So here, at last, is my Whole Foods horror story. To be sure, I had had several bad experiences at Whole Foods previously:
- In 2005, I splurged on some "natural" ground pork for dumplings. The meat looked fine, but after I laboriously made the dumplings and tried to cook them, I found that it to be tough, gamey, and extremely strange. I boiled the dumplings as usual and found the meat to be still be very raw inside, so I boiled, and boiled, and added more water, and boiled .. and after an hour .. it was still pink and raw-ish inside! Valliantly attempting to salvage the two pounds of meat and all of my labor, I tried frying the dumplings, deep-frying .. but nothing worked. It was just inedible. I still don't know what was wrong with the meat - was it from a disesased or geriatric animal? Was it doctored? I should have returned it to the store, but that was before I developed a sense of outrage.
- In 2006, a deli worker coughed directly on an order of sliced meat (right in front of us) and tried to give it to us anyway.
- Also in 2006, I was about to splurge again on some steak. I got two steaks that ended up totalling almost 30 dollars, but as I walked away from the meat counter I found that they were already significantly brown and returned them. For the price they were charging, they should not be selling anything that was not at the peak of freshness.
- At several locations both in California and the Boston area, I have generally found the staff at Whole Foods to be indifferent and sometimes even rude. This is surprising given Whole Foods' reputation for offering the highest wages in the industry along with great benefits, but the staff are certainly not nearly as friendly or helpful as the folks at Trader Joe's.
But somehow, I wrote off the above incidents as flukes and still believed Whole Foods to be a reputable retailer that would not knowingly sell defective products to consumers. Given the extremely high prices Whole Foods charges, though, I only shopped there for special items I couldn't find anywhere else. When I was organizing a chocolate tasting in April, I thought it would be a good opportunity to try some of the delicious-looking chocolates in the glass display case by the bakery at the Whole Foods at the Charles River Plaza in Boston. The store offered chocolates from high-end chocolatiers Christopher Norman and Knipschildt for $45 / lb, and I bought a wide selection from both brands.
And the chocolates were utterly disgusting. Now, I have eaten a lot of chocolate in my day, and admittedly, I've even kept home-made and store-bought chocolates long past their "best-by" dates. I have kept chocolates in the refrigerator for a year and still enjoyed them. I hate wasting food so much, I even scrape mold off of bread and pick bugs out of rice and still eat it. But even I draw the line somewhere. These $45/lb chocolates were stale at best and inedible at worst. Across the board, the fillings were desiccated with cracks on the inside, indicating that they had been kept out too long. The white chocolates and cream fillings were all rancid with weird combinations of jarring astringency and offensive sulfurousness, and most of the flavors from both brands were indistinguishable from each other, sharing a uniform rancidity. Some of them literally tasted like shit. Now, I have eaten many, many bonbons in my life of varying origin and repute, and I can tell you with near certainty that my perception of these chocolates was not a matter of preference, taste, or snobbery - they were just spoiled. Unfortunately, in my naivete and utter shock I forgot to take photographic evidence of the offensive confections.
Thinking back, I don't think I ever saw another person actually purchasing chocolates from the display case, and with all that lighting and an un-refrigerated case, it's not hard to imagine how the chocolates became spoiled. I just don't think it's unreasonable to expect a store selling chocolates at such an incredible premium to ensure utmost freshness and quality.
But it gets worse - the worst part of the experience was not even the spoiled chocolates themselves, but the reaction of Whole Foods to the incident. I returned the chocolates the next day (along with with the rest of the chocolate I had purchased from Whole Foods). Now, I have never, ever returned food that was not spoiled to a supermarket, but I was just so disgusted by the display-case chocolates that I could not stomach serving any chocolates from Whole Foods to a crowd at an event I was organizing. I did feel bad about returning the bars and feves, but my disgust was visceral.
