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The Natural

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Like many kids in the 1950s, John Mackey grew up thinking a home-cooked meal meant a frozen TV dinner or a box of processed food. “Moms at the time were saying, ‘Hey, I can open this macaroni and cheese, heat it up—and the kids are fed,’ ” Mackey says. “My mother was one of those.”

The pesticide-free organic apple, it seems, has fallen far from that tree. Mackey is founder and CEO of the Austin-based Whole Foods Market—the nation’s largest seller of organic foods with $2.3 billion in annual sales. The company promotes natural nourishment in 135 stores across the U.S. and Canada, including a Beverly Hills outpost that has attracted Matt Damon and Jodie Foster to aisles filled with soy products, recycled paper goods and wheat-free cookies. And with plans to add another 265 stores by the year 2010, Mackey, a college dropout, is poised to take on the traditional supermarkets. Says Jonathan Ziegler, a retail-food-and-drug-industry analyst with Deutsche Banc Securities: “Whole Foods is growing more rapidly than anyone else out there.”

In fact Mackey, 49, feels so confident about his company’s course that earlier this year he took five months off to hike the entire 2,168 miles of the Appalachian Trail. “I had a cell phone with me,” says Mackey, who was joined by friends and family along the way, “but it was turned off most of the time.” He also tries to tune out work on weekends, escaping to the 720-acre Johnson City, Texas, ranch he shares with wife Deborah Morin, 41, a former yoga instructor, or joining friends in a monthly book group. (The club’s latest read: Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.) “John,” says pal Cindy Bradley, 44, “is passionate about every single aspect of his life.”

She’s not kidding. Although he starts each morning with meditation and wears Birkenstocks and shorts to work, Mackey has been known to be a cutthroat competitor. Once, for example, he sent a copy of the board game Risk to rival Mike Gilliland, the now retired founder of the $900 million Wild Oats chain. Says Carole Buyers, director of equity research in the Denver office of RBC Capital Markets: “There were stories that they each had a dart board with pictures of the other on it.”

Nor is Mackey afraid of antagonizing groups that would appear to be his natural allies. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, for example, objects that Mackey buys meat from farms “that are especially abusive of the animals,” says Bruce Friedrich, the group’s director of vegan outreach. And the AFL-CIO is outraged by his opposition to the unionization of his workforce. Mackey takes a philosophical approach to the criticism. “We’re a mission-driven company,” he says, “so people are going to put Whole Foods under more scrutiny than they would a conventional grocery store.”

In fact, he has never allowed anyone to tell him what to do. When Mackey—the second of three children raised in Houston by Bill Mackey, 81, a retired Rice University accounting professor, and homemaker Margaret, who died in 1988—started Whole Foods, he did so without an M.B.A. After several attempts to study philosophy and religion at both Trinity College in San Antonio and the University of Texas in Austin (“I would go for a semester and then drop out and work a while,” Mackey says), he quit school for good in 1977. Feeling “experimental,” he says, he moved into a vegetarian co-op in Austin and took a job at a health-food store, experiences that changed the way he viewed food. “I knew exercise could change the way you felt,” he says, “but I hadn’t made the connection about diet affecting your health. That was a breakthrough for me.”

With money “hustled from friends and family,” he says, Mackey opened an Austin store called Safer Way in 1978. Within three years, he renamed his company Whole Foods Market and opened a second Austin site. “I remember how excited we were to get on the loudspeaker,” he says. “It was evidence we had a real grocery store.”

Evidence that he had found true love came in 1990, when he showed up for a blind date with Morin, looked into her refrigerator and, he says, “saw she had the right mix in there”—including Whole Foods products. The couple married a year later (they have no children), but though they share similar tastes, some aspects of their lives remain separate. “He is quite the competitive guy,” says Morin. “Once, I played checkers with him, and I was sweating—so I’m not playing anymore!”

No matter. Mackey has had plenty of other opportunities to show himself a winner. “For years, people would say, ‘I’d like to eat healthier, but it tastes terrible,’ ” he says. “We’ve proven that natural cuisine can be intensely pleasurable.”

Galina Espinoza

Alicia Dennis in Austin