As I researched the beginnings of Whole Foods Market, what really struck me is how a single institution has been able to capture the hearts and minds of an increasingly health and food conscious society. 1980 was a year of social and cultural revolution: Pink Floyd‘s “Another Brick in the Wall” topped the charts; movie theatre audiences were gripped by Jack Nicholson‘s crazed antics in Kubrick‘s “The Shining“; and pop culture met politics as ex-actor Ronald Reagan was elected U.S. President in a Republican sweep.
Image: courtesy of Whole Foods Market website
At a time when there were only a handful of natural and organic supermarkets in North America, Whole Foods Market was an immediate success. Over the next few decades, Whole Foods Market grew through several mergers and acquisitions. Companies that became part of the Whole Foods Market family included: Wellspring Grocery, Mrs. Gooch’s, Fresh & Wild and many others.
Fast forward to present day. Whole Foods Market is a household name with over 360 stores across North America and the United Kingdom. Canada is a fast-expanding market and Whole Foods Market now boasts ten Canadian locations.
To get a handle on the Whole Foods Market phenomenon, I visited the newly minted Sheppard and Yonge store in a complex in Toronto‘s North York neighbourhood. This suburban area has seen rapid population growth in what is essentially Toronto’s “downtown north”. Located just outside a TTC subway station and nestled amongst several shopping plazas and condos, the store is very accessible to area residents.
The store interior is bright and staff are smiling – a great first impression! To the left is a large diner with patrons grabbing a quick and healthy meal. To the right is the customer service desk, beside which is something that totally surprises me: a customer comments board.
In most stores, customers must seek out an obscurely-placed comment card and, once filled out, slide it into a little dusty box. They presume management will eventually read them, and I’m sure that 99% of the time, no one ever follows up.
At Whole Foods Market, customer comments are not only read by staff, they are proudly displayed on a giant bulletin board for all to see.
There are both negative and positive comments, and – perhaps most impressively – responses are hand-written on each comment card, along with the name of the responding employee.
This celebration of customer feedback is refreshing and a great example of Whole Foods Market’s customer-comes-first attitude. In a perfect world, every store would do this.
As I make my way around the store, I am appreciating the signs identifying local products. There is a gigantic sign (as seen in the feature photo) that reads “Buy Local and Support Small Farmers”. A valuable message!
I made a brief stop in the seafood aisle to see whether the Amazonian paiche fish has made it to Canadian Whole Foods Market’s stores yet. It appears not.
But I see lots of other oceanic offerings, including some ready-to-cook items that were, according to the sign, prepared on-site by someone named Jeaneth. There is even a headshot of a smiling Jeaneth. These were made with love by a real person rather than a massive factory operation!
I had an amazing opportunity to pick the brains of three key members of the Sheppard and Yonge store‘s leadership team.
- Christine Vanhumbeck, Store Team Leader
- Tim Everett, Prepared Foods Team Leader
- Lisa McAllister, Marketing & Community Relations Specialist
We talked about what it’s like to work for Whole Foods, how Canadian stores are different from their American counterparts, and the future of WFM in Canada. Here’s what they said:
Christine: I started as a chef at the Hyatt and the Royal York hotels in Toronto. When you get to level of Chef de Partie or Sous Chef, you work about 80 hours a week (in high season it’s even more). I got to a breaking point. I quit my job in the summer, and then September 11 happened and tanked the whole industry. I took 9 months off. I went to Australia, and did a lot of touring – I had so much money saved after not having a life! Then I decided it’s time to start making money again. I was already working for Pusateri’s when Whole Foods called me. I was very flippant. They told me it would be 40 hours a week and I didn’t believe them. I didn’t really know who the company was – they didn’t list Whole Foods in the job posting. I came in and saw the plans for the new Yorkville store and felt like a kid in a candy store!
I was wearing a maroon suit and hair pulled back. The Store Leader (now President of our region) was wearing a ripped up t-shirt, hippy hair, twang accent, and so laid back. I thought this is a perfect job for me – like an apprentice again but with so much responsibility.
