Whole Foods Market may be the retail giant of the natural and organic world, but a mere forty years ago it was nothing more than a dream. In the 1970’s, riding the tail of the newfound environmental awareness of the ’60’s, specialty, natural food markets were on the rise. But they remained just that—specialty stores with small brick and mortars and a timid market. That is, until four local Austinites decided the industry was ready to expand into the supermarket format.
Like many business ideas, Whole Foods’ humble beginnings stretch back to the surprisingly astute musings of a pair of twenty-something college dropouts. In 1978, twenty-five-year-old John Mackey and twenty-one-year-old Renee Lawson cooked up an idea to open a natural foods store in Austin. The young pair borrowed $45,000 from family and friends and opened Safer Way—an intentional qualifier of supermarket giant Safeway.
Mackey and Lawson were met with almost proverbial challenges. They were evicted for storing food in their apartment, and the plucky couple decided to move into their store. Since the space was commercially zoned, there was no shower, but their remedy was simple: they used the attached hose in their Hobart dishwasher to bathe. Decked in dish soap and passion, the pair fostered the growth and success of their small venture.
Just two years after opening, Mackey and Lawson decided to join Safer Way with another local natural foods store, Craig Weller and Mark Skiles’s Clarksville Natural Grocery, the merging of which formed Whole Foods Market. The four Austinites imagined a larger, comprehensive retailer for their growing market: locals were becoming more aware of the importance of eating naturally, and these founders wanted to cater to that awareness. Their dream for a natural foods supermarket came to fruition on September 20, 1980. The 10,500-square-foot space was significantly larger than most natural food stores of the era, and the staff of nineteen was passionate about the project.
Even with unlimited stores of passion, however, Whole Foods almost collapsed—before the store’s one year anniversary. On Memorial Day, 1981, Austin experienced its worst flooding in seventy years. Whole Foods Market was hit hard, its entire inventory destroyed along with most of its equipment—amounting to nearly $400,000 in damages. And the worst stroke of all? The store was uninsured.
But the inspiration and vision of Whole Foods was strong enough to pull it from the brink of failure. Neighbors, friends, and customers chipped in to help restore the space. And compassionate investors, creditors, and vendors gave the company time to recover. Twenty-eight days after the flood, Whole Foods Market reopened its doors, now fully experienced in the art of conquering challenges.
Despite the major setback of the Memorial Day flood, the success of Whole Foods Market was incomparable. Three years after the fateful flood, in 1984, the market began to expand to other locations throughout Austin. Next came other cities throughout Texas, including Houston and Dallas, followed shortly by nearby New Orleans. By 1989 the company was strong enough to expand to the West Coast, opening their first western store in Palo Alto, California. Much of the store’s success in the nineties can be attributed to their knack for merging with other chains. Absorbing companies like Wellspring Grocery in North Carolina, Bread & Circus in the Northeast, and Harry’s Farmers Markets in Georgia bolstered Whole Foods’ strength in new markets and lent the company easy access to expansion.
Today Whole Foods is one of the world’s leaders in the natural foods industry with locations across continents. They’re consistently at the forefront for health trends and even business movements, like employee empowerment and community involvement. Whole Foods is the focus of household conversation and hilarious memes. Given the reach and scope of the company, it’s difficult to imagine that just a few decades ago, its founders were running on passion and bathing with a dishwasher.
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