Welcome to the United States of Whole Foods Markets: Is Organic Food Saving America?

wfm detroit

Whole Foods Market, the Austin-based supermarket chain, began opening doors around the country more than thirty years ago. At the time, the company saw a limited market opportunity. Today, things are quite different.

Whole Foods Market founder, John Mackey, thought a reasonable goal for his organic and natural food-focused chain was about 100 U.S. locations. Now, closing in on 400, the market opportunities continue to increase, showing little sign of slowing down.

Even among the nation’s most destitute neighborhoods, Whole Foods customers seek what the store excels at: high quality—and high-priced—food, household and personal care products. CNN reports:

When will I be able to get wheatgrass in my smoothie? Do you sell dehydrated pineapple? They want how much for this organic coconut oil? It is the kind of earnest banter you might hear at any Whole Foods Market store in Manhattan or San Francisco — only these snippets were among the full-on foodie conversations picked up in the aisles of Whole Foods’ lone store in Detroit, a gleaming 21,000-square-foot food and natural-products emporium that opened in June 2013, six weeks before the city filed for bankruptcy protection.

Detroit may be the best example of a modern U.S. city struggling to survive. And while the pricey Whole Foods Market offerings may seem antithetical to the city’s survival, the store may actually be helping to lift Detroit out of its melee with the present day economy.

How does Whole Foods Market’s costly inventory equal cities like Detroit getting healthier and more stable? Mainly because people want to, and need to, get healthier, too. The well-deserved nickname “Whole Paycheck” that Whole Foods is often known as, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It is the place people want to spend all of their money. And for good reason. Lifting a city like Detroit out of its decades of poverty can’t be done by unhealthy people. Aside from the healthy foods sold in Whole Foods, there’s an otherworldly quality being inside the stores emits, too—be it disorienting and a little bit terrifying at first. “As the great, sliding glass doors part I am immediately smacked in the face by a wall of cool, moist air that smells of strawberries and orchids. I leave behind the concrete jungle and enter a cornucopia of organic bliss; the land of hemp milk and honey. Seriously, think about Heaven and then think about Whole Foods; they’re basically the same,” writes Kelly MacLean, Stand up comic, actress and writer.

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But it’s not just Detroit. The 100 locations maximum envisioned by Mackey has now been stretched to 1,200 (including UK and Canadian locations). It’s likely to stretch past that eventually, too. In the Northeast, or here in Los Angeles, the number of Whole Foods locations is particularly dense compared with the rest of the country. But more are still popping up, sure to succeed, sure to lure new customers and devotees—converts from the drab aisles and uninspired food of conventional markets.

While conventional grocery store sales are flat, or even declining, Whole Foods Market is at the core of the booming organic food industry that generated more than $35 billion in U.S. sales last year. Count “natural” foods and that number skyrockets to an estimated $150 billion, explains CNN. Whole Foods itself raked in nearly $13 billion last year (and more than 7 million customers each week). Target and Wal-Mart are now getting in on the action in a big way, too. And even though the two larger chains sell more organic products than Whole Foods by volume, it’s Whole Foods’ lead they’re following. Whole Foods “is tiny by comparison, but it’s had an outsize impact on the industry and defied the headwinds facing its brethren by dominating in the food category that’s growing — one that, not coincidentally, it helped create,” reports CNN.

A big part of its success in offering healthier food is that it doesn’t offer judgment, explains CNN, “You can buy vegan cheese at Whole Foods, but you can also buy cheesecake.” If anything, it softens the transition to living a healthier lifestyle, buffering those Brussels sprouts and brown rice with beer and chocolate. Over time, though, customers may find themselves buying more of the truly healthy foods, and less of the other stuff. It’s why those potential market limits continue to expand. Where once maybe only ten cities could support such a health-minded institution, moving towards more than 1,000 now, makes sense. Says CNN: “Whole Foods didn’t alter or dumb down its formula for Detroit, and why should it?” What would be the point of a Whole Foods Market that reflected the destitute state of a city like Detroit? If a city–or a country– is going to reinvent itself, the magic might just be most likely to sprout up surrounded by organic fruits and vegetables, organic chocolate, hemp milk and honey.

Find Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

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Images: kshawphoto, healthiermi

Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites OrganicAuthority.com and EcoSalon.com, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better. www.jillettinger.com.