Whole Foods Market History

Photo of early Whole Foods Market storeWhole Foods Market was founded in Austin, Texas, when four local businesspeople decided the natural foods industry was ready for a supermarket format. Our founders were John Mackey and Renee Lawson Hardy, owners of Safer Way Natural Foods, and Craig Weller and Mark Skiles, owners of Clarksville Natural Grocery. The original Whole Foods Market opened in 1980 with a staff of only 19 people. It was an immediate success. At the time, there were less than half a dozen natural food supermarkets in the United States. We have grown by leaps and bounds since our first store opened.

Pieces of the Whole

Much of the growth of our company has been accomplished through mergers and acquisitions. The story of Whole Foods is incomplete without honoring these notable companies in their own right.

Whole Foods Market

The Early Years

In 1978, twenty-five-year-old college dropout John Mackey and twenty-one-year-old Renee Lawson (Hardy), borrowed $45,000 from family and friends to open the doors of a small natural foods store called SaferWay in Austin, Texas (the name being a spoof of Safeway, which operated stores under their own name in Austin at that time). When the couple got booted out of their apartment for storing food products there, they decided to simply live at the store. Since it was zoned commercial, there was no shower stall. Instead, they bathed in the Hobart dishwasher, which had an attached water hose.

Two years later, John and Renee partnered with Craig Weller and Mark Skiles to merge SaferWay with their Clarksville Natural Grocery, resulting in the opening of the original Whole Foods Market on September 20, 1980. At 10,500 square feet and a staff of 19, this store was quite large in comparison to the standard health food store of the time.

Less than a year later, on Memorial Day in 1981, the worst flood in 70 years devastated the city of Austin. Caught in the flood waters, the store's inventory was wiped out and most of the equipment was damaged. The losses were approximately $400,000 and Whole Foods Market had no insurance. Customers and neighbors voluntarily joined the staff to repair and clean up the damage. Creditors, vendors and investors all provided breathing room for the store to get back on its feet and it re-opened only 28 days after the flood.

Expansion

Beginning in 1984, Whole Foods Market began its expansion out of Austin, first to Houston and Dallas and then into New Orleans with the purchase of Whole Food Company in 1988. In 1989, we expanded to the West Coast with a store in Palo Alto, California. While continuing to open new stores from the ground up, we fueled rapid growth by acquiring other natural foods chains throughout the '90s: Wellspring Grocery of North Carolina, Bread & Circus of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, Mrs. Gooch's Natural Foods Markets of Los Angeles, Bread of Life of Northern California, Fresh Fields Markets on the East Coast and in the Midwest, Florida Bread of Life stores, Detroit area Merchant of Vino stores, and Nature's Heartland of Boston.

Whole Foods Market started our third decade with additional acquisitions of Food for Thought in Northern California and Harry's Farmers Market stores in Atlanta. In 2001, Whole Foods moved into Manhattan, generating a good deal of interest from the media and financial industries. 2002 saw an expansion into Canada and in 2004, Whole Foods Market entered the United Kingdom with the acquisition of seven Fresh & Wild stores.

back to top

The Companies of Whole Foods Market

Whole Food Company

Whole Food Company (WFC) opened its doors in New Orleans in October 1974. Its mission was to be a grocery store featuring good, wholesome food; not a "health food" store filled with pills and potions. Sales doubled each year for the first four years. By 1978, the store (only 1100 square feet) was doing more than $1 million per year. Success was fueled by a committed staff who were all stockholders in the company.

In 1981, WFC opened a larger store on Esplanade Avenue in New Orleans. WFC became the largest outside customer of Texas Health Distributors, the wholesale division of Whole Foods Market. In May of 1988, the Esplanade store became the sixth Whole Foods Market.

Wellspring Grocery

Wellspring Grocery opened its doors in 1981, after three years of planning and preparation. Owners Lex and Anne Alexander led a team of home-grown, energetic workers who set out to change the way the Triangle community of North Carolina (Durham, Raleigh and Chapel Hill) shopped for food. The idea was to offer high quality and great nutrition, and to encourage consumers to be more connected with the food they ate.

The first store, located in Durham, was completely "vegetarian." In 1986, it moved to a larger space two blocks up the street, and in response to consumer demand, added fish, poultry and meat. In 1990, a second store opened in Chapel Hill, approximately 10 miles away. Wellspring Grocery joined Whole Foods Market in November of 1991.

Bread & Circus

Anthony and Susan Harnett purchased the first Bread & Circus store in Brookline, Massachusetts in 1975. The first Bread & Circus sold natural foods and wooden toys, hence the unusual name.

New stores opened in Cambridge (1979) and Wellesley (1980). In 1983, Bread & Circus challenged itself by expanding into Hadley, Massachusetts, located 100 miles from the Boston home base. In 1988, the company opened a store in Newton, MA. Later that year, it moved its central office to Newton, and established a central Commissary there. The Providence, Rhode Island store opened in 1990, and the original Brookline store moved to Brighton, Massachusetts in 1991.

