| Business

Larger text Larger text Smaller text Smaller text | Order Photo Reprints

Whole Foods draws attention

Email Newsletters

Click here to sign up for one of our email newsletters.

On the Grid

From the shale fields to the cooling towers, Trib Total Media covers the energy industry in Western Pennsylvania and beyond. For the latest news and views on gas, coal, electricity and more, check out On the Grid today.

Daily Photo Galleries

'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

By Austin American-statesman
Saturday, Sept. 28, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

AUSTIN, Texas — As it continues to grow into an internationally known brand, Whole Foods Market Inc. is learning a lesson that has been taught to many up-and-coming corporations before it.

The bigger the company gets, the brighter the spotlight — both for good and bad — that shines on it.

That's become a fact of life for the Austin-based natural foods grocer, which is flying higher than ever with more than 350 stores and posting record profits. Nearly everything the company does makes news these days.

“In some ways, it's a compliment to how people see our company,” said Whole Foods co-CEO Walter Robb. “I do think we're a leader in the food industry, and people look to us in that respect. And so when we take a step or make a decision, it gets reported on.”

Andrew Wolf, an analyst with BB&T Capital Markets, said the challenges Whole Foods is dealing with aren't surprising. “The bigger you get, the bigger the target — whether it's the unions or attorneys or civil rights groups or anybody,” he said.

A handful of incidents in the past year have challenged the company — both in protecting its reputation and in deciding whether its policies might have to evolve as it grows.

This summer, the company faced fallout over allegations that it punished two Hispanic employees in New Mexico for objecting to a policy restricting the use of Spanish at work.

While Robb and other company officials said the incident was a misunderstanding, the company did revise its language guidelines after an outcry from activists.

Robb said the New Mexico story was partly the product of a “gotcha culture” in the media, but he acknowledged that the company's prominence factored in.

Incidents like the language controversy in New Mexico can happen to any company because it's impossible to control all the actions of thousands of employees, said Wolf, the analyst with BB&T Capital Markets.

“You can't control them all,” he said. “The best you can do is hire them well and train them well, and even then some of them are going to say stuff that's going to be embarrassing for the company.”

When Whole Foods opened a store in Detroit in June, it got more media coverage than any other store opening in the company's history, Robb said. The company was hailed for opening a store in an area where people don't have immediate access to fresh foods — but at the same time there was criticism that Whole Foods' prices were too expensive for lower-income residents.

That perception that Whole Foods is too expensive and caters to a largely affluent demographic continues to be a challenge for the company, Wolf said.

The company has worked hard to improve its value and accessibility, Robb said.

“I welcome the question, because it gives us a chance to have a dialogue about this myth that if you eat healthy it has to be expensive, or that eating healthy is only for certain people,” he said. “That's just bull.”

Whole Foods has received pushback at times for the political views of some of its top leaders. In 2009, company co-founder and co-CEO John Mackey made national news — and sparked scattered boycotts — when he wrote an op-ed piece criticizing President Obama's health care plan.

Robb said the fallout over Mackey's health care comments made them more careful as company leaders.

“I think we both recognized that — being a public company CEO — that times have changed and it isn't so much about what you individually think as you're representing the company and you have lots of shareholders and stakeholders and that has to be taken into account,” he said. “So I think both of us are a lot more careful about when we speak, that we're speaking on behalf of the company.”

Subscribe today! Click here for our subscription offers.



Show commenting policy

Most-Read Business Headlines

  1. Chevy tweaks its truck remake
  2. Trib 30 index slips in July; 29 percent drop makes ATI biggest loser
  3. $2-per-gallon gas expected by year’s end, but not in Western Pa.
  4. Jaguar XJ flagship struggles to keep pace
  5. Small business ‘hangs’ on fate of Export-Import Bank
  6. Wages, benefits stagnant, U.S. says
  7. Muni bond funds stressed
  8. 3 vehicles to keep an eye on for 2016
  9. Low fuel pressure may have easy fix
  10. Insurers: F-150’s aluminum costly to repair
  11. FirstEnergy to build coal waste processing facility in Beaver County