The Great Grape-Nuts Wrangle & Other Lessons in Democracy

In most companies, the Great Grape-Nuts Wrangle would be considered a bizarre distraction.

Ron Megahan transferred from a Whole Foods store in northern California to the Bread & Circus in Wellesley, Massachusetts for the chance to be a store leader. In California, Megahan's store carried Grape-Nuts, and the cereal did pretty well. But Megahan discovered that in New England, with its slightly different product standards, Bread & Circus stores didn't carry Grape-Nuts -- and his fellow store leaders didn't want Megahan to start.

"There was an uproar," he explains. "They said, 'You can't bring that in, it's not clean.'"

"I said, 'Yes, it is.'"

"They said, 'That product's crap, it's heavily processed ... '"

"I said, 'Do you know what's in it?' They said, 'No, but ... ' I said, 'Do you know what's in it?' 'No, but ...'"

"I said, 'Get a box and read the ingredients.'" From memory, Megahan ticks off the ingredients of Grape-Nuts: wheat, malted barley, salt, yeast.

"I eat it," says Megahan, "so I know what's in it. It's up on the shelf here now, and I sell a shitload of it. But I had to fight."

You still won't find Grape-Nuts at the Cambridge Bread & Circus run by Aimee Morgida. "It's not something I feel we need to have," she says. "To Ron, it's a customer issue. But people can find an alternative cereal."

In most companies, the Great Grape-Nuts Wrangle would be considered a bizarre distraction: Why should leaders like Megahan and Morgida be debating the virtues of specific breakfast cereals? But at Whole Foods, every item in the stores is a mini-referendum on the company's identity and authenticity.

That raises a second question: If the company is what it sells, how can one store offer a product that a store two towns up the road won't? That's where democracy comes in: there was autonomy, disagreement, discussion, facts, resolution.

If Whole Foods is going to become a billion-dollar company, it must widen the audience for "natural" foods -- which means plenty more versions of the Grape-Nuts debate. Recently, for example, some stores have begun to carry beer, wine, and foods with white sugar -- decisions that would have been unthinkable a decade ago.

CEO John Mackey is comfortable with the idea that store leaders can agree to disagree. "We're not trying to make the stores the same," he says. "Consistency is a euphemism for totalitarianism."

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