At the time of its acquisition by Whole Foods Market in 1992, Bread & Circus was the largest natural food retailer in the Northeast.

Mrs. Gooch's

Sandy Gooch, a homemaker and former grade school teacher, became interested in natural foods after suffering severe allergic reactions to antibiotics and chemical additives in food. She joined forces with Dan Volland, who operated three health food stores, to open the first Mrs. Gooch's Natural Foods Market in West Los Angeles in January 1977.

Within a year, the second market opened in Hermosa Beach. Over the next decade, new markets were launched in Northridge, Sherman Oaks, Glendale, Beverly Hills, and Thousand Oaks.

Mrs. Gooch's held its suppliers to rigorous standards: no harmful chemicals or preservatives, no artificial colors or flavorings, and no white flour, refined sugar, alcohol, caffeine or chocolate. With its consumer education programs, the company helped fuel a growing demand for natural foods in southern California.

Whole Foods Market acquired Mrs. Gooch's in 1993.

back to top

Fresh Fields

Fresh Fields can be considered part of the "second generation" of natural food supermarket companies. Whereas all of the other companies that have become part of the Whole Foods Market family were started in the 1970's and early 1980's, Fresh Fields opened its first store in May of 1991 in Rockville, MD.

The first store was very successful which led to the opening of four more stores in 1992. Eight additional stores were opened in 1993 including expansion into the Philadelphia and Chicago markets. By 1993, annual sales had reached $100 million and were over $200 million by 1995. At the time of the merger with Whole Foods Market in 1996, Fresh Fields had 22 stores open in four different market areas: Washington/ Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York/New Jersey/Connecticut and Chicago.

Bread of Life

In 1980, Julie and Richie Gerber, organic farmers from Maine, moved to Florida and purchased a natural food store in Ft. Lauderdale called the Bread of Life. With 1300 square feet, the store housed natural food products as well as a small juice bar. In 1985, they expanded to a 3,000 square foot building with a full service restaurant and kitchen. In 1989, the Gerbers partnered with Jim Oppenheimer to relocate to a 6800 square foot store two miles away. The new store became popular for its organic foods and live entertainment, "Jazz Goes Natural," featuring Richie Gerber and the Free Radicals.

In 1995, the Bread of Life opened a 30,000 square foot store in Plantation, Florida. The merger with Whole Foods Market in 1997 prompted the creation of the Florida region.

Amrion

Amrion was founded in Boulder, Colorado on August 18, 1987 by father and son team Henry and Mark Crossen, originally under the name of Bioenergy Nutrients, Inc.

In 1989, the company went public and in 1993, the name was changed to Amrion, Inc. Over the years, Amrion expanded their channels of distribution to include: HealthSmart Vitamins (sales to consumers); Physiologics, (sales to health care professionals); BioDynamax (sales to independent distributors); and Brand Partners (private label for Whole Foods). On September 11, 1997 Amrion merged with Whole Foods Market and in October of 1999 they merged with WholeFoods.com to form a new subsidiary, WholePeople.com

After the merger of WholePeople.com and Gaiam, Inc. Amrion was renamed NatureSmart and operated as a separate subsidiary until May 10, 2001 when Whole Foods Market sold all of its interest in NatureSmart to NBTY, Inc.

Merchant of Vino

Merchant of Vino was founded by Ed and Juliette Jonna in 1974. Located in the Detroit area, they established an excellent reputation in wine retailing. Over the years they began to pick up more and more gourmet and natural food items to complement their strong wine business. Produce, meat/seafood, and prepared foods were added as well as nutrition and bodycare. At the time of the merger in December of 1997, Merchant of Vino operated six stores in the Greater Detroit area.

back to top

Allegro Coffee

Allegro Coffee Company was founded by brothers Jeff and Roger Cohn. Coming from a family coffee tradition, they realized the growing consumer demand for fresh-roasted, high-quality coffee and, in 1977, opened the Brewing Market-a specialty coffee business in Boulder, Colorado. In just a few years, Brewing Market grew to include two retail stores and a wholesale division. As the wholesale side of the business continued to grow, Jeff and Roger directed the sale of the retail division in 1985 and renamed the wholesale division Allegro Coffee Company.

After supplying our stores with specialty and organic coffees, teas and brewing equipment for many years, Allegro joined the Whole Foods Market family in December of 1997. Today, Allegro coffees are widely recognized as the pinnacle of quality in the specialty coffee industry.

WholePeople.com (e-commerce subsidiary)

Whole Foods Market began seriously discussing the on-line sale of our products in 1997, when ecommerce was viewed as an intriguing yet risky venture. While our corporate web site continued to evolve into an information-rich site, research on the viability of opening a new "store" on the site proceeded behind the scenes.

