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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.

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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.

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.

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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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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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