Tim: I was in the culinary industry working 65-70 hours a week, and it got emotionally and physically exhausting. I was kitchen manager in a restaurant in downtown Oakville, ON for seven years. I gave them two months notice just out of respect for everything they did for me. I ended up going to Europe for a month, doing some traveling. I came back without much of a plan. I was driving down Cornwall Rd. in Oakville and saw a “hiring cooks” sign. I went in and applied. They hired me the same day. That was about 8 years ago. I worked my way up at the Oakville store, from Team Member to Buyer. I think I was the first Prepared Foods Buyer in Ontario. I worked my way up to Associate Team Leader, transferred to the Square One store for opening as Associate Team Leader. Then I did a bunch of openings: Detroit, Park Ridge Chicago, Naperville Chicago, Markham. Then, I was able to step into the Team Leader role at Square One for about a year. And then this store (Yonge and Sheppard) was opening. I wanted to open my own store as Team Leader, and got the job.
Christine: We are glad to have you!
Lisa: I’ve been with Whole Foods for four years. I was previously in the sports industry, a similar situation – working 70 hours a week, no days off for 16 days in a row (laughs). Not very conducive to a personal life. I did my education in sports business. I was thrilled to be in the industry but realized it wasn’t for me. I always had a love of food. My very first job out of school was being a marketing assistant for a small one-shop gourmet grocer. Whole Foods Square One store was hiring for their pre-opening team. I interviewed and got the job as Marketing and Community Relations Specialist. I helped open Square One and established the community partnerships there. Two years ago, I had the opportunity to move downtown to the Yorkville store. Then I hitched on for the ride over here in September![/itemQ: There's a lot of movement between stores and even between cities, it's fascinating. Sounds like you've been able to do a bit of travelling.
Christine: We’re sent to support new stores for a couple weeks at a time. We just help them with production, getting systems in place, helping to calm people down. New team members can get overwhelmed.
Tim: You’re usually matched one-to-one with a new team member to train them and set them up. Once the store opens, we go home and leave them on their own.
Lisa: It’s important for our company culture as well. In a new market like Ottawa, they hired 150 people from the local area. It’s important for the culture and messages to get integrated. That’s a lot of benefit to bringing in people from different stores. As we grow in Canada, it’s going to continue that way.
Christine: After our Yorkville store opened, the second Canadian store was Vancouver. A lot of us got to go over and it was amazing. It was such a different environment. They already so organic.
Christine: The team has just been amazing. We started with about one-third of the employees from other stores, and all of the leaders from existing stores. We worked so hard to get the right people on board. We had a “What’s Brewing Night” with our customer base, and we heard that we have amazing team members – people telling us how helpful, how knowledgeable they are. We do train them, but we are so lucky to have such a great group of team members.
Tim: One of our core values is Team Member happiness. When I did pre-opening interviews, I had to hire 66 people for my department alone. I really took the time to get to know them. I hired them as person, not as a worker. A lot of them don’t have culinary experience whatsoever, but I was willing to train them if they were they right person. It’s paying off.
Tim: First and foremost, a positive attitude. I don’t want a negative attitude whatsoever in my kitchen. Happy, positive, hardworking, good people. That’s number one for me.
Lisa: a lot of people relate to our core values of natural and organic food.
A lot of Team Members are passionate about organic lifestyle and can really speak to the customer because they know our products and we don’t have conventional products compared to traditional retailers.
Christine: we usually do three interviews with all team members: phone interview, face to face and then a third with one of the leadership team. That final interview is all about any questions they have. Many of the team members knew Whole Foods, and were really excited about it. And the few that weren’t sure, they did research about natural and organic, so they tried. They know what customer service means, and had the right feel from the start. I heard team members this past week saying “this is the first job I’ve actually enjoyed, I actually like coming to work!”.
