From a Small Dump on Lamar and 10th to an Oz-Like Mega-Store Four Blocks South, Whole Foods Has Grown Since I Arrived in Austin 20 Years Ago
Ever since I arrived in Austin in April 1993, I have loved this city with an uncommon passion.
After living in 11 cities across the U.S., from Oregon to Georgia, I’ve developed a keen insight on what makes a city an awesome place to live. And Austin is loaded with awesomeness.
I am constantly curious about the city’s nooks and crannies. And I’m always thrilled to find something new.
I’m also fascinated by its history — including all of the events and characters that have shaped its identity.
One of these characters is John Mackey — and one of the interesting nooks is the original Whole Foods Market location.
My How You’ve Grown!
Today it’s hard to believe that 20 years ago, Whole Foods Market was nothing more than a traditional barebones 1980-esque granola health food store located in a bland building.
One day, when I was a brand-new resident, a friend and I stopped by Whole Foods for a snack. We purchased drinks and chips and sat at a bench in front of the store, eating as Lamar traffic roared by.
I wasn’t a health food nut then, and left the store with no great first impression — other than its creaky floor, cramped aisles, and bins of bulk foods.
But, a few years later, when the store expanded to a larger and sleeker location next to Book People (which also had much more humble digs on far South Lamar when I arrived in town), my opinion changed.
I liked this new store, especially because it was the one place in town where I could find rare ingredients, like miso and turmeric. Plus, I could purchase a book or two next door on the same trip.
When the newer, bigger Whole Foods Market mega-store opened one block over, I knew people in town who were positively giddy. But Whole Foods Market lost me again. It’s way too big and way too expensive for my taste.
Plus, today in Austin exotic cooking ingredients are no longer hard to find, thanks to Central Market, Sprouts, and the many ethnic grocery stores.
But when I got the chance to hear the founder of this iconic juggernaut speak, I took it.
After all, Mackey is a major figure in Austin’s history — and I was curious to hear what he had to say.
The Creation of an Iconic Name
In January 2013, Mackey was the featured speaker of the Austin Business Journal’s monthly Face2Face series. The meeting was held in a large conference room in the Whole Foods Market global headquarters.
The main focus of the talk was Mackey’s new book, Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business. During the talk, he discussed his four tenets of conscious capitalism, including discovering your purpose and creating value for everyone in the food chain.
But, for me, the most fascinating part of his discussion was the story of Whole Foods Market’s humble origins and the creation of its name.
In 1980, two years after opening a small health food store called SaferWay, Mackey and his business partner/girlfriend joined with two owners of another health food store in town, and together they opened the original Whole Foods Market store at 10th and Lamar.
The two new business partners had owned Clarksville Natural Grocery, which was located on West Lynn.
Prior to their joint venture, the four health food store entrepreneurs had been partnering on their bulk food purchases, so they could get better deals. Now they were going to become full-time partners of one store.
When they decided to merge, they sat down to create a new name. “Our new partners didn’t want to use SaferWay,” said Mackay. That name was a play on the name of a national grocery chain, Safeway, which used to have stores in Austin.
“We started brainstorming. The first word we all agreed on was ‘Market’,” said Mackay. “We all liked it.”
“Then we said, ‘Okay, what kind of market are we?’ Well, we’re a food market. ‘Okay, what kind of food?’
“Eventually we hit on the word ‘Whole’.”
And the rest is history.