thanks to an in-house smoke program, customers at this Austin location can enjoy a range of fresh, inventive, flavorful smoked fish choices such as smoked honey miso black cod. The employees will also smoke anything a customer requests (smoked octopus, anyone?). Shoppers also benefit from an in-house barbecue joint called Bowie BBQ, which serves sliced beef brisket, chicken, pulled pork, pork ribs, and sausage. The smokers vent to the parking lot, which must surely prompt shoppers to add a pound of brisket to their grocery list.

Have you been to this Whole Foods location? What’d you think?