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Austin Made: Whole Foods Market survived a flood to become an international presence

Here’s how the grocery chain rose to prominence in the world of healthy shopping.

A grainy photo of the first ever Whole Foods Market

The first ever Whole Foods Market opened in Austin in 1980.

You would be hard-pressed to find an Austinite who hasn’t shopped for organic produce at Whole Foods Market or ice skated on the flagship store’s downtown rooftop.

The natural foods grocer has had a resounding impact on the shopping landscape of both the Capital City and the country — here’s how it grew from a tiny local store to an international chain.

Fast Facts

  • The first Whole Foods Market opened on Sept. 20, 1980 with a staff of just 19 people.
  • This makes Whole Foods older than Amazon, which was founded in 1994 and bought the grocery chain for $13.7 billion in August 2017.
  • One of Whole Foods’ vice presidents — Margaret Wittenberg — helped create the US’ National Organic Standards.
A black and white photo showing damaged furniture and supplies sitting in front of the original Whole Foods Market.

In 1981, a flood wiped out ~$400,000 worth of inventory at the first Whole Foods Market in Austin.

Staying afloat amid the flood

Whole Foods’ story actually begins with a different grocery store: SaferWay.

Founders John Mackey and Renee Lawson — then 25 and 21 years old — bought SaferWay in 1978 for $45,000. The two lived at the store for a while, using a water hose attached to a dishwasher to bathe.

A few years later, they partnered with Craig Weller and Mark Skiles to merge SaferWay with Clarksville Natural Grocery, and Whole Foods Market was born.

Although the business endured a severe flood in 1981 that wiped out $400,000 worth of inventory, they recovered with community assistance and began expanding out of Austin by 1984.

Amazon pick up lockers at Whole Foods Market, with paint on them to look like an apple.

Whole Foods’ acquisition by Amazon has made it a testing ground for innovative services, like Just Walk Out technology and Amazon pick-up lockers.

The future of Whole Foods

In its 43rd year of business, Whole Foods Market now has stores in several US states and the United Kingdom.

Thanks to the chain’s acquisition by Amazon, the stores test out innovative services, including the “Just Walk Out” technology — which allows customers to pay without visiting a check out station — and potential incoming off-site kitchens.

The store also serves as a launching pad for organic food businesses, debuting 2,300+ new products to its shelves last year.

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