I’ve shopped at Whole Foods in every time zone, in at least 10 different cities: LA, San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, Austin, Chicago, Milwaukee, New York, DC and Richmond, VA. I love Whole Foods. Scratch that, I love the products Whole Foods sells, no matter what other people might have to say about them. Maybe the simplest way to phrase it is, I love whole foods. Whole Foods as an experience, that’s a whole other matter.
But here’s what sucks for Whole Foods: it has nothing to do with their employees. Across the board, across the country, they have been helpful, knowledgeable, and cordial. I’ve received phenomenal service in every department: from the beer fridge to the butcher counter to the bulk aisle. I now know everything there is to know about lentils, for instance, thanks to a guy stocking roma tomatoes in the produce section of the downtown Milwaukee store, who took the time to explain why he used red lentils for his curried lentil dish a couple nights before.
The problem with Whole Foods is their regular customers. They are, across the board, across the country, useless, ignorant, and miserable. They’re worse than miserable, they’re angry. They are quite literally the opposite of every Whole Foods employee I’ve ever encountered. Walk through any store any time of day—but especially 530pm on a weekday or Saturday afternoon during football season—and invariably you will encounter a sneering, disdainful horde of hipster Zombies and entitled 1%ers.
They stand in the middle of the aisles, blocking passage of any other cart, staring intently at the selection asking themselves that critical question: which one of these olive oils makes me seem coolest and most socially conscious, while also making the raw vegetable salad I’m preparing for the monthly condo board meeting seem most rustic and artisanal?
If you are a normal human being, when you come upon a person like this in the aisle you clear your throat or say excuse me, hoping against hope that they catch your drift. They don’t. In fact, they are disgusted by your very existence. The idea that you would violate their personal shopping space—which seems to be the entire store—or deign to request anything of them is so far beyond the pale that most times all they can muster is an “Ugh!”
Over the years I have tried everything to remain civil to these people, but nothing has worked, so I’ve stopped trying. Instead, I walk over to their cart and physically move it to the side for them. Usually, the shock of such an egregious transgression is so great that the “Ugh!” doesn’t happen until I’m around the corner out of sight. Usually, all I get is an incredulous bug-eyed stare. Sometimes I get both though, and when that happens, I look them square in the eye and say “Move. Your. Cart.” I used the same firm tone as Jason Bourne, with the hushed urgency of Jack Bauer and the
uncomfortable proximity of Judge Reinhold. From their reaction you’d think I just committed an armed robbery or a sexual assault. When words fail them, as they often do with passive aggressive Whole Foods zombies, the anger turns inward and they start to vibrate with righteous indignation. Eventually, that pent up energy has to go somewhere, and like solar flares it bursts forth into the universe as paroxysms of rage.
Outside the four walls of a Whole Foods, you might recognize these people as Gawker commenters or Twitter shamers. Inside, they are the breathless, self-important shoppers who just can’t believe!! that it’s taking this long to check out. They are busy, they have somewhere to be. Don’t these people in the other six open checkout lanes that are each 3 shoppers deep understand that, WTF??!?
I was in line at the Wrigleyville Whole Foods in Chicago one night last spring, behind a thin, angular bird-faced man in his 40s who was beside himself that he hadn’t already been magically checked out and bagged up. The place was a madhouse, every checkstand was open, and each one had a line, but that was not enough of an explanation for this guy. He wanted to know why things weren’t moving faster, why there weren’t more checkstands, why he was still here for crying out loud! He kvetched about it to anyone who would listen, screeching his complaints into the already deafening din of America’s angriest store.
I was in a hurry too, so I was not without sympathy for those who had places to go and people to see, but circumstances were such that none of us were floating out of there effortlessly like when you hit all the lights riding up one of the avenues in Manhattan on your way to dinner or a meeting. All you needed was a pair of eyeballs to see that. Still, this guy was undeterred. If he had to be pissed off and unhappy, he was going to make damn sure the rest of us were pissed off and unhappy as well.
When I was in my 20s, I would have shut this guy up myself or changed lanes and let him know exactly why. But that doesn’t really work in your 30s, and it certainly doesn’t get you anywhere with insufferable dickheads like this guy. So instead of trying to resist him or ignore his protestations, I took a page from the martial arts playbook and used his momentum against him.
“This is getting ridiculous,” I told him. “You should go talk to somebody.”
“You think?” he responded, all talk as usual with these types.
“Absolutely,” the woman behind me said. Who is this woman, I wondered, which side of the force did she belong to?
“You’re right, I’m gonna do it.”
The woman’s support pushed the Birdman over the top.
“I’ll save your spot,” I assured him.
