And I don’t mean “Paleo”, “ATL”, “Organic Integrity” or “Gainsharing”
Working at Whole Foods has its own particular ups and downs, not to mention the ups and downs you’d find working at any grocery store. Simultaneously hailed as a company built on Conscious Capitalism and criticized for being “America’s angriest grocery store” for the kind of customers it attracts, Whole Foods provides colorful experiences for anyone who steps through its doors. I work in the culinary world and I’ve been living the life of a Whole Foods team member (employee) for a while now. Gainsharing is pretty great. The 20% discount- while still not nearly enough that I can afford to shop at Whole Foods- is definitely appreciated, especially since we do carry a lot of fantastic, high-quality natural products. But in facing particular Whole Foods challenges on a daily basis, team members often have to build up their own sets of strategies, coping mechanisms and even vocabulary.
Whole Foods customers are…how should I say…unique. They are financially privileged enough that they can afford the significantly higher prices (yes, despite what corporate WFM representatives will try to swear to you, our prices are significantly higher than other grocery stores’. You don’t need me to tell you that; the cliche “Whole Paycheck” joke is completely substantiated.) and they care enough about some mixture of health, sustainability, corporate values, being a cool yoga dad, what other people think of them, etc. to shop here anyway. In many cases, these customers have been privileged- financially and often otherwise- all their lives, which means many of them have massive entitlement complexes. It’s kind of hilarious to observe a building full of people who all believe that the world revolves around them. Hilarious, that is, until you work in that building.
Here are common phrases I and other team members use that illustrate all too perfectly what it’s like to work for this dynamic corporation:
- “As you can see”
Stop, breathe, and use your god-given gifts of sight and literacy for ten seconds. The answer you are looking for is right in front of you, painfully obvious and/or written in bold letters at your eye level. There is a 99.9% chance you will answer your own questions if you just engage your eyes and a few brain cells for just a moment.
Customer: “Are you serving breakfast now? Can I get an omelet?” (at 6:50pm)
Me: “As you can see,” *pointing to the ten thousand places where my hours are posted in big bold print* “I serve breakfast from 8-11:30, but here’s a copy of my menu with hours on it in case you ever would like a reference.”
While they may love practicing mindfulness in the yoga studio, Whole Foods customers love practicing willful ignorance at the grocery store. These are people who have four Ph.Ds each but seem absolutely, profoundly incapable of reading a goddamn sign. When I took over the pop-up station at this store, I noticed that customers were constantly asking me questions about my hours, menu and offerings that were clearly answered on the signs posted all around. It was an issue because customers were interrupting me while I was helping other customers to ask these questions that were already answered by big, clear signs right in front of them. At first I thought “We need change the placement of the signs so that customers will notice and read them more easily.” But after a lot of experimentation I discovered that it doesn’t matter where the signs are placed, how concise they are, how bold and colorful and eye-catching they are, how many languages I write them in, etc. The bottom line is that customers absolutely refuse to look at them. They want you to personally spoon-feed them the information because goddammit, they didn’t pay an extra dollar for almond butter just so they could read things for themselves like the plebeians at Harris Teeter.
- “Values Matter”
TRANSLATION: “Either my boss is standing within earshot and I want to make myself look good, or I really, truly drank the corporate Kool-Aid.”
EXAMPLE: “We have a five-step animal welfare rating system because here at Whole Foods, Values Matter.” (Mental subtext: “Ugh I sound like such a tool but this customer is eating up every word and my boss is five feet away from me and probably eavesdropping.”)
This year, Whole Foods started a giant new ad campaign. It centers around the tagline “Values Matter” and talks about our standards, practices and values (some of which are genuine-ish while some are closer to bullshit.) The corporate higher-ups somehow decided that it was a good idea to use a somewhat elitist, preachy ad campaign despite Whole Foods having a reputation for being elitist and preachy.
