It has been eighteen months since I left my job with Whole Foods Market. I don’t miss the place. But I do miss the people.
What I loved most about WFM* was its grass-roots approach to marketing. Each store had a local feel, catering to the immediate community it served. As everyone knows, WFM encouraged sampling. Part of my job was to plan and create sampling events revolving around holidays and seasons. The most popular event at “my” store by far was the celebration of world cuisines. It was as popular with team members as it was with customers.
Celebrating our team members’ diversity was important. Keeping us happy was one of the company’s core values (WFM is not unionized). It was a tremendous amount of work, but believe it or not, not a huge monetary investment. In return we had happy team members, who came together, taking pride in their own cuisines and cheering each other on. They were on the clock, they were to use ingredients from the store and although it was work, it was out of the daily routine. Instead of being robots cranking the gears of a money making machine, they were human, talented, and creative individuals sharing their own food with a community of world citizens they worked with and customers they served.
My job was to coordinate, plan and promote, armed with a spreadsheet that included names and countries of origin, the list of dishes to be prepared, the number of tables needed. The recipes had to be written, the ingredients had to be shopped and paid for by the marketing budget which I controlled. Signage, posters and name badges needed to be designed, printed and distributed.
The exchange that went on between us was invaluable. We learned so much from one another. Sharing our traditions, our family history and status, our life’s journeys. I don’t believe we ever felt happier and more connected. Due to its popularity, the event had to be divided into two shifts with six to seven stations each, while our Saturday business had to go on as usual. My team had to roll out the stations, set up tables with signage, flowers and flags, serving utensils and sample cups and then clean up and reorganize half-way through the day for the next shift.
Over the years we sampled Fantu’s Ethiopian Dorowat, Paul’s Scotch Broth and Elizabeth’s “Queen’s Soup” from the Netherlands. Miss Molly made Stew Peas from Jamaica, Brian made spicy Stewed Chicken from Trinidad and Elaine served a Pineapple Ginger-ade for cooling relief. Moses sampled Chapati from Tanzania, Yacine made Fataya (fish or meat pies) from Senegal and Gerard couldn’t have taken more pride in serving his Lazy Boy Casserole or the best North Carolina BBQ pulled Pork you’d ever tasted.
From El Salvador we had Freddy, Edith, Jose and Wilmer make, stuffed Chayote Squash, fried Plantains and Yucca and Pastelitos de Pina. From Poland, Tom served Bigos. Isabelle, from Burkina-Faso, fried Black Eyed Pea Puffs in front of customers, while dressed to the nines in her beautiful blue kaftan and turban. Fatim and Solange served Peanut Butter Soup from the Ivory Coast and Miss Francis spooned out her richest American Bread Pudding to rival Donovan’s Sweet Potato Pudding from Jamaica. Stella made a fabulous Romanian salad, Kay, a celebration rice from India. From the Middle-East we alternated representation between Egypt, Lebanon and Palestine. But the one country that always took the prize was Morocco. Year after year, Khalid went all out with a Tagine of a whole fish, a Couscous with lamb and vegetables and a variety of salads. He alone would require two tables to accommodate his sweeping spread.
Each year’s event was met with enthusiasm and growing excitement. Preparations became easier and entries more competitive. We celebrated good food, healthy food and world cuisines. But most of all we relished our diversity and our ability to have fun together, to work together and appreciate one another. Our workplace was a microcosm of what makes this country so great. It breaks my heart to witness the political change today that is unfolding before our eyes.
I am grateful for the meaningful exchange between fellow team members that touched our lives for a short while. We shared our fears and joys, our stories of hardship and success, and bonded by sharing our own healing home-cooked food.
On a side note WFM has changed as well: as competition grew, the company changed its marketing strategy, cut labor and steered its marketing dollars in a different direction. And with that, our jobs and events were the babies thrown out with the bathwater.
*WFM opened in DC in 1996 as Bread & Circus and a couple of years later the company bought up Fresh Fields and adopted the name for all the Mid-Atlantic stores. It was not until 2003 that WFM unified all the natural food chains it had acquired under the Whole Foods Market brand.