I consider my first “real” job the one I had at a big, fancy magazine in New York. But even as I worked there, I referred to my previous job, one that got me through senior year of college and the uncertain months post-graduation, as the best job I’d ever had. I was a cashier at Whole Foods.
Of course, standing for hours at a register and filling my brain with produce codes (conventional bananas: 4237, if organic, add a 9) had never been a dream of mine. I told myself that this was just a stopgap before some assumed “next stage,” but my dependency on each paycheck was also a reminder of how far away I was from that stage. But cashier work meant structured eight-hour shifts and a twenty percent team member discount. A food allergy gave you expertise, and I’m a celiac, so I was a cool kid. At an unstable moment in my life, I was safe and happy there. And I had a reason other than necessity to return to the store each day: I had a fling with a guy in the Meat Department.
He was a butcher and a philosopher, Dutch with a North Carolina drawl. When he removed his Food-and-Safety-stipulated hairnet, long, golden hair came tumbling out. Those eyes were the powdery green of young, raw artichoke (code: 4762; also an aphrodisiac). His name was Cornelius, and he hacked apart flesh, wiped away blood, packaged dead animals for the health-conscious animals, and thought about Williams James the whole time. He played the banjo in a bluegrass band and looked like Brad Pitt in Legends of the Fall. I can say with authority that it’s challenging to loiter at a meat fridge three times a day and affect a look of happenstance. It could be argued, though, that I mastered it because for me, Whole Foods was clean eating and pure loving.
One of the things Cornelius liked to philosophize about was the futility of work. We’re all going to die anyway, so why not spend life dozing in a sunny field with a banjo and someone you love, gazing at the sky? Or, if your work shift prevents daytime field dozing, why not get stoned in your Honda Civic in the nighttime parking lot of Whole Foods with a girl drinking a bottle of organic wine out of a straw, listening to Old Crow Medicine Show?
Cornelius might have hidden the satisfaction he got from excelling at Whole Foods because he, like me, had his eyes on a different long game. But the ambition and commitment of other Whole Foods Market team members was no less intense than that of stock market traders. Take Julia, my Front End manager. She was a mother of two, and her fluffy, auburn hair bounced in time with her clucking, customer-ready chuckle. I kept waiting for her to break character. But she didn’t. Not once. She really cared if a customer’s littlest one got a rash from fruits with edible peel (seedless green grapes: 4498). And if she stopped caring, she’d never get promoted to store—and potentially regional—manager. Her devotion to the institution was most apparent in her participation in Health Starts Here . The goals of this employee incentive program were adjusted from person to person, but ultimately the aim was to lose a certain amount of weight and reach a particular BMI by eating healthy foods. Upon successful completion, a team member was awarded a further ten percent off for their employee discount. Julia’s goal of five pounds might have sounded modest, but I knew she had her eyes on the top of the corporate ladder; only the most driven team members were game for the weigh-ins, the BMI checks. She once told me, in what sounded like Market myth, about a woman who started out making the signs for food demos, but was so dedicated that she rose to head of marketing for the entire Southeast region.
But even with Julia’s unwavering focus, another team member stood out for his energy and zeal, albeit for different reasons: Rock-n-roll. Rock-n-roll worked in Grocery, wore a roguish Whole Foods bandana, and was six feet of prison-sprouted, hemp-protein-cultivated muscle. He was the ultimate success story of Whole Foods’s dedication to employing ex-cons. After a few shots of all - natural stimulants like Vitamin B12 and chlorophyll, maybe a dash of red ginseng in his iced maca tea, he rocked around those aisles with an efficiency that no Amazon warehouse-bot will ever match. He was called Rock-n-roll because that was pretty much all he ever said. To me: “I see you tiny girl pushin’ all those carts. Rock-n-roll!” To customers: “I see you starin’ at those goji berry superfoods! Rock-n-roll!” I believe his actual name was Frank — one time Julia told me to get Frank to find a specific kind of quinoa-based pasta for a customer because Frank was the fastest and this customer was already in the process of checking out and could not believe she forgot it . I didn’t know who Frank was, but Rock-n-roll came out of nowhere, found the pasta, and Julia said, “You’re the best!” and he said, “Rock-n-roll!”
