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16 Organic Facts About Whole Foods

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Spencer Platt/Getty Images

With more than 350 stores across the country, Whole Foods—which was just purchased by Amazon for $13.7 billion—has become synonymous with both vigilant eating habits and losing weight via your wallet. Before you make your next stop to select the perfect mango, take a look at these 16 facts about the company and some of its more unusual policies.

1. THE CO-FOUNDERS LIVED IN THEIR FIRST STORE ...

When John Mackey and Renee Lawson Hardy opened their first all-natural foods store in downtown Austin, Texas in 1978, they didn’t particularly care whether it was a storefront or a residence—though Mackey thought it would be “fun” to operate out of a home. After finding a house zoned for commercial use, the two converted the first floor to a sales area featuring food, produce, and coolers. A café was on the second floor, and the third floor was an office and sleeping area, where Mackey and Hardy spent their nights. (They had been evicted from their apartment for storing food there.)

2. ... WHICH MEANS THEY HAD TO BATHE IN THE DISHWASHER.

Because the property wasn’t approved for use as a residence, it had no shower facilities. When Mackey and Lawson couldn’t grab a shower elsewhere, they cleaned themselves using the dishwasher hose intended for their café dishes.

3. THE FIRST “OFFICIAL” WHOLE FOODS STORE GOT FLOODED.

By 1980, Mackey had merged with another health food store, Clarksville Grocery, and neither had wanted to keep their original name. (Mackey’s had been called SaferWay, a dig at the SafeWay grocery chain.) The two settled on Whole Foods, and the new store ran smoothly for about a year—until the worst flood in Austin’s history hit, causing $400,000 in damages. In a testament to the consumer loyalty the company had already managed to create, several non-employees volunteered to help with the clean-up. It re-opened less than a month later.

4. THEY ACQUIRED A FOOD AND TOY STORE.

Part of the Whole Foods expansion plan throughout the 1980s and 1990s was acquiring a series of natural foods stores. The most unusual was the Bread & Circus chain out of Massachusetts, which paired healthy food selection with an inventory of wooden toys. Though they’re no longer in the amusements business, the company still uses the Bread & Circus name if a new territory may already have an existing (unaffiliated) Whole Foods store.

5. EMPLOYEES CAN SEE WHAT EVERYONE MAKES.

Cashier hands out free reusable grocery bags at whole foods
David McNew/Getty Images

Mackey, who is now co-CEO of Whole Foods, enforces what he calls “no secrets” management. Every store has a ledger in which the annual salaries of all employees—even executives—are available for any worker to see.

6. AN EMPLOYEE'S CHOLESTEROL LEVEL AFFECTS THEIR DISCOUNT.

In an effort to keep their workforce from keeling over, Whole Foods arranges their employee discount percentage on a sliding scale. If you’re a smoker, overweight, or otherwise afflicted, you get the standard 20 percent. But if your lungs are clear, your cholesterol levels are within range, and your BMI is in check, you’re eligible for up to a 30 percent discount.

7. EMPLOYEES GET “VOTED IN” BY OTHER EMPLOYEES.

Most Whole Foods stores are broken up into various branches: front end, produce, meats, etc. If an employee wants to join a particular team, he or she is given a 45- to 90-day probationary period. At the end, existing team members can vote on whether they want a person to stay on permanently. Since company bonuses are tied to performance, it’s not really a popularity contest: teams want workers who can raise profitability.

8. ONLY ONE STORE SELLS LIVE LOBSTERS.

Citing an inability to control lobster treatment across the country, only the Portland, Maine Whole Foods makes live lobsters available to customers. Each one is kept in its own tank to avoid overcrowding. Once purchased, the crustaceans are killed via mild electrical shock (from a device called a CrustaStun), sparing them from having to endure the inevitable boiling pot of water.

9. BUT LOTS OF LOCATIONS SELL RABBIT MEAT.

Bunnies: adorable pets, or satisfying, protein-enriched meal? If you’re partial to the latter, several Whole Foods locations offer rabbit meat due to what they claimed were “repeated customer requests.” In 2014, bunny activists incited a series of “hopping mad” headlines by protesting the decision.