Some team members really and truly buy into it 100%. Usually those are the ones who want to move up the Whole Foods corporate ladder or have already done so. They spit company buzzwords with such fervor that it seems like they might be deriving sexual pleasure from doing so. They are so gung-ho about Whole-Foods that they are unwilling and unable to keep their Critical Thinking Hats on and question the validity of the messages they’re promoting. The rest of us, for the most part, absolutely hate working here. Whole Foods a corporation. And despite their Conscious Capitalism model they, too, do things that put profit before values and integrity (see #5.) Maybe the values were genuine and upheld once upon a time, but the company has become so big (and seeks to become so much bigger) that it has long since sold off its ethics.
The higher up the ladder you go, the more likely you are to find people who drank the Kool-Aid. But I’m just a lowly team member so if you hear me regurgitating lines from our ad campaign, you know I’m trying to impress a boss who has the power to buy a new cast iron pan for my station.
- “KNIFE!” or “HOT PAN!” (specific to the Prepared Foods department)
TRANSLATION: “MOVE THE FUCK OUT OF THE WAY OR YOU MAY GET INJURED I SWEAR TO GOD”
“I DON’T ACTUALLY HAVE A KNIFE OR A HOT PAN BUT I NEED YOU TO MOVE THE FUCK OUT OF THE WAY PLEASE”
Most Whole Foods customers have two favorite pastimes. #1 is complaining, and #2 is maintaining zero awareness of other people at all times. They will find a way to take up the entire aisle or walk as slowly as they can, and even if other people are clearly trying to pass by, they will not move. When you are so privileged that you grow up thinking the world revolves around you, you don’t have to watch where you’re going or evaluate whether or not you’re in someone’s way. Whole Foods customers also seem to thoroughly enjoy walking while looking off in other directions- especially when they have giant carts full of groceries- and then being shocked when shit gets spilled and messes get made and small children get run over.
There is a sign next to the Café Express registers that says “Please wait HERE for the next available register.” It’s big and bold and on a stand right in that walkway, so visually you can’t miss it. It’s there because the door to the Prepared Foods kitchen is right next to the Café Express registers, so if people don’t heed the sign, they stand directly in the way of all the employees who need to get in and out of the kitchen. Since I run a pop-up station on the sales floor, I have to make countless trips through those doors carrying hot food, knives and everything else I need for my station. Kitchen folks constantly have to bring big carts and pans through that door.
Naturally, Whole Foods customers just ignore the sign (see #1), so there are always people standing aimlessly in the way when I’m trying to get to and from the kitchen. Saying “excuse me” doesn’t do anything to get them to move. Furthermore, it’s mandatory kitchen safety protocol to loudly announce when you’re coming by with a dangerous object. So I make sure to announce loudly and clearly when I’m coming through with a hot pan or a knife- I’ll even translate it into different languages if necessary.
The customers hear me shout- I’m only a few feet away from them. They look right at me, they see me coming with a sharp chef knife or a steaming-hot hotel pan or a giant cart full of steaming-hot hotel pans and… they don’t move. You would think that to step aside when a giant knife is coming toward you would be a survival instinct, but these people are so privileged that they don’t need their survival impulses anymore. Who needs fight or flight reflexes when you’ve got a stealthy-ass Prius? Someday Darwin is going to bite these folks in the ass so badly that their expensive lawyers won’t be able to save them. But for now I have to try to navigate around them while carrying a hot pan that’s half as heavy as I am and burning my hands through my oven mitts because I can’t get to the kitchen quickly enough to put it down.
TRANSLATION: “I am unable do what you asked but how can I accommodate you without saying no and thereby putting my job in jeopardy but also get you off my hands ASAP so I can get back to the other customers I’m helping/the five pots and pans I have on the stove?”
Customer: “Can you bring me to where the lemons are? I need to buy a lemon.”
