Whole Foods CEO John Mackey on His Cookbook, Lower Prices, and Higher Purpose
“The Whole Foods Cookbook” focuses on flavorful, plant-based recipes.
When Whole Foods opened its doors 39 years ago, "health food" was likely considered by most people as, at best, a trend and, at worst, an epithet for bland, soulless cooking. But four decades later, the organic and natural foods supermarket chain is a staple of many Americans' weekly routines (as well as Top Chef grocery runs) and elimination diets ranging from so-called "paleo" to 100-percent plant-based are so commonplace they're even being accommodated at fast food chains. For Whole Foods co-founder and CEO John Mackey, himself a vegan, one troubling aspect of this nouveau nutrition trend is the tribalism that occurs within these subsets of food culture. In 2016, he co-wrote a manifesto of sorts, The Whole Foods Diet, which attempted to make the scientific, environmental, and ethical case for reducing the number of animal products we eat. That book, Mackey says, received criticism for even entertaining the idea of eating animal products by offering a few recipes with chicken stock and grilled salmon. But Mackey's dietary evangelism isn't necessarily focused on converting the masses to one true faith.
The practical companion to that first book, The Whole Foods Cookbook, is now available at bookstores and, of course, Whole Foods and on Amazon. Despite the meat- egg-, and dairy-free slate of recipes (and at the risk of being banished from the vegan community), it includes advice on how readers could work animal proteins into various recipes. It's less about preaching and more about encouraging through positive, flavorful experiences with plant-based dishes. I spoke with Mackey about his cookbook, the current state of the Whole Foods and Amazon relationship, and why business isn't just about making money.
Adam Campbell-Schmitt: What was your approach to writing The Whole Foods Cookbook versus The Whole Foods Diet?
John Mackey: This is the companion cookbook. The Whole Foods Diet book has some recipes in it, but it's not primarily a recipe book, it's making the case for the best diet for people to eat and that the science supports. The cookbook is beautiful, and even if you don't know anything about cooking, this book is approachable because we've got how to cook whole grains, how to cook beans, how to cook without oil, steaming, roasting, how to create flavor bombs, spice blends, and things like that. We can kind of meet you where you're at.
We sell a lot of high-end wine in our stores but the median price we well wine for is about 13 bucks. Most people even at Whole Foods don't want their wine to be too expensive. They want really good wine they can buy for 10 to 15 dollars. And I think it's the same way with food. what we tried not to do is make this such a complicated book that nobody's going to do the recipes.
ACS: The entire cookbook is vegan and plant-focused, why was that important to you?
JM: The recipes in The Whole Foods Diet book are mostly plant-based but there are a few that have animal foods in it because we think that that's consistent [to the way most people eat] to have animal foods in there. Unfortunately, society is very tribalized right now. There's such conflict all the time. Everybody's trying to decide what tribe you're in and if you're not in their tribe then you're fair game and if you are in your tribe and deviate a little bit, then you're a heretic. They just burn you alive. By trying to thread the needle with The Whole Foods Diet, even though all three authors are vegan, by allowing that wiggle room it really upset people that are in the plant-based movement. The plant-based community didn't read it. So what we've done with the cookbook is 100 percent of the recipes are plant-based, but we show areas where if you want to add some animal protein to it you can, how you can weave that in. We're really hoping this book is not going to be ostracized by the plant-based community as heresy. We're recognizing the tribalization of food cultures — paleo, ketogenic, low carbs — there's just so many different philosophies out there.
ACS: What was your involvement with the recipe development?
JM: These aren't my recipes. [Chad and Derek Sarno] who worked for Whole Foods for a decade or so, even though they have their own company now called Wicked Healthy, I really wanted them to do the recipes because they're the best whole foods, plant-based cooks that I know in terms of their ability to do simple food and make it intensely flavorful. At the end of the day, if people don't think the food tastes good they're not going to eat it. That was the extent of my involvement other than tasting the recipes, and I think they knocked it out of the park.
ACS: Do you have a favorite recipe in the book?