We watched as he marched to the Customer Service desk and button-holed some unsuspecting manager. The conversation seemed to start well enough. Birdman spoke passionately, but not disrespectfully. The manager listened thoughtfully, nodding in all the right places, absorbing all of Birdman’s self-important, self-indulgent demands. When it was his turn to speak though, Birdman afforded the manager no such courtesy. He interrupted every five seconds, his arms flailing like an inflatable dancing man on the roof of a mattress superstore, his head involuntarily thrusting toward the manager like a clucking chicken to emphasize his point.
Birdman was back in line moments later, down but not defeated. Now he was talking about writing an email to the president of Whole Foods.
“He needs to know about these things!”
Before too long, it was his turn to empty his basket onto the checkstand conveyor belt. It was a cornucopia of produce and vegan meals for one. You mean to say this peach of man is still single?!? Stop playin’. The checker had just started in on his produce—single artichoke, $2.49—when Birdman perked up.
“Oh, I forgot something. I’ll be right back.”
Are you kidding me? We’d been in line for at least 10 minutes. Instead of taking that time to make sure he had everything on his list that he stored on his grocery app on his new iPhone, he used it to bitch and moan. I couldn’t believe it. The woman behind me could believe it even less. So she took matters into her own hands: she walked around me, fetched Birdman’s basket from underneath the checkstand, swept all his groceries back into it and plopped the basket down at the end of the line. I could have hugged this woman. If I had the power, I would have crowned her Queen of America and her next move would have been to Washington DC to fix Congress (and the horrible people who shop at those Whole Foods stores).
When Birdman returned, clutching a tub of plain yogurt, he walked straight to the front of the register and stopped dead. No one said a word to him. He said a word to no one. He could not have been more confused if he’d come back and everyone was dead. He peeked his head over to the lanes on either side of us, like maybe he’d come back to the wrong checkstand. He looked to the end of the counter, thinking maybe the checker had scanned everything and bagged it up already. He looked under the checkstand, like his groceries were a set of keys or a remote control that had fallen under a sofa.
For my part, I had already checked out and was just finishing payment. I only had a few things. The woman behind me was unloading her cart. This aspect, especially, did not compute for Birdman. We were supposed to be behind him. There are no double cutsies in the Whole Foods checkout line, like, everyone knows that. He whipped around in the beginnings of a whirling dervish. Was he being punked? Was his humanity being disregarded? That’s when he saw his groceries, back in his basket, on the cement floor slid to the back of the line.
He wanted to scream at us—at me, at the checker, at the woman, at the manager—but he didn’t have the guts. That would have required open, direct conflict. Instead he just screamed. At the ceiling. And the floor. And the magazine rack. People on each side of us stopped and stared. I guess you could call my reaction bemused, I’m not exactly sure. But there was no mistaking the reaction of the woman behind me: she burst out laughing, bless her heart.
Birdman didn’t care. He couldn’t control himself. The anger had to come out, and it had to come out right then and there. Like a campy movie where
someone finds out they’ve been tricked or betrayed—or if it’s a gross-out comedy, something happens to their balls—and lets out a scream that echoes through the countryside and across cuts.
I think about that evening every time I walk into a Whole Foods during rush hour. I look for the tell-tale signs of another Birdman—impatience, over-reaction, constipated rage—and I find it every time. Then I wonder, why are these people all so angry? Is it something about Whole Foods that brings it out of them? Is it just their proximity to other miserable souls just like them? Is it the outward projection of inner self-loathing brought on by the feeling of utter helplessness in the face of social pressure to pay higher prices for organic, GMO-free, gluten-free, paleo, macro, whole foods?
Yet Whole Foods is not the only game in town. Wherever there is a Whole Foods there is always a Ralph’s, a Pic n Save, a Safeway nearby. In some cities there are national and regional grocery chains that straddle the line between down market and up market: Trader Joe’s, HEB, Gelson’s, Outpost, etc. There is always a choice.
Or is there?
I would bet if you asked all these angry, hateful trolls trundling to their hybrids in the parking lot trying to reconcile a $200 grocery bill with three measly paper bags full of groceries, they’d say No. They’d say they have to shop at Whole Foods because of something someone else in their family likes that they can’t find anywhere else. They always have an explanation, but it’s really just an excuse. They try to justify it, but it’s always a rationalization.
As someone with a relative high up the ladder at Whole Foods, I feel for him and for the enterprise (as much as you can feel for a business, anyway). Whole Foods tries to bring to market the best products an area’s surrounding farms and suppliers have to offer, in a socially conscious way with high-touch customer service at the point of sale. Yet in doing so, they’ve brought out the worst in the people who are attracted to that idea. Or perhaps more accurately, their idea attracts the worst kind of people. I don’t know. It is a frustrating irony for which they should not be held responsible. There isn’t much to do, after all, when your core demographic happens to be a living, breathing hashtag.
Nils Parker is the founder of Command+Z Content and partner at the story-telling agency, Story Ark Creative.