*meanwhile I have a line of customers waiting for me to take their orders/cook their food and I am frantically, single-handedly trying to cook their food well and get it to them quickly.*
At Whole Foods, we make sure there are always team members all around the store to help customers and answer questions. We make sure every department is well-staffed so that people can be helped by the team members who can most aptly serve their needs. We have a friendly and well-run customer service desk, grocery team members floating around the grocery aisles and even team members whose specific job is to help customers find the items they’re looking for. All of us have different uniforms specific to our jobs: those helper-finders wear bright red aprons, grocery team members have their black grocery aprons, I have my chef whites, etc. Somehow, customers manage to walk past the grocery aisles filled with grocery team members in grocery uniforms and come all the way over to me with their grocery-related questions. They see me in my chef whites while I am clearly in the middle of cooking for a line of customers, and decide that I’m the right person to ask about where they can find the organic version of Cocoa Puffs.
Due to company policy, it is absolutely mandatory that I help them, but I still have food cooking and customers waiting for me to finish cooking said food. Do I screw over the customers in line for my food in order to help a customer find where the milk is? When I’m in this situation (which is at least once every hour), I try and find some way of hinting that they should ask another team member who is more readily able to help them. Due to company policy, I’m not allowed to give the following answers:
“I’m sorry but could you ask a team member at the customer service desk, in the grocery aisles, or in the ___ department? I’m not able to leave my station.”
“I’m sorry but since I work in the Prepared Foods department, I don’t know where that is. Just about any other team member you see would be able to help you, though.”
So I have to find a way of responding that implies both of the above, redirects the customer to a team member who can actually help them and allows me to quickly get back to my job, but doesn’t get me fired.
TRANSLATION: “I could actually lose my job for saying this, but I have limitations that are very real and because of those limitations, there is no way I can meet your demands or fulfill your request. You really are asking too much: you’re asking me to do something that, for very logical reasons, I am unable to do.”
Customer: “So you’re not serving the Southwest quinoa bowl right now?”
Me: “No ma’am, I’m sorry. As you can see on the menu, I make the Southwest quinoa bowl on Tuesdays and today is Sunday so I’m making the raw pad thai.”
Customer: “Why can’t you do the quinoa bowl right now too?”
Me: “As you can see ma’am, my station is very small so I don’t have room to cook or serve multiple entrees at a time. I am sorry.”
There’s this rule that states we’re not allowed to say “no” to customers. Ever. Not even in a nice way. If that sounds a little extreme and problematic to you, you’re right. Especially when it comes to Whole Foods customers, who feel entitled enough to make particularly outlandish demands.
One lady demanded she be given giblets along with her turkey gravy. When the meat department explained that giblets didn’t come with the gravy and they didn’t have any giblets on hand, she literally threw the box of gravy at the team member who was trying to help her. That poor team member was not able to gently reprimand this customer for throwing a temper tantrum. She was not able to ask this customer to leave the store. She was not able to explain that physical violence is not the way to get what you want. Instead, the gravy-throwing customer was coddled, profusely apologized to and GIVEN FREE STUFF. Because that is Whole Foods company policy.
Another example: I serve lunch from 12-2 every day. Monday through Sunday, lunch is 12-2. My hours are posted online, on my menu, on my station, at the store entrance, everywhere. But this one dude showed up at 2:20 one day and was surprised to hear that I couldn’t serve him. I apologized but explained that I’d sold out of food at 2 and had to shut down at 2pm sharp every day in order to have enough time to cook for my dinner service. That dude came back a week later at 2:25, demanding once again that I serve him. I was in the middle of answering questions for a bunch of other customers and he budged ahead of them, cut them off and got pissy that I couldn’t serve him. Again, I explained that I had sold out of product- I literally had nothing left to serve him anyway. I explained that I was sorry, but I had a meeting in five minutes and therefore really did need to have my station shut down. I am a one-person station and I get no help; I am very obviously limited and there was very obviously nothing I could do. He walked away from me huffy and pissed.
The dude went and complained to a store manager. The store manager didn’t explain to this dude that “Yes, if you want to be served, you have to actually show up during service hours like everyone else” or “When she sells out of product, she can’t just magically summon more out of thin air so that she can serve latecomer douchebags like you.” Instead, he apologized to this man on my behalf and agreed to reprimand me and in the meantime, gave the dude a free gift certificate.
