Whole Foods for thought: Austin foodies ponder future under Amazon

Shelf-stockers and purveyors of locally sourced organic produce give a wary welcome to Jeff Bezoss buyout of the market that changed their town

The ne plus ultra of sprouted oat honey hemp granola and mango habanero kale chips is on the west side of downtown Austin the location of arguably the worlds finest Whole Foods Market.

So it should be: the company was founded in the Texas city and is headquartered above the 80,000 sq ft flagship store, where a mission statement is fixed to a wall above carts and stacked boxes of Spanish white wine: Nourishing the health and well-being of people and planet by being the authentic purveyor of food for the greater good.

It is a lofty goal, in line with the vision of co-founder and CEO John Mackey, who started his first store, Safer Way, nearby in 1978. Two years later, Mackey and his partners opened the first Whole Foods. The company now has 461 stores in the US, UK and Canada.

On Friday the online retailer Amazon agreed to add Whole Foods to its basket in a $13.7bn deal that will marry a supermarket famous for high prices and a do-good ethos with a technology giant known for low-cost items and rapacious ambition.

In a Texas Monthly interview, Mackey decried the perception that in America, business is about a bunch of greedy bastards running around exploiting people, screwing their customers, taking advantage of their employees, dumping their toxic waste in the environment, acting like sociopaths.

Amazon, meanwhile, is experimenting with cashier-less groceries checkout and recently secured a patent for technology that could block customers from using an in-store wifi network to compare prices with a competitor, according to The Washington Post which is owned by Jeff Bezos, Amazons founder and chief executive.

The Whole Foods purchase will reportedly see Mackey stay in his role and the company remain headquartered in Austin, but with details scarce about Amazons plans some in the city on Saturday wondered what the deal will herald for the firm, its home town, and the food business in general.

It might be a great idea since their stock price has recently fallen, but it makes me wonder about the future, long-term, of high-end food, said Jamie Gage, who was selling produce at a weekly downtown farmers market. If Amazon buys it, will it all be distilled to some sort of homogeny that kind of cuts off on the fringes all the things that make food great, like all the variety?

Jamie Gage at the farmers market in Austin. He says he has concerns about the future of high-end food. Photograph: Tom Dart for the Guardian

Another vendor, who declined to give his name because his company sells products through Amazon, said he had mixed emotions: major corporations can help small retailers find a bigger audience and innovations such as online food ordering have potential. But, he cautioned, it could be dangerous for minnows who risk being subsumed and crushed by behemoths if a sweet spot is not found.

A shelf-stocker at the Whole Foods flagship store said he and colleagues were waiting for more information before drawing any conclusions. As of now, Im not worried, he said. Itll be fine unless something drastic happens, but we wont know until its approved in a few months. The shelf-stocker said he hoped the companys benefits package, generous for the sector, would not be affected.

Here its great, I get full benefits and everything, another worker said, adding that he had heard negative reports about the work environment at an Amazon warehouse but was not worried about potential job losses if Bezoss drone-loving company pursues a more automated approach.

No, Im more just worried about general changes and how the salary works and benefits, he said. It seems the CEOs remaining and all the administrations remaining so it shouldnt happen. Theyve already said theyre going to keep the same message and stuff, which is I guess what really matters in the end, because that is the whole point of the store.

Shopper inside a Whole Foods Market in New York City. Amazon purchased the retailer in a $13.7bn announced Friday. Photograph: Carlo Allegri/Reuters

It changed the culture here

Austins progress has mirrored, and is linked to, one of its most important companies: from small, idealistic and provincial to big, moneyed and internationally renowned, with inevitable growing pains. Like Seattle, Amazons main base, Austin has boomed and gentrified, a process boosted by the wealth of ambitious technology outfits whose global-minded corporate cultures can seem to chafe with the cities cherished quirky, independent characters.

When Mackey was starting out four decades ago, the metropolitan areas population was under 600,000. Now it is over 2 million.

Whole Foods has blown up, said Athena Hathaway Meskimen, a 28-year-old selling all-natural popsicles at the farmers market. Weve seen it get big here. She also works for a local hibiscus tea company that sells its drinks through Whole Foods. From that perspective I think theyve done a pretty good job of trying to integrate [small businesses], she said.

Gage, 35, said: It changed the culture here and I dont think itll ever go back. I think it promoted early food culture here because now, while there are a lot of fine dining options here in Austin, a lot of emphasis on farm to table, thats something that didnt really exist until I would say 1995, here in Austin. I think they were part of the impetus, that and also the influx of people from California, with the high-tech boom in the late 90s.

Dell is headquartered in the region; Google expanded its Austin presence in 2015, the same year Amazon moved into a big corporate space in the city. It currently has nearly 200 open jobs there.

Amazon is testing a high-tech convenience store, Amazon Go, on its Seattle campus. It will eventually open to the public. Photograph: ZUMA Wire/REX/Shutterstock

Though Whole Foods has hit turbulence as bigger rivals have expanded their organic offerings, Austin at least is expanding its population of young professionals likely to be drawn to the companys ethos and products and unlikely to balk at the cost.

At the farmers market on Saturday, as shoppers browsed cakes, jams, fruit and vegetables in the searing heat, a guitar band strummed mellow tunes that helped mask construction noise from surrounding blocks. The markets three-dozen little white canopies were dwarfed by cranes and shiny new residential towers.

I think the balance continually adjusts as more and more people come to the city, said Benjamin Weaver, a 32-year-old pouring ginger beer made from locally sourced ingredients, especially since a lot of newcomers are I guess a bit more moneyed, theres a lot of tech coming into the city and that kind of drives up everything.

You see it in the real estate market, you see it in prices of food, you see it in the number of restaurants. Everything becomes a bit more pricey.

Huge corporations might have the potential to destroy small businesses but their heft can also create conditions where boutique retailers can flourish. Small operations like this may not have thrived as well 10 or 15 years ago, Weaver said. Im sure you could still be around but I feel like there is more money in the city now and more people willing to spend on pricier things.

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