Two Questions for Whole Foods – Answered!

Updated: Whole Foods has responded -

Hi. This is Jason from Whole Foods. I’m the marketing coordinator for Portland. Thanks for stopping by the Fremont store this weekend. We appreciate the point you made about the Hatch green chiles. The roasting method we used is standard in New Mexico and in most farmers markets, but we see your point. We agree with you and have already made changes. Our method as we roast in the future will be different.

It’s important to set the record straight with our prepared foods. In every corner of our stores, it’s our business to provide the highest quality foods we can find at the most competitive prices. Our quality standards are guaranteed so that when you walk through the door you know exactly what you’re getting. 75 percent of our prepared food selections are made from scratch right in our stores. The other 25 percent are made by small producers who purchase their raw ingredients from our suppliers and all of these products meet our quality standards. None of the prepared foods teams in the Pacific Northwest source ingredients from Sysco. We use the same distributors for our prepared foods as we do in the rest of the store. That means that we’re making dishes with the same meat and fish as you’ll see in our butcher or seafood case. The produce we use is sourced from the same place as those you’ll see in the produce department. So go ahead and enjoy the broccoli crunch salad – from the store or your kitchen. If you need the recipe, we’re happy to send that your way. Feel free to email me if you have any questions.

Nicely played, Whole Foods. I appreciate the response!

Over the weekend, I happened into Whole Foods on Fremont, and noticed they were roasting Hatch green chiles. It seemed like a nice alternative for people who couldn’t get to the farmers market, or didn’t have a way to roast the chiles at home.

So as I’m watching, they pulled the peppers out of the roaster, and threw them into flimsy plastic produce bags before taking them into their kitchen to be placed into plastic clamshells.

Why on earth would they put something so hot into a plastic bag? By the time they got into the kitchen, the bags were distorting from the heat. Yes, peppers are commonly put into paper bags to steam them and make it easier to remove the skin, but never plastic, which leaches chemicals when it becomes hot.

I wasn’t going to bring this next topic up, but since I’m talking about Whole Foods anyway, I’m going to give it a quick mention. In late July, Gawker, an online gossip site, ran a withering resignation letter from a former employee of Whole Foods. Of course the letter went viral, and to the dismay of the author and the grocery chain, it was read by millions. You can become one of them by clicking here.

There are legions of stories like this, and much of their content can be taken with a grain of salt. However, one of the comments highlighted by Gawker, says, “Almost all of the prepared foods come from Sysco, not the sales floor. The only time you’ll be eating anything even remotely similar to organic romaine in your $9 caesar salad, is if they had bunch of it on spoil in the produce department.”

Hmm…

Whole Foods, I live near your Pearl District store, and will admit, when I’m not feeling well, or am just too lazy to cook, I will wander in and grab something from the hot foods area, or even better, a large container of broccoli crunch salad, which is like crack. Note: I’ve always prided myself on eating slightly more healthy than usual when I indulged. However, an employee whispered to me last week, “The secret ingredient is bacon grease”, which gave me pause.

So my questions are as follows:

  1. Did someone just not think through the hot chiles/plastic bag combination?
  2. Are the ingredients for the prepared foods from Sysco?

I will still eat your broccoli salad, but am now thinking it is time I get off my fat ass and make it myself – with good bacon grease and my home-made mayonnaise.

Your thoughts are welcome

  1. Paul says

    Even fred meyer has more local/organic food, and certainly new seasons. Plus with a farmers market every day of the week in portland, theres no need for whole foods.

  2. alice says

    i am pretty sure i’ve seen them put the roasted chiles in the farmers marked directly into plastic bags, which is how they sell them, just so you know.

    also i’ve had plenty of friends who worked at whole foods and (in the deli/prepack area) and none of them complained that the food came from sysco.

  3. alice says

    okay i just read the letter. everything else sounds about right but i got bored when it turned into disgruntled personal attacks. i never did hear the sysco rumor, though.

  4. Good Food For Me says

    It’s pretty easy to find out – Sysco delivers by trucks. Ever seen them delivering to the store? In the quantity they need that would not be a surprise.

