Today on Alphabet City: Jon Paul shares outtakes from his interview with Whole Foods CEO John Mackey
For his interview with me just published in the December issue of Condé Nast Traveler (CLICK HERE to read online), Whole Foods CEO John Mackey showed up in hiking shorts, a polo shirt and walking shoes, and was immediately taken with the attachment that turns my iPod into a voice recorder. I suggested he buy one to tape his interviews since he believes he’s frequently misquoted in the press. But the man who runs one of the most admired companies in America doesn’t an own iPod iPhone. He’s definitely not your stereotypical CEO. And that made my interview with him a breathe of fresh air.
CORRECTION: The lovely head of PR at Whole Foods Kate Lowery, who was in the interview, corrected me that John has owned MANY iPods over the years, used them on his hikes, and was an early adopter of the technology. He didn’t have an iPhone at the time of the interview, but does now.
DISCLOSURE: Even before the interview, I knew that John wasn’t your typical CEO as I had met him several years ago when he was in New York and wanted to attend an event I was organizing sponsored by my client The Economist. Somehow, he mentioned to my sister Paige (who works for him/Whole Foods as part of the Digital Media Team) that he’d like to attend the event if he could get tickets, and my sister said she could probably make that happen. When he showed up at the event, he didn’t want to sit in the VIP section I had reserved for him, but preferred sitting close to the stage with all the other general admission ticket holders. He also thanked me profusely and genuinely for getting him tickets. Again, unlike most titans of industry who would think their CEO title automatically gained them privileged access.
John spent a little over an hour with me at the bright and open Whole Foods headquarters in Austin back in June—just before he published his controversial health care op-ed in the Wall St. Journal. Although I may not agree with his take on America’s most pressing problem, I appreciate that a CEO is willing to step forward, take a passionate stand, and not be milquetoast.
He was just as forthcoming and warm in our interview, and here are a few of his tips and thoughts that didn’t make it into print because of space constraints.
Whole Food’s Whole Planet Foundation microcredit loan programs in partnership with Grameen Bank give loans not just to those in the developing world, but entrepreneurs in Jackson Heights, Queens. I asked him about that and John’s answer is a testament to the immigrant experience and spirit.
JPB: Many people think microcredit in the developing world, but I was intrigued by your microcredit program in Jackson heights, Queens.
Mackey: Initially when I heard about the idea for loans in the United States I thought “that’s never going to work.” No way. The money is going to be taken and not paid back. I was very cynical about it. What I didn’t understand is that the majority of those loans were being made to first generation immigrants…Think about how much courage it takes to uproot yourself to another country where you don’t necessarily speak the language, you don’t understand the culture. It’s an immense act of courage. So most people aren’t going to do it. So the ones who do it are already self-selected for initiative, energy, intelligence, courage. It has been the secret of America since it’s founding. We’ve enabled smart ambitious people to be able to come over here and improve their lives. So it’s mostly immigrants these loans are going to. And that fits in with Whole Foods Markets because our New York stores have people from over 65 different countries working in the store. I think that’s amazing. And they are ambitious, and they’re wonderful. I just love our team members.
On a “lighter” note, I asked John about the difficulty in traveling as a vegan.
JPB: Any favorite places to recommend to other traveling vegans?
Mackey: Well in New York City, my favorite restaurant that I will always go to—usually multiple times is called Candle 79. It’s on 79th and Lexington. It’s great. And the people that own it and manage it are wonderful people. In London, I discovered this place called SAF, it a new vegan restaurant called Simply Authentic Food.
This past Sunday, Chef and I took John’s recommendation and headed to Candle 79 after a day at the Met. Unlike vegan spots in Alphabet City that are spare and earthy crunchy, Candle 79 is plush and romantic with stylistic dishes. Not everything was spot on—the special salad of the day with cranberry beans was bland and in need of salt and citrus. But our plates of creamy hummus were perfectly spiced (read Frank Bruni’s NYT review.)
With a couple of glasses of biodynamic wines, we toasted John Mackey’s passion and commitment—his vision has definitely changed our world.