Walter Robb, Ken Meyer and Will Paradise

Whole Foods management's food for thought

| November 28, 2012
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- Jeremy Lanningham

After some hand-shaking, back-slapping and striking up the band (compliments of the Boise State Blue Thunder Marching Band), Whole Foods executives were anxious to swing the doors open Nov. 14 to their new Boise store on Broadway Avenue between Myrtle and Front streets. But not before holding a unique ceremony: Instead of a groundbreaking, they held a breadbreaking.

"We're a food company. Breaking bread is a powerful experience to share with someone," said Ken Meyer, Whole Foods executive vice president of operations, pointing to an 8-foot-long loaf of challah bread and five smaller loaves, each shaped in a letter to spell B-O-I-S-E.

Minutes before the madness (more than 500 shoppers walked through the door in the store's first three hours), Meyer sat down with Whole Foods Co-CEO Walter Robb and Will Paradise, president of the Rocky Mountain Region, to talk with Boise Weekly about holiday shopping, appealing to 21st century consumers and what they called "their new child."

What store number is this?

Paradise: It's No. 29 for the Rocky Mountain region and ...

Meyer: Is this 343 in total?

Robb: We don't really keep track.

Honestly?

Robb: It's about No. 350.

Paradise: I think it's between 343 and 346.

Meyer: I think it's either 343 or 344.

But I'm guessing that you've seen more than your share of store openings.

Meyer: I didn't sleep very good last night. It took me eight-and-a-half hours to get here from the East Coast, but I was so keyed up when I got here.

Paradise: In retail, you're never finished. There is no finish line. You put it back together every day. We always tell our team: "Take a good look at the opening, because the store will never ever look that way again." An opening is like having a new child. You don't get a whole lot of sleep and each one of your kids--each one of your stores--is different.

How many more stores do you have in the pipeline?

Robb: We're going to open 30 new stores next year, and the following year, we'll open between 33 and 38 stores. But for Will's region, it's No. 29.

Paradise: And store No. 30 opens in a few weeks in Littleton, Colo.

Robb: But this is really important: We think about one store at a time; one community at a time. We love Boise. I've been coming to Boise for about 10 years now.

For business or personal reasons?

Robb: I have friends in the Wood River Valley and here in Boise.

How is Whole Foods' Rocky Mountain region defined?

Paradise: The region includes Colorado with 18--soon to be 19--stores, New Mexico, Utah, Kansas, western Missouri, Montana, Wyoming and now Idaho. We go from the Canadian border to the Mexico border.

Robb: We really ought to consider calling this the Intermountain region.

Meyer: We're always looking to replicate some of the best ideas from some of our newer stores. We started with one tap room two-and-a-half years ago in California, and now we have 54 tap rooms. But Boise's River Room has the only tap room with a blue floor. We have 16 local beers and three local wines up in the River Room.

What do you know about Boise consumers?

Paradise: We did a series of customer focus groups here, and we know that in this market, value is very important, as is quality. Plus, there's an evolving market here of people who are looking for organics and a lot of local products.

And how different is a consumer in 2012 than, say, 20 years ago?

Meyer: There's an incredible interest to know more about their food. They want to know who makes it, what's really in it, why is it on the shelf here, and how am I going to help my community if I buy this product.

Robb: In all my 30-some years in this industry, I've never seen the level of interest in food that there is right now, and it's at all age levels.

What's unique about a Whole Foods consumer?

Paradise: They're educated, passionate about local organics, and they're pretty demanding. They hold us to very high standards.

Robb: About 25 percent of our customers give us 70 percent of our volume. But I don't think anyone in America shops in only one store anymore. There are too many choices.

Are consumers shopping more often?

Robb: About 2.5 times a week.

Paradise: And a greater perishability of the products drives a lot of that frequency.

What was your price tag on this store?

Robb: We usually don't make that public. Generally, we spend about $275 a foot companywide, but every store is different.

What's the bonus of opening this store before the holiday season?

Robb: It's huge.

Meyer: But it's risky, too. People shop at holiday times based on experience.

Paradise: If we had opened this store in January, I don't think next year's Thanksgiving and Christmas would be as good as it's going to be. But because we opened now, people will have a whole year with us. The second holiday season is always better.

What makes your employees different than your competitors?

Robb: We have 230 workers here and 150 new jobs were created for this Boise operation. The company created 8,500 jobs last year.

Paradise: When people come on board with us, they think they're part of something bigger.

Meyer: One of our new produce team leaders worked for another company here in Boise for the last 18 years. He worked for us for two weeks and said, "These two weeks have been the best of my whole career."

I need to take note that you're wearing a Boise State jacket today.

Robb: I've been a Broncos fan for a long time. They may not always have the best talent like Texas or LSU, but they take their talent and compete at the highest level of Division I athletics. The highest level. And I love the way Coach Pete leads. You don't see him strutting the sidelines like those other puffed-out coaches. I don't care if it's sports, entertainment or business, someone who leads like that has a quality program.

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