If "the team" is the philosophical building block of Whole Foods Market, the team meeting is where philosophy becomes reality. Each team — grocery, produce, nutrition — in all 43 stores meets at least once a month. Each store meets monthly as a team as well. Sometimes meetings take on the air of pep rallies. More often, they are an opportunity for team members to swap stories, solve problems, share information. They are central to how stores operate and improve — an important ritual for promoting group accountability and reinforcing the company's values.
Consider a meeting of the bakery team at the Bread & Circus store in Cambridge. The meeting comes at a difficult time for the group. Just before the holidays, the bakery is getting its fourth manager in less than two years; there's reason to expect team members to be dispirited, confused, even angry. Six of them gather at 9:15 PM, after Bread & Circus has closed. Store leader Aimee Morgida shares a bag of candy and welcomes the bakery's new team leader, Debbie Singer, saying, "You guys have been through hell. But I'm absolutely convinced we have the best person in place now."
Singer is a rarity at Whole Foods — a team leader hired directly from the outside. She has been in the bakery business for a dozen years, and ran her own bakery for eight. "I love the bakery, I love merchandising, I love fast-paced retail," she declares. "But this is your meeting. I want to hear from you."
There is no shortage of questions and observations — but the topics are somewhat surprising.
Louise speaks first. "A lot of customers want a breakdown on the calories in the muffins and the scones" — something the bakery has been promising for a while. "A lot of people have voiced concern that everything has sugar. A few more nonfat items would definitely be welcomed."
Carmen speaks next. She worries that the bakery's ordering has become sloppy, that the team is requesting too much product, paying full price for perishables that it marks down at the end of the night or donates to charity. "Are we losing too much merchandise?" she asks. "Just putting it at 'a dollar off' and bagging it?" There is general agreement.
Morgida uses the second half of the meeting as a refresher course on customer service. "Has everybody tried the pastries?" she asks. "You need to try them because people will ask, 'What do you recommend?' What do you think?' If you don't like something, you can tell them, but you need to tell them why. Try everything."
Morgida also tries to boost spirits. Around most holidays, she acknowledges, "Customers are really tense. Just let it roll off." Her basic advice: do whatever it takes to make people happy. "If something's wrong, the question to ask is, 'What can I do to make it right?'" she says. "Because customers always have something in their minds that would make it right." She tells the story of a misplaced birthday-cake order — the scramble for another cake, the decorating Morgida did herself, the delivery to the customer's home.
"I don't care if we're giving things away," she stresses. "Because God forbid we screw up someone's holiday. If we screw it up, they'll tell all their friends at dinner. If we screw it up and fix it, they'll tell all their friends that, too."
At about 10:30 PM, shortly before the meeting breaks up, the team brings up holiday staffing. Several people want to increase the hours of part-timer Hadja, who is at the meeting. Hadja is from India, and her English is spotty at best. Morgida is skeptical.
"I know her English is not very good," says Sylvia, "but she's great to have around."
"She knows how to take care of customers," adds Patty. "I'm not sure how she does it, but she really communicates with them."
Morgida shrugs. "Okay, go ahead and put her on."
What this 90-minute meeting lacks in drama, it more than makes up for as a primer on teamwork. The group is holding Morgida and its new leader accountable: Can we get more products without sugar? The team is holding itself accountable: How do we stop ordering excess bread? Morgida is reinforcing — and the team is absorbing — the company's customer-centered culture: even if you have to give food away, don't let people leave dissatisfied. The team is making its own judgments about people: we want Hadja to work more hours — she's got qualities that make up for her minimal English.
A version of this article appeared in the April/May 1996 issue of Fast Company magazine.