JM: A recipe I was surprised how good it was is a pasta dish, it's a vegan pesto linguine. It's got a lot of greens in it — you've got your pesto so it's a lot of basil, but of course, they're not using parmesan, they're using cashews for that. Then they've got a ton of kale and spinach in the recipe. And the discovery on that for me was that it's really easy to make and you're getting an incredible quantity of greens in this meal, but you're not even noticing it because the flavor is so rich in the pesto. Most Americans haven't warmed up to veggies. One of the best ways for people to eat more veggies is to do these flavorful recipes. There's a chili recipe with lots of veggies in it, but in the end, it tastes like chili, and the greens taste like a pesto. I think being able to create recipes like that can really deliver a lot of health to people without sacrificing on flavor.
ACS: What do you like to cook?
JM: I eat very simply but I do like to cook. I travel with a rice cooker and I have steel cut oats for breakfast, with blueberries and raisins and unsweetened almond milk, which I whip up in my hotel room. One of my favorite appliances is a steam oven we have in our home, so a typical dinner for me is to come home, pick out the veggies in the fridge, chop them up, heat up the steam oven, throw them in, and then make a sauce that will go on those veggies. We have a bunch of great sauces in the cookbook. There's a cashew ranch dressing and spicy barbecue tahini sauce.
Lately, I've really gotten into Indian food. My wife loves Indian food. What's interesting is when you go to a typical Indian restaurant you're going to get a lot of oil, a lot of salt, a lot of dairy like ghee. But it's the spices that make Indian food so good, so what I've learned is you can make the most incredibly delicious Indian food with no oil and no dairy, but you've got these amazing spices. Once you can learn how to crack those spices open — we might use just a little spray of oil if you want to get your cumin seed or fenugreek seed or black mustard seeds to pop to release the flavor — from there you build on that, and it's often able to be cooked pretty fast. And we're adding things that were never in traditional Indian food. we've got a dish in the cookbook that's like a tofu saag paneer. Traditionally, it's going to have cheese but here it's tofu, adding a little coconut to give it a richness of flavor. Tofu is a really boring food by itself so it has to absorb what it's cooked with and, with Indian flavors, it's a natural fit.
ACS: Whole Foods has such a devoted following, is there a significance of calling this the "Whole Foods" cookbook?
JM: You'll notice it doesn't say "Whole Foods Market." It's got a logo on the cover because of me, so definitely the publisher wants to have the association. But this is not, as I talk about in the preface, an official Whole Foods Market cookbook. These are my own personal beliefs. At Whole Foods, we're happy to sell whole and natural foods to every different kind of dietary philosophy out there. Whole Foods has got to kind of be agnostic in these religious food debates that go on.
The first store I opened up that predates the Whole Foods brand is a store called Safer Way. Safer Way was a very pure store, it was incredibly idealistic. It was vegetarian — it wasn't vegan, I'd never even heard of the word back in 1978 — it didn't sell any sugar, refined flours, alcohol, or meat obviously. It didn't even sell caffeine, so we didn't sell coffee, we didn't sell black tea. It did almost no business. We were so far ahead of where the market was, and it wasn't until we merged with another store and changed the name to Whole Foods Market that we said, "You know what? We're going to sell meat, we're going to sell alcohol, we're going to sell coffee, we're going to sell sugar." You've got to meet the market where you find it. It's still going to be natural and organic foods, not going to be a bunch of artificial ingredients, and meat raised without hormones or antibiotics. And I think we hit the sweet spot. So we're not going to stop selling foods just because John Mackey doesn't think it's good. We tried that and we almost went out of business. We're going to sell the foods that you want us to sell, your own definition of what the good life is. We're not going to preach to people. I have found nobody likes to be preached to about food.
ACS: Over a year into the Amazon deal, what are your observations about how it has changed or improved things at Whole Foods?
JM: Whole Foods is still running the company. The best metaphor to understand a merger like this one is marriage. We've gotten married and we're learning from each other, we like each other, we are changing because when you get married you change — and if you're going to stay married you change, for sure. So Whole Foods is evolving, but we're not being forced to change, we're not being coerced, they're not ordering us to do things. We're working together to make our stores better. So we've had two major rounds of price reductions at Whole Foods and we'll be doing more in the future for sure. We want to eliminate that idea that Whole Foods is not accessible to people.