The store was always abuzz—always. Between the night shifts for Prepared Foods, and the early mornings for the Produce and Dairy guys, no Whole Foods store is ever empty. Which is to say, the Whole Foods Market Radio that plays on the speakers of every store is never turned off. But when our shifts ended and we were released for the night, Cornelius drove me home. He’d been at the meat counter all through college and now we both faced the post-graduation abyss. At least we had each other, and secret meetings in the storage room behind the box compressor. We had inside jokes about the evangelistic company culture, which really came to life during the three-day training they had for new hires—even for the entry-level position that we both started in: bagger.
The sessions took place in an on-site conference room and mostly consisted of company history and ethos. John Mackey, Austin, 1978, college dropout to CEO, acquisitions, dreams, education, organic, though it’s not organic once it hits the register. Wait. What? Two-thirds into my inculcation, I learned that no produce item was organic by the time a customer checked out, because that produce has been placed on a register conveyor belt that has been either a) cleaned with a cleaning product that has rendered everything it touches inorganic (but nonetheless lessened the spread of allergens between foods), or b) been in contact with regular, conventional, inorganic foods. The act of purchasing the organic option renders it just. as. inferior. This was not information we were to volunteer to customers — it was meant to demonstrate Whole Foods Market’s superior understanding of organicness.
On the third day of training, we watched videos. Some were animations about the mission to satisfy, delight, and nourish our customers; some were about the complicated but compelling labor gainsharing and stock options. My favorite films were situation-education: staged scenarios in which actual team members—not actors—were cast, and which explained how to deal with difficult customers. Whole Foods Market never “doesn’t have” a product; we’re grateful that the highly educated customer has brought to our attention something to add to our shelves. We always want to walk the customer to exactly where the item is. It is completely reasonable that they’re returning an open box of freeze-dried apple crisps because they taste “dusty”—here’s a refund. Usually the videos had an interactive quiz at the end — which I aced, just as I aced difficult customers in real life. Whenever this one twitchy, tweed-clad guy would head for the cheese samples and start stuffing his linty pockets with twenty-five-dollar-per-pound Gouda cubes, I never reprimanded. I politely asked if I could show him where the Gouda was found in the cheese fridge. And when the hoarder lady who refused to touch surfaces with her hands tried to open the bread cabinets and pick up items with her feet, I turned on my Julia smile, told her other customers preferred that we didn’t touch things with our feet, and asked if I could assist her in picking up items.
Once, though, there was a situation that no video could have prepared us for. A woman had been roaming the three aisles of Whole Body for about four hours, slowly adding lotions, supplements, and obscure powders to her cart. This was a red flag. But per North Carolina Whole Foods policy, we couldn’t approach the woman about her likely shoplifting until she had left the premises without paying. Sometimes the registers got pretty chaotic, and once or twice we’d realized too late that a desperate dad had just slipped between them and out the doors, $200 worth of organic baby food in hand. We could, however, do our best to prevent a person from leaving with the pilfered stash. Julia began speaking to security through her headset; the eyes of the store’s cameras and the ears of the ground-level team members were turned to the potential shoplifter. I took the opportunity to do regular passes at the back of the store by the meat counter in case this lady covertly tried to add a turkey to her haul.
And then she made her move: She was heading for the west end of the registers where lines bottle-necked at the 10 items or less checkout, and which was furthest from the view of Julia at the customer service desk. Operating Register 1 beside the desk, I heard the tinny voice of Whole Body manager Calyste through Julia’s headset: “She’s leaving my area, coming by you.”
Julia: “I got her.”
Julia to Grocery manager Josh: “Okay, she’s passing by me at the customer service desk. Looks like she’s en route to express checkout.”
Josh to Julia: “Copy. I’m at Aisle 4. She’ll be passing in a moment.”
Josh stepped out as she passed. “Hi ma’am. Anything I can help you find today?”
Thief: “Oh. No. I’m fine. Thank you.”
She pulled a U-ey, heading straight for the high-visibility territory around the customer service desk. Her path would soon fork: Either she could go around the desk, through Produce and Floral, and exit through the main entrance with a mountainous cart; or, walk right through the registers in full view of the desk. She veered towards Produce.
Josh to Julia: “She’s heading for the Produce entrance.”
Julia to Produce: “Sherman, do you have eyes on our woman?”
Sherman in Produce: “I see her. Floral, can you cut her off before she gets to the doors?”
