The View From Away: Whole truth about Whole Foods

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A friend recently forwarded an online article he had enjoyed reading. It began, “Whole Foods is like Vegas. You go there to feel good, but you leave broke, disoriented, and with the new-found knowledge that you have a vaginal disease.”

There seems to be a lot of agreement for her trip down the well-trodden path of criticizing the chain for being intimidating and too expensive. The piece had been “liked” to within an inch of its life on various social media.

It is easy to bash Whole Foods, which I’ve heard called “Whole Paycheck,” “Whole Lot Of Money,” and worse, by people who were in the store at the time, which seems ironic somehow. Maybe it’s just me. The chain asks for the criticisms in a way. For a place that goes for a kind of New Age-y, People’s Republic of Groceries feel, it offers a dizzying array of pricey up-market products.

However, I have never left there broke. I often have less money than when I went in. That happens a lot when I buy things in stores. (Curse you, providers of goods and services, with your constant demands for payment!) I have also never left there disoriented, nor have I discovered that I had a disease of any kind.

By the way, does anybody really think Whole Foods is like Vegas? One is a soulless cesspool of corruption, separating innocent people from their money by preying on their most basic weaknesses. The other is a city in Nevada.

See? It’s easy to bash Whole Foods.

The Whole Foods in the author’s town may be intimidating. She writes from Los Angeles, where high-strung, self-involved, status-obsessed people from all over the country migrate to look normal. It is less a city than a movie set, where none of the extras get to go home. Every pool cleaner has a screenplay, and there are enough pool cleaners that the phrase “every pool cleaner” has meaning. I shopped at Whole Foods when I lived in L.A. Occasionally you would meet grocery clerks who felt under-appreciated and vented their frustrations on customers. For all I know, the author is 100 percent right.

So here are a couple of suggestions for her. First, she should stop going to Whole Foods to feel good. It’s not working, and frankly it seems a little desperate. She’s still a young woman. She should work on putting together some kind of life for herself. If a trip to the grocery store is her go-to event for happiness, I shudder to think what the rest of her life must be like. One pictures lonely nights standing over her kitchen sink, the only light coming from an open refrigerator, as she eats pints of ice cream mixed with tears.

Also, she should come to Portland and do what I do many mornings: eat from the breakfast bar at Whole Foods and watch the people. The shoppers and the way they interact showcase what I love most about this city. Every age group is represented. You get to see the spectrum of ethnicity, gender and sexuality interacting all day long. Watching business as usual, you want to ask yourself, “What was that thing about prejudice again? Do we still have that? Because it looks like we’re past it.” My favorite days are the ones when they have preschool programs and you get to see all the little kids adoring and being adored by the parents and grandparents who bring them.

The help is equally amazing. The worst reaction any employee has ever given me is, “I’m sorry, but I don’t usually work in this section. Let me find you somebody who can help you.” And I am an aggressively ignorant shopper. My philosophy is, “Why should I waste my time learning where they keep something in the store when I can waste your time taking me there?” And I’ll be honest with you. I am an aggressively ignorant and indecisive shopper. If you have ever been in a store, and you were on a deadline, you would have had to wait behind me while I tasted about a million samples, “Nnnn, I don’t know … Let me try the other one again. No, not that one. The other other one.” I deserve their scorn. I would scorn me if I were one of them. Somehow, they treat me with respect I do not deserve.

The checkout people amaze me, too. Getting people checked out is more art than science, but somehow they seem to have a good time and keep the lines moving. They must say the same thing hundreds of times a day, but they do not sound like it. They are unbelievable with kids; most of whom are about ready to explode by the time they get to the cashier. I saw a bagger being fascinated by a 4-year-old’s intricate, minutely detailed description of another shopping trip with her little sister. You would have sworn she cared. Maybe she did. She did make me lean in closer to try to catch what was so interesting.

I was going to ask the girl where she got those cool, pink cowboy boots, too, but I didn’t want to be the creepy old guy at Whole Foods.

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Mike Langworthy, an attorney, former stand-up comic and longtime television writer, now lives in Scarborough and is fascinated by all things Maine. You can reach him at and follow him on Twitter: @mikelangworthy.