Is Whole Foods Sustainable or Just a High-Priced Hoax? I Took a Job There to Find Out
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I eagerly ate as many samples as I could, then took a few extra berries to garnish the strawberry gelato in the display case. I also bought a few pints of the berries once they became available for sale in the store, ignoring the high price tag because I wanted the store to recognize that there was in fact a demand for local food.
Despite my efforts, the strawberries disappeared as quickly as they had come, and I soon ran into that food activist, who was now grumbling about the situation. While the store had paid to advertise the strawberries in an Earth Day brochure, the produce manager had now decided not to order any more of the local berries.
I was friendly with the produce manager, so I asked him what happened. He told me it was a simple business decision -- he could not get the berries for a low enough price to sell them at an amount that people would pay. In addition, the berries the store received were so ripe that they barely lasted to the end of the day. While those berries would be in high demand at a farmers market, where consumers buy their produce over the course of a few hours, they were unsuited to the normal, industrialized food distribution chain.
Another true believer was Dennis, my manager in the bakery department. Although he first struck me as laid-back guy with a sense of humor, he had a serious side to him that included a strong belief in sustainable food.
As a result, within our bakery, both the coffee bar and the hearth breads (the breads baked in the store) were 100 percent organic. An all-organic coffee bar is rare for Whole Foods since it requires extra sinks so the dishes reserved for organics can be washed separately, but Dennis made it happen by augmenting our regular sinks with a bucket of sanitizer reserved for organics.
Dennis wanted to do a lot more -- his dream was an all-organic bakery -- but when he went head to head with regional management, he lost. Ultimately, feeling the stress of trying to improve the bakery with his hands tied by management, Dennis stepped down as manager.
Even after Dennis left, the bakery continued to add locally produced items to its inventory. Instead of serving gelato from Los Angeles, we began serving gelato from Coronado, just off the coast of San Diego. We also bought tea from a local business, Café Moto, and some of our bread from Julian, a town about an hour away.
Several times a week, a man from Chewy's, a local rugelach business, stopped by to fill up the bins with rugelach. When he arrived, the cake decorators, Vicky and Josefina, were already at the end of their shifts, because they worked through the wee hours of the morning meticulously decorating the cakes and fruit tarts. Most of the cakes came from Sugar Plum Fairy in Gardena, 116 miles away, and Perfectly Sweet in Alhambra, 119 miles away.
Although these companies are relatively local to San Diego -- and even closer to the Los Angeles Whole Foods -- since, as we saw with Stehly Farms, much of Whole Foods distribution is organized regionally, this meant that the Phoenix stores, 350 miles away, also received the same cakes.
An even less-local supplier was Galaxy Desserts, which was located near San Francisco, about 500 miles away. I have enjoyed their lava cakes in San Diego -- and at a Whole Foods in Dallas, where I also found Chewy's rugelach. Conversely, I recently saw sticky toffee pudding that I had originally encountered at an Austin, Texas, farmers market for sale in the San Diego Whole Foods.