Tim: I’ve got a couple of amazing Associate Team Leaders. One of us is here in the morning, one of us is here at night. There’s catering, scheduling, hiring. We do a lot of computer training – they come in for 15 minute classes here and there. We have to take care of all the reviews of Team Members. We have to make sure the department opens on time, ensuring the quality of food is fresh and ready to go, pinpointing areas that might need a little more attention. Maybe the chef case needs a bit more attention than the hot bar, and one of us needs to jump in and help out a little bit. All in all, I really depend on my guys – catering coordinator, dining supervisor, front of house supervisor, buyer. Quality, appearance, signage – the day-to-day details. Once we start build our sales, we’ll have to start to build the team more too.
Every day is different. It’s a new adventure every single day, and I look forward to coming in all the time!
Christine: In the past at Whole Foods, most of the Store Leaders came from perishable teams because the stress is much more intense than it is in, say, whole body. Knowing perishable foods is a big thing because that’s what a lot of the store is about. But now they have a program that any Team Leader gets training on every single team before they step into that leadership role, so they understand what every team goes through and what to look for. Everyone can move forward into leadership roles.
Christine: A Store Leader is the everybody person. When I first come in at 7:30am, I grab the newspapers, unlock the inside doors, check all the departments to make sure all the team members are there, say hi to everybody. I try to get through some e-mails – I get about 150-200 e-mails a day – a lot of them are from the U.S. and don’t apply to Canada, but I still have to go through them.
My background being culinary, every now and again, I dig through all the fridges. I do a Gordon Ramsay call out every night! We go through all the fridges looking at all the dates – see if there is stuff to take care of. I also jump in behind counters. If the deli is busy, I help slice bread, serve gelato. I’m always go-go-go. I eat a lot of sugar!
Our job is a bit of everything, whether it’s baking muffins or plunging, it’s whatever that needs doing. Also if I ask a team member to do something, it’s something I would do too. No one is above anyone else.
We usually have something broken that needs to be fixed. We found out that something wasn’t connected properly with the HVAC. The last few nights we were getting chiller alarms which can bring down our whole refrigeration system. We had one really bad incident before opening when every rack started failing and we realized we had meat in one fridge. We ended up coming in at 2:30am!
Christine: The diner is the first pilot in Ontario. It’s almost built exactly how it should be. The behind-the scenes with all the equipment is amazing. Our feedback so far has been great. The food is all made in-house.
Tim: Having a strong team up there is key. Because the diner is new to Ontario, none of us knew what to expect. I had to put double the number of people up there because it’s such a monster. Sunday morning brunch is really busy which is great. In Yorkville, we always had a big eight-well buffet, and we’re slowly building a buffet up on the hot bar here too.
Christine: In general, we have a lot of choice. Every department has some local items. It’s also seasonal, like summer time, we get so much local produce.
We have a lot of local grocery items, body care items, soaps, essential oils, preserves/jams. Molly B’s Gluten Free Kitchen is local to Toronto.
With the new sign program, they even get more call-out on the local items. We have a program which allows our local business partners to apply for a business loan. If they had a natural disaster hit them or they need new equipment, this will help them. Molly B’s was the first loan recipient. They got a new oven to expand production especially being a new supplier for Whole Foods.
Christine: Not so much, it’s generally the same. But we’re still the minority. We’re the minority of the Midwest region because there are 5 stores – so many more U.S. stores and more buying power. We’ve been partnering with Vancouver to give us more buying power. Also getting stuff over the border is a challenge. So they have to do sourcing in Ontario and other parts of Canada for stuff they can’t bring over. There’s the French/English labelling. It slowed us down with our 365 brand (private label). There are a lot of things they didn’t know about. In the last ten to twelve years, we’ve come so far – they think about Canada more.
Lisa: Our customers shop in the U.S. And see the prices are a little different. Prices vary. Products vary. You can’t get something here that’s available in other stores. That’s a challenge for us with our customers. But on the flipside, it gives us more opportunity to source more local.
