The Whole Foods Experience: Part One

Shortly after hitting send on his withering, now-legendary resignation letter, the former employee of a Toronto-area Whole Foods flew to South Korea to begin an exciting new career chapter, far, far away from sociopathic co-workers who walk into people. He has so far ignored our requests for comment—but you haven't!

We've received over 100 personal anecdotes and counting from Whole Foods employees past and present. The vast majority of them side with our quitter, but there were those who defended the company, some even passionately so. What follows is a representative sampling of the ones we found most interesting.

We'll run more of your Whole Foods stories in future installments. In the meantime, grab a bag of Himalania Antioxidant Secret Trail Mix and hunker down, folks. This will take a while.

"The Toronto Quitter Is My Friend and Co-Worker"

I worked with the disgruntled employee for about four years until he quit on Friday. He's a friend. He sent me an early draft of the letter last week, which I can forward if you need proof or whatever. While I don't think the personal attacks were necessary, the critiques of the company were spot-on, and even too generous in some areas. Just in case you do a follow-up post I thought I'd mention a few things:

- He almost certainly meant to write twenty seconds instead of twenty minutes. We've spoken at length about it before he ever wrote the letter. Employees, or "Team Members" as they're called, routinely get written up for being mere seconds late, regardless of the validity of the excuse (TTC strike, car accident, etc). Three lates is a final warning. A fourth late and you're terminated. I find this unreasonable.

- Whole Foods "carefully calibrated image" is just that - an image. Store recycling bins are emptied into the garbage every single day without fail. The company routinely drops small local vendors in favour of large conglomerates based kilometres away.

- The company has formed its own version of newspeak. There is an exclusive vernacular just for the "Team Members" and "Team Leaders". It didn't used to be so bad, but we have always had 7 AM Saturday meetings in which we are asked to shout slogans ("We're number one!" and other nonsense). As the rhetoric has ramped up over the past few years, so has the blood pressure of most people working for the company. (Not me. I work here part-time to put myself through school. I don't give a shit about this place. In fact, I'm typing this at the Toronto Whole Foods right now.) It is not at all unusual to see managers come in on their day with worried frowns. Of course, they are not paid to come in, but they're afraid not to because of the giant red hammer of bullshit and paperwork they will be required to fill out should they not meet their budgets and margins.

- The company does download responsibilities onto less-senior employees without compensation. One man working here has been ordering the dairy products for over a year. But since he doesn't have the official title of "Dairy Buyer", he is paid $13.50/h instead of $16/h, which is the base wage for a "buyer". He buys the dairy. But he is not a Dairy Buyer. It's newspeak. This happens all over the company.

- All of what he said was true, and there are other things. Have you seen Office Space? The TPS reports scene? That's what this place is like except it's not funny because it's actually happening to us.

I'm glad you posted the letter. The company has its own server and so yanked his email off it within minutes of him sending it. Now that you've posted it, everyone can read it (though again, I think the second half of the letter was a bad idea). You might also be interested to know that over four employees that I know of contributed to the letter, so it's not actually all him, though he was willing to take the heat for it.

"The Toronto Quitter Is a Rich Brat"

Hi. As a 7 year employee of whole foods market i'd like to say that I'm rather disgusted at the email I received from [the resignation letter writer] from the Toronto store. There may be shreds of truth about the people he called out by name but I cannot and will not agree with him about the state of the whole company. To touch on a few themes he brought up: The store I work for employs some of the hardest working people I've ever known. They care about our customers, they care about good quality food, they care about the environment actually, the list could go on. We are always working to eliminate waste in any way we can but of course, we are a business. Its difficult to be 100% green as a business. As for our customers and being abused by them, doesn't this happen in all customer service jobs? We have a lot of dicks and a lot of great people. You can't throw every person out of the store for being a jackass. My leadership team does stand up for us in times where it matters. (This coming from a person who was recently called a piece of shit for demo-ing beef kabobs. But that's a whole other story). People are insane no matter what you do or where you go. Sometimes its easier to agree to disagree just to get them out the door.

A friend of mine works with [the resignation letter writer] and the kid comes from a ridiculous amount of money. He was lazy, rude, and confrontational. He's throwing a hissy fit plain and simple. He got passed up for a job promotion because he's lazy. He disagreed with the decision and now he's got a vendetta. Looks like he got his 15 minutes. His decision to email the entire region was immature and ridiculous. I stand by whole foods being an outstanding company to work for. I make almost 40k a year without a degree. I love the people I work with. My store leadership works their ass off 7 days a week. Not only do they have to run the overall operations of the store day to day, they are also working the floor, in departments, and dealing with 15 other things all at once. I have more respect for them than I can even express. Of course we are not without our flaws but what company isnt? So fuck [the resignation letter writer]. little brat should have worked harder.

