On the 38th anniversary of the first Whole Foods Market's opening, Chief Executive Officer John Mackey reminisced to CNBC about his humble beginnings.
Mackey wasn't always interested in healthy food – in fact, he ate heavily processed food until he moved into a vegetarian cooperative in Austin, Texas at age 23. He had dropped out of college and became the buyer for the co-op, where his obsession with healthy food began. He opened a natural grocery store with his then-girlfriend on the first floor of the house they lived in, where they sold foods without processed sugar or meat. After two years, the two merged with another natural grocery store and opened the first Whole Foods in 1980. Mackey says that from the moment they opened their doors, they were successful.
"People were so excited about this first store. It was amazing, and we didn't do any advertising," Mackey told CNBC. "The word of mouth was incredible. The whole Austin counter-culture hippie community knew about it immediately."
Unfortunately, just a year after they opened, the store flooded, after which looters came and trashed the store. As they were without flood insurance, Mackey was sure they would go under – but the Austin community came through again, pitching in to help clean up and fund the store. Mackey was determined to open another store after the first one re-opened. And after raising money from venture capital, he opened that second store, began acquiring other small natural grocers, and later took the company public. After years of on-and-off struggles, Whole Foods was facing pressure to sell from investors in 2013. Eventually, Mackey very reluctantly sold his company to Amazon, which has owned the company since 2017. But he'll never forget the journey he underwent to ensure the natural grocery chain's success.
"There will be no one that ever loves Whole Foods Market as much as I love it," Mackey told CNBC.