How Whole Foods Created A New Breed Of Shopper
New Yorker reflects on 10 years of endless organic
In my darker moments, I imagine what it might be like to live through an alien invasion. I'm not a War of the Worlds, death-and-destruction kind of guy; I am more prone to creepier visions of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers variety, in which our enemies live comfortably amongst us. And, lately, I’ve come to suspect that the enemy is indeed already here: It’s Whole Foods.
The environmentally conscious, user-friendly, million-options super market chain snuck up on me like a slow-moving teddy bear. Now, I can’t imagine life without it.
About 10 years ago, a layover stuck me in a sterile hotel in Vancouver, where a consortium of Whole Foods meat suppliers was gathering for a conference. I had enjoyed shopping at Whole Foods and was tickled to hear from one of the guys attending the conference — I swear to you, he wore stiff blue jeans and a 10-gallon hat and spoke like Sam Elliott’s “Stranger” from The Big Lebowski — that a store would soon be coming to my hometown, New York City. He said that it would be "magnificent." He had a sparkle in his eye as he looked off into the middle distance, as if he were imagining a beachhead on Iwo Jima.
I didn't take him seriously. I was amused by the prospect of Whole Foods adapting to New Yorker culture. And now, here we are 10 years later, and it's us who've adapted to them. Last week, I, a guy who prides himself on knowing the best local pizza joints in each and every neighborhood, bought a whole pizza pie (hey, it's not bad!) at Whole Foods because I wanted to supplement the meal with offerings from the $9.99 per pound antipasti bar. What have I become?
Say all you want about the Starbucks culture we live in. At least we can feel comfortable hating Starbucks. But, Whole Foods? With its aisles so wide and endless organic options and inoffensive green logo and helpful but not unctuous employees. The fact that I spend so much money there and that it never bothers me, strikes me as beyond nonsensical. It’s like a spell has been cast that dismisses the impulse to criticize the notion that maybe $7.99 for a quart of organic blueberries is too much to pay. Or, somehow, it’s in my interest to spend more than six dollars on a small box of cereal.
It’s twisted, like I’m the M in an SM relationship, when I am sincerely appreciative for the 15 cents deducted from my $123 receipt when I dutifully bring my bag to the store.
Whole Foods? As my friend Barbara likes to say, more like, Whole Paycheck. Still, I can't hate it.
Let’s start with the people who work there. They’re neither the prison-release malcontents who work at Cosi, with metal shanks tucked in their sleeves, nor the sunny Trader Joe’s staff who are studying to be physical therapists. Whole Foods employees are a mix of races that doesn’t scream Benetton, but suggests someone is very consciously monitoring a quota system. They’re good-natured enough and always helpful, like Stepford Wives without the falseness.
What’s really weird is when I ask them for something they don’t tell me which aisle to go to—they walk me there, like I’m a first-grader looking for the nurse’s office. Sometimes, I wonder if they’re going to offer to hold my hand.
OK, wait, maybe I can muster one criticism: Why is it that I repeatedly get the Indian food that looks so good and yet is inevitably tasteless? Still, I can’t bring myself to add salt to Indian food. And, also still, I keep slopping it in my cardboard box, hoping this time will be different.
First world problems, I know.
Of course, we’re there not for the food, but the culture! This is where the alien invasion theory comes in: Whole Foods has somehow created a breed of shopper that didn’t exist before. Where else can you find such a unique combination of hipsters with big lobe earrings and tattoos of goth anime characters, trim women just from the gym, stock brokers, moms feeding babies, German tourists, dads carrying babies, and batshit crazies? And maybe not all of them can afford the ridiculous privilege of paying such high prices; maybe they’re there just to share the benefits of sitting in a clean, well-lit place. But everyone seems to be sharing the same sense of Whole Foods calm inside.
Of course, not everyone at Whole Foods pays, and I have seen demure young women led out quietly in handcuffs and, more often, angry young men being escorted out while screaming expletives as if they’re the last ones left willing to fight The Man. And who can blame them? Shoplifting at Whole Foods, it seems, is as much a rite of passage for today’s youth as tagging subways and blowing up bullfrogs was for earlier generations.
Life’s vicissitudes have recently relocated me and my family a grape leaf’s throw from a Whole Foods, and I’ve been in there about a dozen times in the past few weeks. I am now one of those white guys sitting at a table with my laptop, pulling at my ears and being ignored by everyone.
Ah, what anonymity affords: like, the conversations one hears. Who knew that a 30-something Jewish woman would have to resort to sexting with 24-year-old Spanish-speaking men because guys her age don’t know anything about how to treat a woman? (I personally think her next date, her first with a Moroccan guy, won’t turn out well.)
I’d say the funniest thing I’ve seen in a Whole Foods was the 7-year-old boy who walked down an aisle and casually slapped men in the groin area—lightly enough, I suppose, that they didn’t complain, but hard enough to make them go, “WTF?”—while his mom marched up and down looking for organic quinoa.
These are the children of tomorrow. I can’t say I’m not an offender. Just the other day, my 8-year-old had a fit in the meat section because I refused to taste the salad sampler. And I thought I had a good reason: I didn’t think a lemon-dressed baby leaf salad would complement the sampler chocolate covered coffee beans I’d recently stuffed in my mouth.
Perhaps I was wrong about that alien enemy thing. The enemy may not be Whole Foods. The enemy may be us.