What I Learned from My Whole Foods Experience

Feb 26, 2010, Written by Sue Miley

My daughters and I went to Whole Foods to get dinner last week when they were off for the Mardi Gras holidays.  We were ordering from one of the lines that served hot meals and made sandwiches.  There was a nice older lady ready to help us.  She must have started this job about 5 minutes before we entered the line because her lack of knowledge, and minimal common sense, bellowed “just started this job and it probably isn’t a good fit anyway”.  She grabbed a paper box to put my mixed vegetables, mashed potatoes and gravy, and savory chicken without putting a wax paper liner or anything at the bottom.  Upon my suggestion, she threw the box of food away and grabbed another paper box and added the liner.  (I am thinking food cost – oh no!)  She had to use the little machine to add a price sticker to my lined paper box.  She didn’t know how to do this.  Looking around for help she walks over to another employee, who doesn’t even make eye contact with her or I, but prints the sticker for her.  Of course he didn’t show her how to do it.

Then we move a step to the right to the sandwich line for my daughters chicken wrap.  The same sweet incompetent lady asks what we want.  This was quite an exercise in patience for me I’ll admit.  First she has to look back at the menu board for each ingredient to know what goes in the wrap we ordered.  She gets about 75 % done with our Pesto chicken wrap when she must have realized she did something wrong and yes she throws it away.  At least all but the handful of chicken she grabbed off of it.  Then she starts back over step by step.  Wrap…menu board…pesto sauce….menu board….cheese….menu board.  I am now counting to myself and praying for the Holy Spirit to give me patience (and an edible wrap).  She turns to help the next person..”hey wait, what about me.  Aren’t you going to finish”.  She doesn’t know how to, you guessed, do the price and the other guy is busy right now.  And in my estimation would stay busy so he didn’t have to help her.

What about the building blocks of good business?

We endured and because it was vacation week I was able to give this poor woman grace by not complaining, but I was thinking the entire time about the impact to Whole Foods, the employer.  I love Whole Foods and I know it is hard to hire such a large quantity of quality and passionate workers.  Small businesses work so hard to make their businesses a success.  I think we understand that foundational building blocks of good business require excellent customer service, low costs, and efficiency.  All absent here.

It started me thinking about the simple lessons here for myself and my fellow entrepreneurs.  I talk to Christian business owners all of the time about business efficiency, managing employees, team building and so on.  Many times I hear a spectrum of challenges that small business owners have in recruiting and managing a fabulous team.  Here are a few:

•    How do I make my employees come to work on time or at all on a consistent basis?
•    Jessica (insert employee name) has an excuse for everything.  She can’t get her work done because she is distracted by one personal crisis or another.  As a Christian, don’t I have to show her compassion and give her a break.  You know the grace and mercy thing?
•    I keep trying to explain to my staff that they need to be friendly when a client walks in.  They tell me that it just isn’t their personality.  At least they come to work on time.  I guess I can’t have both.

The Learning from the Whole Foods Experience

Let’s get this in perspective.  This is my learning from this Whole Foods experience.

1.    The most important job an employee can perform is making the customers happy because without customers we will not keep the doors open.
2.    If the employee doesn’t know how to make the sandwiches, can’t work the price machine, which causes the service to take longer than “counting to 10 to gain patience”, and has co-workers that do not care about them, the customer counting to 10, or the employer (who is actually paying them to try to hide and not get asked for help) then it doesn’t matter if they came to work on time.
3.    The little old lady worker absolutely deserved grace and mercy because she was really clueless.  But I think she would have preferred proper training and support and a reliable mentor to walk her through her learning curve.  It would have been far less embarrassing for her and far better for Whole Food’s customers, which happened to be me at that moment.
4.    As a manager and owner I would be walking around to catch my employees doing things right, but when I saw my experienced employees not helping the new employee and not caring about my customers, we would be having a serious discussion with specific accountability about how this isn’t to be apart of my very small, everything needs to go right, or I won’t be open next month business.
5.    Being a good Christian is often misconstrued.  I believe that Jesus would have trained his disciples (employees), explained how important it was for them to help others, fussed at them if they were not living up to His expectations (can’t you even stay awake while I am praying), and paid particular attention to the state of their heart.

Getting to the Heart of the Matter

He knows that if our heart is right then everything else will fall in place.  If our heart is hard it is His responsible to hold us accountable for that.

To teach us. He chose parables so we would get it.
To lead us. He told His disciple to follow Him and He led by example.
To discipline us. He called people out when their heart was in the wrong place.

I think if I follow Jesus in my small business I am going to care more about how much my employees care about glorifying God in their work, serving others, and being a good steward of my company’s name, image, and assets.   If I get this right and have employees with heart then the little bit of lagniappe may be that they will actually come to work on time too!  What lessons have you learned about business management from your everyday experiences?

Reader Interactions


  1. Amy Canada says

    My first thought when reading your blog was how much I have loved the Whole Foods in Baton Rouge since we’ve moved to the area. Some employees even recognize us, and we have running conversations, usually with lots of laughs, or at least warm smiles.
    But as I read on, I realized your point was less about the store and more about the condition of people, no matter where they/we work. I agree with you. It is easier to give grace when we remember how much grace we’ve received, too. I’ve got no room to call anyone else out on anything, considering the enormity of grace that has been granted to me.
    I’m also a bit of a buttinski, tho, and having been in restaurant management, my inclination is to go find a manager or supervisor, bring them to the poor new employee left to fend for herself, tell them the help she needs, and then expect them to do something about it. The dissappointment is magnified if it doesn’t go well from there, but it’s an opportunity for someone to be a good example, save the day for the employee, and gain the praise – and loyalty – of all the customers who see it.

    • S_Miley says

      I know Amy, I love Whole Foods too. That’s why I made sure I stated that in the post. It just didn’t sound the same calling it What I Learned from My Grocery Store Experience. For me this post is a reminder to myself and other small business people how easy it is to take for granted that a new employee can’t just figure it out. It seems simple to us because we have been doing it so long…I was also in restaurant management in New Orleans and it was the most challenging job of my career. Thanks for the comment and I will make sure to do a follow up post on one of the many positives about Whole Foods!

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Sue Miley

Sue Miley MBA, MA, LPC helps small business owners build successful businesses on a foundation of Christian values. After 20 years in business, and 10 years as a Christian counselor, Sue uses a combination of faith, business and psychology to help clients in business and in life.

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