"Your 'Clopen' Lacks a Sense of Urgency"

I've worked at two Whole Foodses. In 2006 I worked at a large store (with a wine shop! and a chocolate fountain!) before the corporate culture took over, and it was one of the most fun work experiences I've had. I returned to the company in 2010 and it was the worst. After three months, I was called into the office by two blanched managers who had written my last check and already clocked me out. Despite the fact I had never called in sick or been late, they were firing me for the nebulous infraction of "a lacking sense of urgency."

My job? Scooping egg salad into containers and putting price stickers on the bottom. From their expressions it seemed they thought I would flip out (perhaps as others had done for being fired for such a bullshit reason?), but I calmly agreed that yes, my sense of urgency was probably a little bit wanting. We were, after all, just slicing ham.

I did have a few bones of contention at the second store I worked at similar to those of the letter-writer:

Starting in training, we were thoroughly indoctrinated against conventional (or non-organic) produce with tons of video montages of crops being sprayed with pesticides. But it's not like Whole Foods doesn't sell non-organic produce. The availability of out-of-season produce shipped year-round from other countries was to me always an indication of their most evident core value: Money (Creating Wealth Through Profits & Growth)

Something my smaller location also used to pull was pouring products like pizza sauce from cans into "Whole Foods" containers, to give them the appearance of house-made sauce. Ours was not a full service kitchen and why we didn't just fill the shelves with things that we could make was beyond me. (Selling the Highest Quality Natural and Organic Products Available)

While I didn't have any especially good ideas on how to accomplish it, I also really would have liked to see more minorities shopping in Whole Foods. Denver is a phenomenally diverse city, but you'd be hard pressed to see more than one black or Mexican person a day shopping (much less working) in Whole Foods. (Caring about our Communities & Our Environment)

The zillions of plastic gloves was definitely in conflict with the environmental goals. When I last left [the plastic gloves] were neither recyclable nor compostable, and I went through at least 30-40 pairs per shift. I currently work with food where simply having competent, healthy staff (who aren't afraid to call in sick) who wash their hands has been enough to avoid any charges of food poisoning.

The "Whole Body" department really is full of snake oil. At one point I was advised to buy expensive pro-biotic "pearls" when what I ended up needing was a Cholecystectomy. I cringe to think about how much money people dump into trying to solve their problems by taking the advice of the perfect-looking community college student in the body and vitamin aisle when what they need is treatment by a medical doctor.

This is all to say nothing of their treatment of employees. I would say the treatment is very Wal-Mart-esque, but at Whole Foods it's much more conspicuous and tempting to complain because of the big stink they make about how great it is to work there. The fact is, when you actually ARE good to your employees, you don't have to throw yourself a parade about it:

When I was hired the second time, they were in a "full-time hiring freeze" during which no one was being hired for full-time (and all new employees were scheduled at just enough hours not to qualify as full-time). The benefits were so incomprehensible that I never even used them when I had them in 2006

Formerly known for their "express yourself!" dress code and mentality, I returned to find pages of extremely specific rules regarding which hair colors, piercings and tattoos were appropriate and in which precise amounts.

Whole Foods is where "the clopen" was introduced into my vocabulary: There until 11p.m. one night, in at 6a.m. the next. Very healthy!

FREE employee coffee was replaced by "discounted" employee coffee. It went from being such a nice little perk to a slap in the face.

Like I said: It wouldn't be that big a deal if I were working somewhere where my expectations were to be treated like a robot, but it was an especially violent dashing of my hopes to experience it at precious Whole Foods. If I were ever to work for a grocery store again, I think I would try to knock off a Safeway employee so I could have their job. As for shopping, I can be found mostly at Farmers' Markets, vitamin cottage and on the Internet.

"Shades of White"

As a former Whole Foods employee (Massachusetts, 1996-2002 Fresh Pond, River Street, Brighton, and Prospect Street Stores), I can tell you, minus the histrionics, that letter wasn't too far off the mark. I'd also add Whole Foods isn't the beacon of diversity it paints itself to be. It's diverse alright, as long as you're White.

I'm half joking when I make that comment. There were many female, gay and lesbian team leaders, but they were, for the most part, all white. Most of the upper management and leadership in the company were White and male. I heard many racist comments directed at myself and other non-white employees, but it wasn't a big surprise, since most of us were used to having racial epithets thrown at us on other jobs. Most of his complaints were things that I saw happen, or happened to me.

Whole Foods is just another brand name, nothing special. I expect racism at most levels of American society, so it really wasn't that surprising. I just think it's amusing the amount of time they invest in an image most sensible people know is a desperate put on for the dollars of the environmentally challenged by a man without the courage to simply say he's a die-hard capitalist.