Floral manager Donna: “I got her.”
Donna to the Thief: “Hi, ma’am. Are you looking for the registers to check out? Can I walk you over there?”
The thief didn’t respond. She locked eyes with Donna for a few airless moments, then released the handle of her cart and ran around Donna out the doors.
Julia, Donna, Calyste, and Sherman gathered around her cart and watched her out the glass doors, legging it through the parking lot. Hands on hips, they smiled at one another like humble superheroes. Then they high-fived and Julia said, “Let’s ring this sucker up!” She brought the cart to me at Register 1. The contents of the cart came to $914.33. The vitamin supplements really drove the price up, but thanks to me, there wasn’t a breast of meat in sight.
It was a victory of peaceful protection and customer service. We respected the customer/thief who is a person, too, the lifeblood of our business, and still satisfied the needs of stakeholders by not taking a loss of $915 on our daily sales. This is what our store manager, Stephanie, told the entire staff at our monthly meeting the following Wednesday. Julia got a gift hamper in thanks for her orchestration. She didn’t comment about how her hamper was all the cheap store-brand; she’s excited to try items from the line that she hasn’t before. I thought about how if she was a normal customer, she could just return everything for a refund and buy the expensive stuff instead.
The months rolled on, and so did my romance with the butcher. Fanciful English major that I was, I had pictured the carnal nature of his day-to-day work—the hooks and heft, sausage-stuffing and tenderloin-plumping, sharp knives and slick surfaces—and thought, I bet this guy is into some freaky shit. It turned out that there was generally less filth in hormone-free meat. He did have unusually supple fingers and deft hands.
Then graduation and the summer were wrapping up, and my apartment lease was ending, and my anxiety about finding a “real” job worsening. I finally got a response from an interview. I was being offered the position at the glamorous magazine in New York. My dream job, the kind Stanley Tucci would tell you “a million girls would kill for.” They wanted me to start in a week, which would mean flying out in five days. How was I going to quit and leave Whole Foods in the space of five days? I called my father in tears. I couldn’t do it. Was it even legal to quit on such short notice? There was no way it would all come together. “Get ahold of yourself,” my father said.
That night, Cornelius came over. We talked about our hopes. He talked about grad school for philosophy. We had some booze; he played banjo and sang. There was more drinking and smoking on the porch. A Carolina summer night with crickets and fireflies, fairy lights and plinky music. The air was a little steamy, but there was puff of breeze. We fell asleep on the porch in the early hours of the morning and went to work together the next day. I had to hand in my notice.
Word got around fast that I was leaving, maybe because I cried three times during my shift. What would I do without these people? How could I ever have better friends than Kristie, Geon, or Ryan? A better manager than Julia? Because we were a team, a party was organized quickly for that night. Hinrik of the Fish Department hosted at his house. There was craft beer, homemade non-dairy blueberry ice cream (blueberries: 4240), grass-fed beef burgers, and gluten-free cookies. There was country music and strong weed. When Cornelius and I left to walk back to my place, we had another honest conversation about our feelings. I felt like the girl heading for the big city, the one who got to leave, and I didn’t want him to think I’d forget him, or think I was better than us, here.
Cornelius had the next two days off, and I didn’t hear from him. I avoided him my last day in the store. And then I was packed up and leaving for the airport, leaving North Carolina, leaving Whole Foods.
Whatever we had, it was over (expired feelings: codeless) and, like most workplace affairs, met a rather deflating end. But my love affair with Whole Foods continues. I’ve never felt as easily welcomed by a place. When I go to any store, in New York or elsewhere, it’s like returning to a friend’s house where the nice mom says, “There’s some food in the fridge if you’re hungry,” and then adds, “I’ve considered your dietary requirements.” I loved my job because it was uncomplicated and it gave me purpose during a time when I felt my nerve ends were fringing. I probably liked Cornelius for similar reasons; I knew neither situation was permanent, but I found two anchors at a time when I felt unsure. Even if I didn’t enjoy making small talk while ringing up the weekly grocery shop of my recent college processors, I felt needed, productive, and healthy. I know the place is a pricey, giant chain — I certainly miss my team member discount — but when I was on the inside of the machine, it was good to me. And, for what it’s worth, it was void of any hydrogenated fats, artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, and sweeteners.