Whole Foods was not advanced technologically, so one of those the things that's really accelerating Whole Foods is Amazon leading us to upgrade our technology in so many different ways. We've also worked really hard on Whole Foods loyalty program with Amazon's Prime benefits. That was one of the things that was very important to Amazon when we started talking initially. I put out "Why don't we make the Prime program our loyalty program?" and they really grabbed onto it. Prime is a club, and they want that club to get bigger.
ACS: What about Amazon's involvement allowed Whole Foods to lower prices?
JM: The market for almost everybody but Amazon is extremely short-term focused, so if you make a major price reduction, over the long term that's going to increase your traffic counts, but in the short term your price went down. Something you were selling for a dollar you're selling for 90 cents, so your sales are going to go down and your profits are going to go down, and the market is going to freak out. [Wall Street is] not very understanding about the long term, so the main thing Amazon has helped Whole Foods to do is to escape from that short-term Wall Street trap. They know, better than anyone, how to think long-term and have allowed Whole Foods to think long-term.
An example of that is when Amazon announced they're raising their minimum wage to $15, we have about 90,000 hourly workers at Whole Foods, so 90,000 people are getting a minimum — if they're full time — of a $2,000 raise beginning [November 1]. Many of them are getting $4, $5, or $6 raise. Even if you're making over $15 an hour, we're raising everybody up. That's going to raise our costs significantly in the short-run. But again, Amazon takes the long-term perspective on that. Needless to say, that's very good for morale — everybody's making more money and they're happy about that. We can hire better people, they're going to work with us longer, and they won't be so eager to quit. That's going to provide better service for our customers.
Being able to take that long-term view is the thing about the merger I'm personally most happy about because I'm a strategist, I like to think long-term and I haven't been able to do it. I've been trapped in that short-term Wall Street quarterly earnings thing. We were public for 25 years and I did over 100 quarterly earnings calls, and you know what? I haven't missed it at all. I'm not losing any sleep over that.
ACS: Nearly 40 years into Whole Foods, what reflections do you have on your legacy?
JM: I don't think about it at all, really. I'm an entrepreneur, that's how I self-identify. For me, it's not about what I've done, it's what I'm going to do in the future that's fun, the projects I'm creating is what makes life meaningful. One day when I'm super old and retired from Whole Foods and I'm not good for anything else, I'll reflect back on my life like anybody else. I'm still at an age where I'm thinking about the future and I'm excited about the future, by the possibilities. It's never been a more exciting time to be in food than right now. There's more variety of food accessible to Americans than any other time in the world. I get to be part of that. The supermarket business is evolving. I'm a player at a very exciting time and it's fun. I'm too busy creating the future to think too much about the past.
ACS: In this age of startups, it's common for businesses to have both mission and a bottom line. What has been and will be Whole Foods' approach to that?
JM: I think business is inherently good. I reject the stereotype of business that people on the Left have that it's a bunch of greed and sociopaths running around lining their pockets. I don't think that's true. Are there people like that in business? Certainly. There are people like that everywhere. It's a part of human nature. A certain percentage of people are sociopaths and business has no higher percentage than any other thing. However, while I think business is good and creates value in the world, it could be a lot better. That's why we wrote Conscious Capitalism and we have a nonprofit consciouscapitalism.org. We're in all 50 states and getting into the high teens of countries.
The purpose of business is not to make money. That's how it's usually portrayed. The way I like to compare it is that my body has to produce red blood cells or I'll die, there's no question about it. Stop producing red blood cells and you won't be here long. But it doesn't logically follow that, therefore, the purpose of my life is to produce red blood cells. Similarly, business has to produce money or it will fail, but it doesn't follow that the purpose of business is to make money. It's just important that it does it.
Business has the potential for a higher, transcendent purpose. You want to talk about legacy? I would like to think that before I'm done people would not see business as primarily about making money. It's about the values it's creating in the world. Whole Foods' purpose is to nourish people and the planet. We're succeeding on that. We're achieving our higher purpose.
The Whole Foods Cookbook is available now on Amazon.com.