  5. Christine says

    This exact question has plagued me as well, as I love the broccoli crunch salad. Funny that that was your example of what’s good in the prepared section. I’d also heard from an ex employee about how the rotisserie chickens are expired, but never knew whether to believe that. When I read this letter about Sysco, I kind of expected Whole Foods to respond in a way with advertising in their store about their fresh prepared foods made in house. Sadly, I haven’t seen that happen. I certainly hope that someone can answer this question for us, and I hope that if you figure out the recipe for the broccoli crunch that you’ll share it with us!

      • Food Dude says

        Did you notice they don’t really answer that question? No mention is made of the ingredients. There is also a little side stepping about store size.

        • nathaniel says

          “all of the ingredients are natural or organic and as many as possible are locally grown” is a quote from that link… seems to mention the ingredients directly no? And about store size, the reference is only to indicate that not all stores will have all the varied options of prepared foods… not sure what they are side stepping there?
          Not trying to defend WF, but come on, let’s not get all fox news about this FD.

          • Man-o-steele says

            “Natural” seem like almost anything and not well defined, unless they are saying they are not using Soilent Green.

    • JD says

      The rotisserie chickens are killer. And typically you have enough left over for a chicken salad the next day. And certainly you can make a killer soup base from the carcass if you simply bring it to a boil and simmer for as long as you can stand to have it on the stove – - overnight is great if you want the rich, intense bone soup.

    • Pam says

      I don’t buy fish from Whole Foods. I can always smell fish before I get all the way to the window..not a great indication of freshness. I recommend Newman’s at City Market for the freshest of fish. Their’s is delivered everyday.
      As for Sysco……I have seen the truck near the one in the Pearl District but keep in mind that Sysco provides all sorts of non perishables like toilet paper, hand soap, and napkins, plates, etc. as well as canned or dried food. They or Bargreen E provides most restaurants in town something or the other. I don’t believe they provide any produce or proteins though, I could be wrong. Food Services of America does though.

      • JD says

        Depends on the day. Sometimes they have great fish. Often they do not. The same could be said of City Market, Zupans, Fred Meyer. I am an opportunistic shopper. If I go to, say, Fred Meyer, and the fish is wild, not frozen, and in season – - heck yes! The same can be said of any fish market. Show me the one (ok, maybe Citarella in New York City, but show me another . . .) that always has super-fresh, perfect fish, and I will shop there forever.

        OK, get down to reality. There is good fish (there are good fishes) in the marketplace, but the exact locale of the great buy of the day may shift as swiftly as the sands of the Sahara.

  6. Pam says

    PS: From Sysco’s website:
    Sysco’s sustainability path has taken us from our suppliers’ fields to our customers’ tables as we seek and implement ways to influence the entire foodservice lifecycle. From advocating low-impact farming methods to using hybrid diesel delivery trucks to providing local and organic foods and biodegradable takeout containers, we strive to do what’s right for our business, our community and our planet.

  7. Melissa says

    This is from someone who used to work in a CA Whole Foods deli. Take it as you will.
    ———————————
    “Some of the prepared foods would come from their larger kitchen that they referred to as commissary (off site) while other dishes were made from the items in the store. I know they are very particular about the ingredients used and where they come from, which makes me wonder about the article. It’s possible the ingredients like salt, pepper, and the powdered seasonings could be from, Sysco, but if there is a dish like potato salad, the potatoes and mayo wouldn’t be from Sysco. Next time I see one of my friends in the deli, I’ll ask and see what the story is. From my experience there I never saw a Sysco truck pull up and drop off any products and I remember making dishes myself with non Sysco products. Another thing to keep in mind is if the sign says it’s made with organic products, it’s 100% organic. They even go as far as not using tools like knives that have been used on non-organic products on organic foods, to prevent cross contamination.

    I think one of the biggest misconceptions about whole foods is that people think ‘everything is organic’. Not everything is and what is, is clearly labeled. With that being said, I think that remark about the $9 salad sounds like nonsense to me.

