TAMPA, Fla.—When John Mackey took the stage at the Southeastern Produce Council’s Southern Exposure in Tampa on March 3, expectations were high for what the CEO of Whole Foods Market had to say for the future of grocery.
Mackey, interviewed by CNN business and general assignments correspondent Alison Kosik, shared a brief Amazon integration update with attendees:
“The merger’s going great. Disregard anything you read to the contrary.”
Mackey did share one produce-related hiccup, though it was not related to out-of-stocks reported in the media. On the day Amazon completed the merger, Amazon’s smart home devices – Alexa and Echo – were merchandised in the produce department, near the front doors.
“I thought, those things are going to be shop lifted out of the produce department, and by God they were,” he said.
He also shared his journey from moving into a vegetarian coop in Austin, Texas, to co-founding the largest natural and organic grocery in America, but took an off-script opportunity for an impassioned plea for the produce industry. Mackey, a vegan, thinks produce can do a better job promoting itself.
“I’m going to ad lib a question. Here’s the paradox. Produce is by far – fruits and vegetables are the healthiest food in the world. Nothing else comes close. The health crisis in America fundamentally comes down to people not eating enough fruits and vegetables.”
He also took a dig at fad diets like ketogenic and paleo, which advocate reduced fruit intake.
“We hear things like fruit’s got sugar in it and therefore it’s bad. The science is clear. The science says we should eat more fruits and vegetables. We should eat at least five servings a day – I eat at least fifteen. This industry needs to wrap itself in science. Produce is it. I don’t know why this industry as a whole isn’t marketing the science everywhere.”
“It’s true,” she said. “Foods related to health, those are the top stories online.”
Kosik asked Mackey a series of questions, mostly related to organic produce, and Mackey’s vision for Whole Foods going forward.
“Systems are going to evolve to give the customers exactly what they want, when they want it, where they want it and at the price they want to pay,” he said.
Amazon and Whole Foods together, he said, are “doing what we can to reinvent the grocery experience.”
Other highlights from Mackey’s speech:
If he was going to start over, he’d be the co-founder of a vegan grocery.
“It’s hard to predict what would be a good business to get into,” he said. “Personally, I’m a vegan now and if I was starting over, I’d create a vegan grocery.”
If he was going to be a farmer, he’d go into the berry deal.
“What do I think is a great crop to be in? Berries,” he said. “They’re so healthful. They’re a value-added product…10% of our produce dollars are berries.”
People go to Whole Foods looking for more than just dinner.
“Some customers go to Whole Foods because they think the stores are cool…or they think they’ll meet beautiful women there, and they probably will,” Mackey joked. “There’s lots of different reasons people shopping there.”
After the crowd paused to laugh with Mackey’s joke, Kosik followed up.
“They really do that? People go to find significant others at Whole Foods,” she asked.
“They do! We just had a couple get married at Whole Foods and it’s not the first time,” Mackey said. “Couldn’t find a more affordable venue than Whole Foods, I guess?”