"They Called Me Racist"

I was fired from whole foods for this. I worked there for over two years and had worked my way up to Backup SSI/Signmaker from MAINTENANCE! They basically called me a racist. I had managers tell me to fuck off, coincidentally the same manager who instead of calling me in for a disciplinary conference when he "found" the document that lead to my termination....faxed it to the corporate offices in Texas. Attached is their response to me trying to work out a solution other than termination.

"The Catastrophe Plan"

I used to work at WFM and I used to be a licensed insurance agent. Calling their health insurance plan "affordable" is a little misleading. The plan costs a non-smoking "team member" $10 a paycheck. There's a $2,000 prescription drug deductible that must be met before the company covers drug claims. There's a $6,000 max out-of-pocket for all other medical expenses. The company does provide a "Personal Wellness Card" based on service hours. That can roll over, but unless the "team member" has been there for 10,000 service hours it doesn't add up to too much. Perhaps $1,200 or $2,000 a year. So one would have to hope they don't use it for several years so they could cover the deductibles. The drug deductible resets every year, so in essence, there is no prescription drug coverage. Considering most employees make $10-$15 an hour, one incident could put that person in considerable financial stress. It's not anything more than a catastrophe plan. It's good if the employee suffered a brain trauma, but not much else.

"We Had a Suicide This Year"

It's all true. I've worked at WFM for nearly 5 years now. It's really was awful whoever wrote that letter says. Unfortunately, the job market sucks, so many of us get stuck there. They also regularly schedule you to work until 11 pm on one night then 6am the next morning. This happens once a week for many of us. They deny you summer vacation. Then when September comes, the students are back, and no one is allowed a vacation. Then its Christmas, which in this world means 10 hour shifts and a lot of hard work. I just had my 30 birthday, and my brother couldn't get any time at all off for it. My boyfriend (he's the assistant team leader), very rarely puts in time off requests, and he was also scheduled to work that day. (I truly never cared much about birthdays, but it was my 30th so we wanted to do something special).

There is NOTHING to recommend this place. You have the barest essential healthcare, you work, you are expected to give your all, holidays mean you work harder, you never see your family, and there's very little monetary compensation for it. I had to fight tooth and nail to get a 50 cent raise when they promoted me to supervisor. And that was after they said if I didn't just accept the position, they would have to offer it to somebody else. I make $13.50 an hour. I am now 30, and have been working there for almost 5 years. I live paycheck to paycheck. We are forbidden to talk to each other about how much we make. If you do you get a verbal warning. I have never had a warning.

They fire "trouble-makers". They figure out some way to. Can we get them on points? Sick calls? Watch them and make sure you email us in detail. I know all of this because I am a supervisor and have been asked to do this on more than one occasion.

Anyway, I have many more stories, and many more friends who could give you detailed complaints that would all agree with that letter. I can assure its worse than you think. We had a suicide this year. He jumped in the river. He worked overnights. Please don't use my name. I could lose my job.

"Outsourcing the Deli Counter"

I was there for several years doing graphics for the marketing folks. This guy forgot one of my favorite things: Almost all of the prepared foods come from Sysco, not the sales floor. The only time you'll be eating anything even remotely similar to organic romaine in your $9 caesar salad, is if they had bunch of it on spoil in the produce department.

"Happily Employed"

I just finished reading "A Disgruntled Employee's Epic Resignation Letter" and, although I found myself nodding at a few points, I remain mostly unconvinced that Whole Foods is entirely to blame for the writer's poor work experience and not say, his seeming inability to arrive to work on time or to appreciate a free and perfectly good t-shirt. I've been happily employed by Whole Foods for almost two years now, and at a reasonable wage considering the entry-level type work I do as a cashier. Granted, I'm not sure how they run things in that particular store in Canada, but the same strict standards and core values that define Whole Foods are generally upheld across the board, so any incidences of recycling crimes or team member abuse most likely do not have the John Mackey seal of approval. We may put potato chips on our endcaps every once in a while, but we also employ Healthy Eating Specialists to host free cooking classes for team members and offer discounts to events like health-themed movie screenings and road races. Every other store meeting is indeed held at the ungodly hour of 6 or 7 AM, but team members can opt out of two each year, and besides, there are usually raffles for prizes in addition to complimentary breakfast. If there is any bullshit going on, at least the company tries hard to seem genuine. I do cringe at the sight of pounds of edible and delicious food being dumped into the garbage disposal at the end of each night, so I will allow that we could do a better job of decreasing waste and feeding local communities. In the end, Whole Foods is like any other large profit-driven company that will occasionally put the environmental mission on the backseat in lieu of perfecting its image or ensuring efficiency. But despite the drawbacks, Whole Foods is still a far cry from Walmart, even a faux hippy one, and I happen to think our pizza tastes just fine.

Still haven't had your fill of Whole Foods horror stories? There's more on the way. In the meantime, our lines are always open.


Previously:

Read a Disgruntled Whole Foods Employee's Epic Resignation Letter

[Photo via navicore/Flickr]