    As for the plastic bag issue, I think that the employee doing that probably half-assed the production. When I worked there, I never saw them cook like that. The store has a ton of professional equipment and I’m guessing in this particular situation, the employee wasn’t trained properly.”

    • JD says

      There’s a heck of a big kitchen at the Pearl unit of Whole Foods. I hardly think they would need such a big space simply to defrost foods from Sysco. I think most of the commentators are having a collective hallucination and paranoia freakout. Whole Foods does a great job. They are a great big corporate entity, yet I have to believe we are all better off for having them in the community. Nobody says you have to stop with their model of meeting our needs – - you (New Seasons?) are free to go beyond their model and drive them out of business, or at least to the margins. Hasn’t happened yet (to me, New Seasons looks just like Whole Foods, except with even more departments and more great expensive stuff.) So . . . what’s up with all the argument? Do you want them to go away? I don’t think so. And to cast aspersions on their prepared food without the benefit of actual information about the sources is . . . simply lame. Deeply lame. Who benefits from this useless speculation?

  8. JD says

    Gosh what a bunch of idle speculation. I basically believe in the integrity of Whole Foods, but it really does not come down to belief; what we care about is corporate policy and how it is executed. I have a suggestion for you. Instead of spewing speculation about goodness/badness of Whole Foods, why don’t you just ASK THEM about it? They are, as far as I know, a very forthright organization. They are NOT trying to hide anything, as if they were conspiring against you. This is simple paranoia. Just because they are big, and they are, does not mean they are inherently evil. They may be, they may not. Why don’t you find out by simply asking them? I suspect they will provide a straightforward reply. If not, you are free to rip them a new exit hole for human waste. Otherwise, the above rant about their goodness/badness is simply speculative bloviation (yes, that’s a word. Look it up if not familiar.)

    • Food Dude says

      Wow JD. Wake up grumpy from your nap today? Your comment is longer than the space I devoted to the question. If anyone is blowing this out of proportion, it’s you. For the record, I asked last month, and never got a response. For what I prefaced as rumor, I think you are overreacting. Take a big breath.

      • nathaniel says

        No FD, you got called out for some shoddy speculation… can’t pull the overreacting card in this instance. JD, while inspired no doubt, has a very valid point.

        • JD says

          Gosh, ya know, I don’t have a love affair with Whole Foods and I don’t own their stock. I just don’t see the point of disparaging them based on Fox-News-grade innuendo and rumor. Like I said, they are straight shooters. Ask them to respond to any question, like a reporter would do. Then if they lame out, you’ve got them. If they simply respond, which I would expect them to do, you can put rumor and speculation to bed, and simply report on factual stuff.

          Let me say it again. I am not a rooter or a fan of Whole Foods. I simply don’t want to see someone smeared by misinformation and dis-information. I will be as quick to condemn a transgressor as anyone. Just please prove the sin to me before I am asked to jump all over someone’s back.

          • says

            I would have to believe WF’s food is sourced with a more solid provenance than the Gawker commenter quote.

            A commenter on Youtube once said John McCain raped a boy. Well, what is McCain? What do you have to hide?

      • Jeanine says

        JD. I don’t think you are grumpy. I believe that bringing up the simple argument that no one from Whole Foods was interviewed, questioned or allowed to give a statement isn’t responsible journalism (yes, I think that well established blogs can be considered journalism). I believe that concerns about cooking practices is a fair topic, but some back up information is also helpful. I know small vendors who deal with Whole Foods that are impressed by their integrity. I also know small business owners who are affected by their growth. And their businesses have gone under. I also understand that this is a healthy way to bring up the topic if you didn’t receive a response from Whole Foods. I would be frustrated and question the motive.

        Predatory corporations are always a scary presence in the tight knit community we have in Portland. We value honesty and local availability. I can’t stand the Sysco representatives that have attempted to recruit my business, pretending that they are a local company because the rep lives locally.