10. EMPLOYEES CANNOT STOP SHOPLIFTERS. (UNLESS THEY WANT TO BE FIRED.)

Whole Foods takes a hard line when it comes to someone playing hero: no employees are allowed any physical contact with customers, and that extends to shoplifters. In 2007, employee (and former Marine) John Schultz was fired after he chased and detained a shoplifter outside of a store in Ann Arbor.

11. YOU CAN'T BUY ASPIRIN THERE.

asprin bottle
iStock

Because Whole Foods considers the painkillers aspirin and ibuprofen to be artificial, they do not sell either. Instead, the chain offers customers “natural” remedies for cold or flu symptoms, which prompted Forbes.com columnist Steven Salzberg to criticize the company for selling supplements that are under no FDA obligation to prove some of their claims.

12. THEY USED TO HAVE AN “ENGLISH-ONLY” LANGUAGE POLICY.

Prior to 2013, speaking any language other than English while in the store would have been a violation of company policy for employees. When two Albuquerque, New Mexico employees complained about the edict, they were suspended. According to the New York Daily News, Whole Foods asserted the employees were penalized for other reasons; regardless, the policy was revised.

13. THERE'S AN ICE RINK AT COMPANY HEADQUARTERS.

The company’s flagship store in Austin has become something of a tourist destination, with a domed ice skating rink on the building’s rooftop, open during the winter months.

14. SOME OF THEIR DAIRY PRODUCTS WERE DISCOVERED TO HAVE BEEN MILKED BY PRISONERS.

What better sustainable labor than our nation’s penal system? In 2014, Fortune magazine discovered that cheese maker Haystack Mountain had an agreement with Colorado Corrections Industries that allowed prisoners to milk goats for a salary of $300 to $400 a month. The resulting cheese wound up being sold to Whole Foods and other retailers.

15. THEY CONFESSED TO OVERCHARGING CUSTOMERS.

The perpetual joke about the chain being renamed “Whole Paycheck” for its pricey inventory got a little more real after New York’s Department of Consumer Affairs found that area stores were exaggerating the weights of prepackaged items, sometimes overcharging by as much as $15. In a YouTube video released in July 2015, Mackey and co-CEO Walter Robb admitted the company had made mistakes but had not intended to mislead consumers. Besides...

16. THEY'RE GOING TO OPEN A CHAIN OF LOWER-PRICED STORES.

People crowd a Whole Foods store in Manhattan
Mario Tama/Getty Images

That “Whole Paycheck” jab really stings—enough that the company is plotting to launch a chain of reduced-price stores dubbed 365 by Whole Foods Market. (365 is the company’s in-house brand.) The stores are intended to compete with organic insurgents like Wal-Mart, which has been cutting into market share in recent years. Finally: rabbit stew and prison-crafted artisanal cheese at prices to fit every budget.

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5 Killer Pieces of Rock History Up for Auction Now (Including Prince’s Guitar)
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Karrah Kobus/NPG Records via Getty Images

If you’ve ever wanted to own a piece of rock history, now is the time. A whole host of cool music memorabilia from the 20th century is going up for sale through Julien’s Auctions in Los Angeles as part of its “Icons and Idols” sale. If you’ve got the dough, you can nab everything from leather chairs from Graceland to a shirt worn by Jimi Hendrix to never-before-available prints that Joni Mitchell signed and gave to her friends. Here are five highlights from the auction:

1. ELVIS’S NUNCHUCKS

Elvis’s nunchucks
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

Elvis’s karate skills sometimes get a bad rap, but the King earned his first black belt in 1960, and went on to become a seventh-degree black belt before opening his own studio in 1974. You can cherish a piece of his martial arts legacy in the form of his nunchaku. One was broken during his training, but the other is still in ready-to-use shape. (But please don’t use it.) It seems Elvis wasn’t super convinced of his own karate skills, though, because he also supposedly carried a police baton (which you can also buy) for his personal protection.

2. PRINCE’S GUITAR

A blue guitar used by Prince
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

Prince’s blue Cloud guitar, estimated to be worth between $60,000 and $80,000, appeared on stage with him in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The custom guitar was made just for Prince by Cloud’s luthier (as in, guitar maker) Andy Beech. The artist first sold it at a 1994 auction to benefit relief efforts for the L.A. area’s devastating Northridge earthquake.