Our local program is really important to us as well. Our new Ottawa store has 50 brand new vendors local to Ottawa, bringing in 100 new products that only Ottawa will have.
Christine: We get a lot of customer requests for products. I’ll look it up on the internet and then if it looks like something we could carry, I’ll talk to the appropriate purchaser. Sometimes things are not clean for us (lots of artifiical ingredients, etc.). If it looks like a product we can bring in, then our buyer Rob will let me know if it’s something they have tried before and didn’t sell, or if they will be bringing it in and when. And then I’ll let the customer know.
Lisa: We have a local foraging team of three whose sole responsibility is to find local products for each area that they are responsible for.
Tim: I’m a food lover! I love food, I love everything about it. I went through an immersion program that Whole Foods sent us to. I went to Tampa, FL and Christine went to Naples, FL for a week. For me, it was a program focused on prepared foods.
They educated us on the Health Starts Here program – plant-based, vegetarian, healthy-fats. They wanted to get back to our roots. We had a lot of tasty foods, but we weren’t healthy all the time. So they wanted to go back to plant-based, no salt, no oils, no sugars.
If a customer wants it, there are options. My program was all about variety, to me it was more realistic for real life – you’re not always going to be able to go be vegan or plant-based all the time.
Christine: Tim’s group went because they wanted the Prepared Foods team to be educated and can help the customers and get the products out there. And they want Store Team Leaders to go so they can bring it back to the Team Members. The company pays to send you. Every store can send one person every time they have a round – they do four a year.
There are team members that have lost hundreds of pounds in the six months since they had left. They do biometrics testing when you get there, and just before you leave. They show you that in the one week it makes a big difference. It’s true immersion. Some diabetics went and didn’t need medication anymore. In the one week I was there, my weight didn’t change, but my cholesterol went down 7 points. After a month, my cholesterol went down 30 points. I don’t really drink cow’s milk anymore. They contact you months later to see things are going.
Lisa: It comes back to the culture piece. Since I started the job, I’ve really educated myself on the organic movement, GMO movement, etc.
Tim: It’s an internal support system for each other. In February, we did a 28-day challenge for all Team Members.
Tim: I’m find the Montreal scene very fascinating right now. The Top Chef Canada winner last year (Danny “Smiles” Francis), Chuck Hughes – I’m following them on Instagram. I’m new to Toronto, born and raised in Burlington, ON.
And in Chicago, Purple Pig is very good. Trying new restaurants is my favourite thing. There’s a Mexican place in the Distillery District called El Catrin. We tried the tasting menu one night – and it was phenomenal. Oh, and there’s Little Goat in Chicago!
Christine: Carmen as well. It was really good, I took at the Team Leaders there for a going-away from Yorkville. Food is amazing.
Christine: Getting to know our customer base even more. Make sure we have the right products on the shelves.
Lisa: Being involved in the community. We get a lot of requests, seeing which are the right events to go to. Having events in the store. Both our gingerbread classes have sold out. It is a family demographic. Seems like a lot of singles during the week, but late at night and weekends we see a lot of little kids with their parents. We have a different dynamic than in Yorkville. Things for kids work here.
Based on your gut reaction, pick one or the other and state why!
- East Coast or West Coast? Tim: East Coast – been there and fell in love with it. Lisa: East Coast, haven’t been to the West Coast. Christine: West Coast – family there!
- Cooked or raw? All: Cooked!
- Astronomy or astrology? Lisa and Christine: astrology. Tim: astronomy.
- Rice krispy squares or chocolate pudding? Tim: Chocolate rice krispy squares! Christine: drizzled with chocolate milk on top! Tim: And Cocoa Pebbles were my favourite cereal growing up – we don’t need that anymore!
- Susur Lee or Jamie Oliver? All: Jamie Oliver! Christine: I love Susur’s stuff, but Jamie is more comfort food. Susur’s a little pretentious. Jamie is more “I’m the same as you” kind of person.
- Butter or olive oil? All: (laughter) Butter!!!