        Considering the support that local Portland “distilleries” get from the community with no one looking into the materials that are used, is also cause for question. Bulk spirits bought from other states and put in a bottle with local tap water does not make it a local product. Want to contact Sysco about that? The local spirits have been mentioned numerous times in this blog ( and MANY national papers) with no detail about sourcing. Cause for question?

        Also, my Mexican side of the family, always use plastic grocery bags to steam peppers and tomatoes before removing the peel. Ten minutes. Possibly less toxic than living in the Pearl. Maybe not. Paper bags contain chemicals too.

        Anyone with a chem analysis? I would be interested.

        • themick says

          Well I will defend FD here. He clearly stated earlier in the thread that he asked whole foods about this last month but got no reply. To me that is classic corporate behavior. Screw the little guy….why should we bother replying to this one guy’s question? But when the little guy turns out to be a blogger with a very large following then…..oh yeah, we will answer your question. Have the pr guy construct a suitable reply, run it by the lawyers and send it out.

  9. Jason Valdez says

    Hi. This is Jason from Whole Foods. I’m the marketing coordinator for Portland. Thanks for stopping by the Fremont store this weekend. We appreciate the point you made about the Hatch green chiles. The roasting method we used is standard in New Mexico and in most farmers markets, but we see your point. We agree with you and have already made changes. Our method as we roast in the future will be different.

    It’s important to set the record straight with our prepared foods. In every corner of our stores, it’s our business to provide the highest quality foods we can find at the most competitive prices. Our quality standards are guaranteed so that when you walk through the door you know exactly what you’re getting. 75 percent of our prepared food selections are made from scratch right in our stores. The other 25 percent are made by small producers who purchase their raw ingredients from our suppliers and all of these products meet our quality standards. None of the prepared foods teams in the Pacific Northwest source ingredients from Sysco. We use the same distributors for our prepared foods as we do in the rest of the store. That means that we’re making dishes with the same meat and fish as you’ll see in our butcher or seafood case. The produce we use is sourced from the same place as those you’ll see in the produce department. So go ahead and enjoy the broccoli crunch salad – from the store or your kitchen. If you need the recipe, we’re happy to send that your way. Feel free to email me if you have any questions.

    • Food Dude says

      Thank you Jason. I appreciate the response. I shall resume eating your broccoli salad – not that I really would have stopped. Crack, I tell you, crack!

      • JD says

        See? There they are. Just ask. Or in this case, they will simply intervene to clear up any misunderstandings.

        Either Whole Foods is the exceptional USA company with a high ethical standard, or they’ve deluded all of us into believing it. I have to believe they would have been busted long ago if they were working a phony ruse. With tens of thousands of employees, surely someone would have exposed them. Ergo, you probably have to take Jason at his word when he attests to the provenance of their prepared food. We would expect no less. Thank dog they are meeting our high standards!

  10. JD says

    Gosh, sorry to be so chatty, but I forgot the most essential contribution here. If you roast your own chiles, you don’t need to use a bag at all! Just throw them in a pot that you have a top for! REALLY! It is that easy. If you have a fry pan or sauce pan that your chiles will fit in, just put a top on it for about 15-20 minutes after you’ve roasted your chiles. Throw them in the pot, cover, and then sit back and relax. After that, put them out on a cutting board, let them cool a bit more, and then the skin will peel right off. Easier than pie, by a long shot.

    • Food Dude says

      You are obviously not a romantic. Throw them in a pot with a lid? Miss watching the bag turn moist and dewy, further filling the kitchen with the odor of roasted peppers? Ignore tradition? I say no sir, No!

  11. Mwek says

    Go to New Mexico and get back to us. That said Whole Foods blows. So the fact that you were dumb enough to complain about the plastic bag you also complained about going to a shitty store. Good work.

  12. Sean says

    Glad to see WF respond with details and actually change a minor practice, but Jason’s comment that “[n]one of the prepared foods teams in the Pacific Northwest source ingredients from Sysco” begs the question whether stores outside the PNW source ingredients from Sysco. Maybe Jason simply can’t speak to practices in other regions, and I really can’t envision a Sysco truck rolling up to WF, but as someone who stops at WF stores in other states, his detailed verbiage makes me wonder a little. What say you, Jason? Do stores in any other regions partake of Sysco’s fine offerings?