That is how Whole Foods works. If you complain and act like a jerk and demand special treatment, we have to give you special treatment. If you say “this filet mignon was terrible!”, we have to give you either more filet mignon (for free) or something else for free. If you demand to sample the most expensive product in the store, we have to open that product, let you sample it, and let the rest go to waste. If you ask for something we obviously have zero ability to give you, we are unable to say no because we have to say “I can give you free stuff instead!” .
Whole Foods says “We are empowering you to do everything to make sure the customer walks away satisfied!” In reality, they are disempowering us to be courteously honest with the customers about the very legitimate, very real limitations we have. Forbidding us from saying “no” puts so much pressure on us to overcome limitations of reality. But the joke’s on us, because at the end of the day, reality still exists.
Whole Foods’ reasoning behind this is that giving out the free stuff keeps us from losing that customer. And in the end, keeping that customer- even if they are a horrible person who treats the employees like shit- is what Whole Foods cares about, because their money is as good as anyone else’s. So we have all these horrible customers who treat us like shit and come in all the time. They treat us like dirt and we kiss their asses. Whole Foods cultivates an attitude of nasty entitlement among its customer base, and that puts its employees in a terrible position. Every day, multiple times a day, I see customers who actively take advantage of our systems. There is no integrity in that on behalf of the customer or the corporation, as the corporation has the power to put their foot down and say “enough.” That is the #1 reason why I don’t buy into Whole Foods’ claim to have values. If the values are a publicity stunt while behind the scenes the corporation pulls this kind of bullshit, they have no integrity as a company.
So I say no sometimes. Partially as a “fuck you” to this ridiculous set of policies, partially because I know what it’s like to be homeless so I don’t give a fuck if a customer cries that we’re out of gluten-free tortillas, and partially because “no” is really the only answer I can give.
So as a customer, please be aware of the requests and demands you are making. Please try and use those brain cells for a few moments to evaluate whether or not what you’re asking is reasonable and logistically possible to fulfill. Ask yourself if fulfilling that request would either be impossible or detrimental to others. Believe it or not, you are not above everyone else. We do strive to go above and beyond and truly take care of every customer, but because we are not god or Santa Claus, you have to be aware that you do not deserve even more special treatment than the other customers. If the store closing time is 9pm for everyone else, it’s 9pm for you too. Otherwise you are the one customer keeping us all from going home to our families and much as we all pretend to like that guy, we all fucking despise that guy.
- “Hi, how are you folks doing this morning?”
TRANSLATION: “I don’t know you, but I am genuinely trying to make an effort to reach out and be friendly to you. Yes, Whole Foods requires me to do this, but I also do just want to be a decent human being. Because I know that some Whole Foods customers are actually wonderful and even if you’re not, I still want to be decent to you.”
WHAT THIS DOES NOT MEAN: “If you respond or acknowledge me, it means you are contractually bound to purchase something from me or have an unwanted conversation. If you say “Hi” back, you will be pressured to stop and talk to me or buy something.”
Seriously y’all. If you say “Hi” back, take one of my free samples, and then walk away without buying anything, that’s completely fine. If you say “Hi” back and keep walking by and don’t take a sample, that’s also completely fine. Ignoring me when I’m trying to greet you and make you feel welcome (AND offering you free gourmet food samples that you can take or leave), however, is lame as fuck.
It takes very little for a customer to get on my good side. If you say hi to me back, use your pleases and thank yous and act with even the most basic decency, I consider you a “good customer.” And let me tell you- good customers make my day. I remember good customers, I treat them especially well and when I can, I try to hook them up with a little extra food. When it comes to the people cooking your food, you always want to be on their good side. But you also just want to be a decent person to everyone… don’t you?
Long story short, all of these Whole Foods employee phrases can be paraphrased into one translation: Please, for the benefit of all of us, be a considerate customer. We thank you for shopping with us, but paying an extra thirty cents for a can of black beans does not make the world suddenly revolve around you. If you show basic kindness and consideration, we will remember you as standing out from the rest and we will go out of our way to take care of you.