3. KURT COBAIN’S CHEERLEADER OUTFIT

Kurt Cobain wearing a cheerleader outfit in the pages of Rolling Stone
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

The Nirvana frontman wore the bright-yellow cheerleader’s uniform from his alma mater, J.M. Weatherwax High School in Aberdeen, Washington, during a photo shoot for a January 1994 issue of Rolling Stone, released just a few months before his death.

4. MICHAEL JACKSON’S WHITE GLOVE

A white glove covered in rhinestones
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

A young Michael Jackson wore this bejeweled right-hand glove on his 1981 Triumph Tour, one of the first of many single gloves he would don over the course of his career. Unlike later incarnations, this one isn’t a custom-made glove with hand-sewn crystals, but a regular glove topped with a layer of rhinestones cut into the shape of the glove and sewn on top.

The auction house is also selling a pair of jeans the star wore to his 2003 birthday party, as well as other clothes he wore for music videos and performances.

5. WOOD FROM ABBEY ROAD STUDIOS

A piece of wood in a frame under a picture of The Beatles
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

You can’t walk the halls of Abbey Road Studios, but you can pretend. First sold in 1986, the piece of wood in this frame reportedly came from Studio Two, a recording space that hosted not only The Beatles (pictured), but Pink Floyd, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, and others.

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5 Dubious Historical Antidotes for Poison (and What Actually Works)
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An artificial bezoar stone from Goa, India
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

When it comes to their health, humans will believe just about anything. In this extract from the new book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything, authors Lydia Kang, MD, and Nate Pedersen discuss some of the more questionable ways people once tried to protect themselves from poison—whether or not the methods actually worked.

Poison is everywhere. Naturally or unnaturally, it can be in the soil (arsenic), in the air (carbon monoxide), in your drinks (lead), and in your food (cyanide). With so much danger around, it’s no wonder humans have obsessed over finding a universal antidote—the one thing that could save us from all toxins. Imagine you’re a medieval prince about to inherit the throne. Chances are, there are a lot of power-hungry wannabes waiting in the wings. A little arsenic or hemlock might be your best friend or your worst nightmare. Just in case, best have an antidote on standby.

For millennia, a certain amount of magical thinking was employed when arming oneself against poison because science was inconveniently slow to catch up. So grab your handy unicorn horn and a bezoar, and let’s take a look.

1. BEZOARS

Bezoars have been used for centuries as antidotes to poisons. A bezoar is solid mass of undigested food, plant fibers, or hair found in the digestive tracts of animals, including deer, porcupines, fish, and, yes, humans. Anyone with a cat is familiar with the less-cool feline version: hairballs.

Bezoars and other stone-like items created by animals often had a good story behind them. Legends told of deer that would eat poisonous snakes and become immune or cry tears that solidified into poison-curing stones. First-century Arabic author al-Birumi claimed bezoars could protect against one poison called “the snot of Satan,” which we hope never ever to encounter. By the 12th century, when Europe became plagued with, uh, plagues, the bezoar crept into pharmacopeias as panaceas and alexipharmics (poison antidotes).

Bezoars were a seductive notion for the rich and royal, who were at risk of assassination. The stones were often enclosed in bejeweled gold for display or worn as amulets. Indian bezoars, in particular, were sought for life-threatening fevers, poisonous bites, bleeding, jaundice, and melancholy. Consumers were also known to scrape off a bit of bezoar and add it to their drinks for heart health and kidney stones. These tonics were sometimes adulterated with toxic mercury or antimony, which caused vomiting and diarrhea, making buyers think they were effective.

But were they? One team of researchers soaked bezoars in an arsenic-laced solution and found that the stones absorbed the arsenic or that the poison was neutralized. Hard to say if it worked well enough to cure a fatal dose. Ambroise Paré, one of the preeminent French physicians of the 16th century, was also a doubter. The king’s cook, who’d been stealing silver, was given the choice between hanging or being Paré’s lab rat. He chose the latter. After the cook consumed poison, Paré looked on as a bezoar was stuffed down his throat. Six hours later, he died wracked with pain. Perhaps he chose ... poorly?

2. MITHRIDATES

This antidote was named after Mithridates VI, the king of Pontus and Armenia Minor. Born in 134 BCE, he pretty much invented the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” by consuming poisons daily to prevent his own assassination. His royal home was stocked with stingray spines, toxic mushrooms, scorpions, mineral poisons, and a poisonous plant–filled garden. He was so unpoisonable that after his son took over his kingdom and he faced execution, he couldn’t even commit suicide by poison! He begged a guard to stab him to death. (It worked.)