  13. Jeanine says

    This almost odd to put in print, but I have been to many Whole Foods in my business travels to other states (I do not work for WF), and they actually are LESS corporate feeling in other states. Austin, the first store, funky and local, and I was just in a few of the LA, Santa Monica and Venice Beach locations and they seem more like what we had as Nature’s in PDX before they were bought out. Do you remember those stores? You could smell the wheatgrass. And the disdain when you try to buy Ak-mak even though it isn’t local. I love it.

    What is the answer to Whole Foods? The lesser of the grocery evils? When is the last time Fred Meyer or Safeway satisfied our local approach? Is Whole Foods confronted because they charge more? As Americans we spend a lesser percentage on our food than most European countries who are often considered not only more happy, but more healthy.

    Where does quality end and quantity begin? We have lost this battle my friends. When we have have Bi-Mart, WinCo, Albertson’s, Safeway, and Costco in our midst and we are calling into question Whole Foods? Where are we at as a food culture. What say you, New Seasons, Zupans and Provvista. Uwajimaya? Perspective. And, us Mexicans who apparently should stop using plastic bags to steam peppers. Please advise.

    • JD says

      I was with you all the way down to the plastic bags. I am not sure if WF is part of the solution, but they are certainly less of the problem than the other mass merchandisers you mentioned. You also make the excellent point that there are many alternatives to corporate markets (you could add the Fubonn and H Mart, plus the large Mexican markets to the list.) My problem with the steaming in plastic bags is this: you can’t really talk about this as a venerable tradition, because plastic bags simply haven’t existed for more than a few decades. Remember? There was a time before them. That alone does not disqualify them for sweating peppers, but this does:

      http://www.ecologycenter.org/factsheets/plastichealtheffects.html

      If you don’t want to follow the link, let me briefly summarize: plastic leaches chemical components into food. Nearly all plastics do it. The effect is exacerbated by heat.

      Now, most likely peppers sweated in plastic would represent a tiny amount of the plastic pollution that all of us are subject to. I have plenty of plastic storage containers in my cabinet, but I do take pains to not put hot stuff into them. I merely want to make the point that sweating in bags, both plastic and paper, is likely to add contaminants to the peppers. Using a stainless pot is not. It may not be traditional, but it is effective and clean.

      Otherwise, your post is terrific and perhaps will put the focus back where it belongs. I noticed that my local Freddie’s now features a chalk board at the entrance to the veggie department that identifies locally-sourced items. That shows that the concept is slowly travelling upward in at least one corporate sphere.

  14. says

    As a New Mexican who has been to the Hatch Chile Festival many times and who has sampled the chiles at the PSU farmer’s market and at Whole Foods, I can tell you why you’re absolutely wrong. Roasted chiles are ALWAYS placed in a plastic bag after roasting so the skins slip off easier. You would not achieve the same thing using a paper sack, which would also get messy. Secondly, the farmer’s market chile is also placed in plastic so steering folks to them isn’t helping in your ridiculous cause. Also, the chile at the farmer’s market is lackluster at best, it has no heat and no flavor. You cannot beat Hatch chiles in taste. Period. NW farmers are silly to even try, it’s just not hot enough up here. If you’re worried about carcinogens I’m sure you suck down more riding your bike in downtown Portland than you do eating chile out of a plastic bag. It doesn’t get more New Mexican than that.

  15. michelle says

    Hatch has done so much with branding and marketing. They are fine chiles but the ones downtown at PFM are certainly as good and hardly lack in flavor or heat(heat depending on variety). What they do lack is the nostalgia factor for a New Mexican living in Portland and a PR Machine. To each his own.

  16. WannaBeFoodie says

    Please post the recipe for broccoli crunch salad. It would be a wonderful public service to those of us who can’t afford to indulge in such deliciousness very often.

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