Development of our "virtual" store began in the summer of 1998. The site went live in March of 1999 as WholeFoods.com. In October of 1999, WholeFoods.com merged with Amrion to form a new e-commerce subsidiary, WholePeople.com. The new WholePeople.com ecommerce site was launched in March 2000.

On June 20, 2000 WholePeople.com and Gaiam, Inc. merged their respective internet properties into a newly formed company named Gaiam.com, Inc. The WholePeople.com web site was replaced by the Gaiam.com website.

Nature's Heartland

In 1996 Nature's Heartland opened its first store in Bedford, MA with the goal of providing a cost effective way to get natural products to consumers. Three more stores soon followed, all in the greater Boston area. Nature's Heartland, like Fresh Fields, was a "second generation" natural food supermarket company. In fact, both companies share a founder, Leo Kahn, who also had a hand in Purity Supreme grocery stores and the Staples office supply chain.

Nature's Heartland's quality standards were quite similar to those in the Whole Foods Market/Bread & Circus stores in the same area — requiring unbleached flour, naturally raised meat and poultry, and featuring as much organically grown produce as possible. Yet with their conventional grocery store background, these products shared the shelves with such goods as film and batteries, school supplies, disposable razors, and stuffed animals. In 1999 they joined Whole Foods Market.

Food For Thought

Food For Thought began serving the community of Sebastopol in Sonoma County, California in 1989 when the business was purchased by the Shelton families. The Sheltons had a 20 year history of work in the natural foods industry and had a hand in opening some of the first natural foods markets in the country in the early 1970's. Although the first store was only 2,000 square feet and had just eight employees, community support helped the store expand to its current 10,000 square feet. Their expansion continued with the Santa Rosa store opening in 1994 and the Petaluma store opening 1996. Whole Foods Market closed the deal acquiring Food For Thought in February of 2000.

back to top

Harry's Farmers Market

Harry's Farmers Market debuted in the Atlanta area in 1987 when founder Harry Blazer opened the first megastore in Alpharetta, Ga. It was a quick success, becoming profitable within the first year. Known for fresh, delicious foods, produce and gourmet products, the company expanded, opening two additional locations in Gwinnett and Cobb, each more than 100,000 square feet. The company went public in 1993 and launched a separate chain, Harry's in a Hurry, a small specialty store that was not a part of the Whole Foods Market acquisition.

Whole Foods Market acquired the three Harry's Farmers Market perishable megastores, a distribution center, a commissary kitchen, bakehouse and office facilities in October 2001. These stores join two Atlanta Whole Foods Market Stores in Briarcliff and Sandy Springs and continue to operate under the HFM banner. The addition of Harry's Farmers Market to the Whole Foods Market family is a key component of Whole Food Market's growing presence in the Southern United States.

Fresh & Wild

UK based Fresh & Wild was founded by Hass Hassan in late 1998. He acquired the long established City Health Store in London and opened the first new Fresh & Wild in Camden Town in February 1999. Another existing health store in fashionable Notting Hill joined the emerging group in April 1999. Rapid growth and new store openings followed at Clapham Junction in October 2000, Soho in December 2000 and Stoke Newington in June 2001. Londoners quickly took to Fresh & Wild's friendly and informative style of natural food retailing and the stores rapidly gained recognition and began winning leading awards. The first store outside of London opened in the Clifton area of Bristol in December of 2003. The seven stores together with central kitchen and warehouse joined Whole Foods Market in January of 2004.

Wild Oats© Markets

Wild Oats was founded in 1987 by Michael Gilliland and his wife, Elizabeth Cook, with the purchase of the Crystal Market vegetarian natural foods store in Boulder, Colorado. With no experience in the natural foods business, the founders relied on the expertise of their employees and the wealth of natural product knowledge in Boulder to build Crystal Market into a thriving business. In 1991, Wild Oats opened their first supermarket-sized store in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In 1992, Crystal Market was re-named Wild Oats Vegetarian Market, and in the ensuing years the company began opening and acquiring other, small natural foods stores.

In 1993 and 1994, Wild Oats was named one of the "500 Fastest-Growing Private Companies in America" by Inc. Magazine. In 1996, it became a public company traded on the NASDAQ Stock Market. The Wild Oats story continued with a period of rapid growth through acquisitions and new store development, which peaked in 1999 with the addition of 47 stores in a single year. Wild Oats operated 109 stores in 23 states and British Columbia, Canada (Capers™ Community Markets) at the time it merged with Whole Foods Market in 2007. (Of those, the 35 Henry's Farmers Markets and Sun Harvest stores were acquired by a separate food retailer.) Wild Oats' similar mission, vision and values along with their knowledgeable and talented Team Members made them a welcome and valuable addition to our team.

back to top