Though the king’s actual recipe for the antidote is nowhere to be found, versions began to circulate after his death, and they became synonymous with the king himself. Compounds with lengthy and expensive ingredient lists prevailed, including iris, cardamom, anise, frankincense, myrrh, ginger, and saffron. In the first century, Pliny the Elder snarkily remarked, “The Mithridatic antidote is composed of fifty-four ingredients ... Which of the gods, in the name of Truth, fixed these absurd proportions? ... It is plainly a showy parade of the art, and a colossal boast of science.”

Showy or not, people would take the extensive mix of herbs, pound them together with honey, and eat a nut-sized portion to cure themselves. At least it endowed them with expensive-smelling breath.

3. HORNS

An apothecary shop sign in the shape of a unicorn
An ivory pharmacy sign in the shape of a unicorn's head
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Unicorn horns have been considered a part of antidote legend since the mythical beast galloped into literature around 300 BCE. For centuries afterward, real earthly beasts would sacrifice their lives and their horns to slake our thirst for the miraculous, nonexistent animal, including rhinoceroses, narwhals, and oryx. Even fossilized ammonites were used. It was believed that drinking vessels made of such horns might neutralize poisons, and wounds could be cured by holding them close by. In the 16th century, Mary, Queen of Scots reportedly used a unicorn horn to protect her from poisoning. Too bad it didn’t prevent her beheading.

4. PEARLS

Pearls have long been thought to be powerful antidotes. A beautiful, rare gem created by the homely oyster, a pearl is born out of annoyance (the mollusk secretes iridescent nacre to cover an irritant, like a parasite or grain of sand). Pretty as they are, they’re about as useful as the chalky antacid tablets on your bedside table; both are chiefly made of calcium carbonate. Good for a stomachache after some spicy food, but not exactly miraculous.

Pearl powder has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a variety of diseases, and Ayurvedic physicians used it as an antidote in the Middle Ages. It was also reported to make people immortal. An old Taoist recipe recommended taking a long pearl and soaking it in malt, “serpent’s gall,” honeycomb, and pumice stone. When softened, it would be pulled like taffy and cut into bite-sized pieces to eat, and voilà! You would suddenly no longer need food to stay alive. Cleopatra famously drank down a large and costly pearl dissolved in wine vinegar, though in that case she wasn’t avoiding poison. She didn’t want to lose a bet with Antony—which might have fatally injured her pride.

5. THERIAC

Albarello vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
A vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Theriac was an herbal concoction created in the first century by Emperor Nero’s physician, Andromachus, who was reported to have Mithridates’s secret notes. It was a mashed formula of about 70 ingredients, including cinnamon, opium, rose, iris, lavender, and acacia in a honey base. In the 12th century, theriac made in Venice was branded as particularly special, and Venetian treacle (derived from a Middle English translation of theriac) became a hot commodity. Its public, dramatic production often attracted curious crowds.

By the 18th century, cheaper golden syrup was substituted for honey. As treacle began to lose its luster as a treatment, its definition as an herbal remedy disappeared from common vernacular. But the sweet syrup remained. Which is why when we think of treacle, we think of treacle tarts, not a fancy means of saving ourselves from a deathly poisoning.

BONUS: WHAT ACTUALLY WORKS

Thankfully, science has brought us a wide range of antidotes for many items we shouldn’t be exposed to in dangerous quantities, if at all. N-acetylcysteine, fondly referred to as NAC by doctors, saves us from acetaminophen overdoses. Ethanol can treat antifreeze poisoning. Atropine, ironically one of the main components of plants in the toxic nightshade family (such as mandrake), can treat poisoning from some dangerous fertilizers and chemical nerve agents used as weapons. For years, poisonings were treated with emetics, though it turns out that plain old carbon—in the form of activated charcoal—can adsorb poisons (the poisons stick to the surface of the charcoal) in the digestive system before they’re dissolved and digested by the body.

As long as the natural world and its humans keep making things to kill us off, we’ll keep developing methods to not die untimely deaths.

We’ll just leave the fancy hairballs off the list.

The cover of the book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything
Workman Publishing

Excerpt from Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang, MD and Nate Pedersen/Workman Publishing. Used with permission.

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