The product return process was extremely onerous and took about 20 minutes. To top it all off, the man who helped me had a very bad attitude and belittled me for returning the chocolate. I tried several times to tell him that the chocolates were spoiled and that he should check all of the chocolates in the case, but he just glared at me and said "It's okay, you can change your mind any time", dismissing my concerns as mere capriciousness. In an attempt to dissuade me from returning them, he also told me that all of the unopened bars would be thrown in the trash, which he didn't do and which I somehow doubt actually happened.
That same day, I sent emails to the local store, Whole Foods headquarters, and the two chocolate-makers. I soon got an email back from a store manager at the Charles River Plaza store who told me he personally checked each of the chocolates and they were, in his words, perfect. Although there is always room for disagreement, and I am usually willing to give people the benefit of the doubt, I place a vanishingly small probability on those chocolates being fresh and "perfect." To placate me, he also sent me a $50 gift certificate, which I sold on Craig's list and donated the proceeds to two African women on Kiva.org. I also got an immediate response from Christopher Norman, and they assured me they would follow up on the complaint, although I didn't hear from them again. Kindly, they also sent me a complimentary box of their chocolates, and although they tasted rather commercial (with a long list of ingredients including corn syrup, flavorings, and artificial colors), they were certainly decent and nothing like the chocolates I had from Whole Foods. I never received a response from Knipschildt, but I had previously received a box of their white chocolate mint ganache truffles as a gift and they were delicious. However, their customer service in this case is a little lacking.
This incident has utterly soiled Whole Foods's reputation in my mind. It is one thing to sell spoiled product, but the response I received indicates much bigger problems of accountability, governance, and corporate culture. Therefore, it was no surprise when I herd of the recent scandal involving CEO John Mackey, who posted anonymous online attacks on Wild Oats Markets just before Whole Foods made a bid for it. Although initially dismissive of his behavior as a bit of "fun", Macky today issued an unconvincing pro-forma apology:
I sincerely apologize to all Whole Foods Market stakeholders for my error in judgment in anonymously participating on online financial message boards. I am very sorry and I ask our stakeholders to please forgive me.
To me, Mackey's terrible behavior and unrepentant attitude fits with my experience of Whole Foods as a company which markets itself on corporate, environmental, and social responsibility but acts contrary to this philosophy in practice, acting responsibly solely as a way to build its image. We should all be wise enough to know that Whole Foods is not our friend, and neither is any publicly-listed firm which must abide by fiduciary duty and the demands of the market. But Whole Foods's hypocrisy in pretending to be responsible and subverting of our trust is what makes it in my mind, one of the most pernicious corporations in America. Here is more on my take on good and evil in the corporate world.
Whole Foods Evil Watch
- Although it prominently displays messages of sustainability and purports to support the small farmers of America, much of the produce at Whole Foods is not organic at all, and it purchases the vast majority of its organic inventory from one of the handfull of huge industrial organic operations. Moreover, store displays often misleadly conflate conventional and organic produce. See this insighful article for more details.
- A big part of Whole Foods's success comes from making us feel like we're making a responsible choice for the environment, for farmers, and for society, but in reality the premiums we're paying doesn't go toward environmental or social causes, but into corporate coffers. Whole Foods's strategy is a typical one of price discrimination, when products with only nominal differents are sold in order to pick off the customers who are willing to pay more versus pennypinchers like me. In reality, only pennies of the huge premiums we pay on products with organic or fair-trade actually go to farmers or earth-friendly pesticides. So although most Whole Foods consumers probably don't realize it, we're just paying for self-righteousness. My concern is not that Whole Foods achieves one of the highest profit margins in the retail industry (35%), but that it deceives us and exploits our good-will to do so.
- I think the recent revelations about John Mackey speak for themselves, but on top of that debacle he has also mislead the public about his own salary. Whole Foods has widely advertised that the CEO makes only 14 times that of the average worker, a relatively small pay gap by today's standards. But that's only true if you don't count stock options, which typically make up a large fraction of executive pay packages. In 2005, he actually received $2.7 million including options, 84 times the salary of the average worker, with another $4.4 in vested options . Now, a lot of CEOs make much more than that, but there's no excuse for lying about it.