My complicated love affair with Whole Foods

“When I get [the mean reds],” Holly Golightly tells her new friend, Fred, in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, “the only thing that does any good is to jump in a cab and go to Tiffany’s. Calms me down right away. The quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there.”

I am not prone to the mean reds, but I do have a place that makes me feel a bit like Holly felt at Tiffany’s. It’s the rather more mundane location that is America’s most controversial grocery store: Whole Foods.

I love going to Whole Foods, which I do every two weeks, like clockwork, to pack a cart full of groceries for the fortnight to come. Though objectively I know that bad things can and do happen at Whole Foods — a woman was randomly stabbed at one in Brooklyn last month, to say nothing of alleged negative changes to workplace conditions since the chain was taken over by Amazon — none of that knowledge alters the way the store makes me feel.

Neither does the recognition that many people don’t share my feelings. Whole Foods has a reputation for expense and elitism — perhaps you’ve heard the “Whole Paycheck” nickname — and the perception of snobbery persists even though the price gap is smaller than one might think. (This is especially the case after Amazon’s new discounts, but my personal price comparisons over the years have found Whole Foods is not much costlier than a typical, non-budget grocery store if you shop the store brand and limit your purchases of the far better selection of specialty items.)

Then there’s the notoriety of Whole Foods customers, accused of being picky, angry, and entitled. “They stand in the middle of the aisles, blocking passage of any other cart, staring intently at the selection asking themselves that critical question: Which one of these olive oils makes me seem coolest and most socially conscious, while also making the raw vegetable salad I’m preparing for the monthly condo board meeting seem most rustic and artisanal?” declares one jeremiad against the Whole Foods shopper. (For the record, I always know exactly which olive oil I want, and it’s the “Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Mediterranean Blend,” which in the 33-ounce bottle offers the best per-ounce price in the store.)

These and other critiques of Whole Foods have failed to dim my enthusiasm, because it’s not any more of a rational feeling than Holly’s visible contentment munching a pastry outside the Tiffany’s window on Fifth. Some of this is personal: I grew up in health food stores of all sizes, so Whole Foods has a certain comforting familiarity for me. Some of it is pragmatic: The joy I get out of a Whole Foods trip makes a major errand easier and less tedious, which I count as a win.

Yet regardless of my private reasoning, my love of Whole Foods says something about me publicly. The fact that — and I probably should not reveal this on the internet, but here goes — I had my 28th birthday party at the café part of our city’s Whole Foods for sure says something. (In my defense, the beer is local and cheap; the broccoli tots are delicious; and the absurd guacamole prices are pretty normal if you’re eating in a restaurant setting.) My affection to Whole Foods weirdly becomes part of my identity, working as a shorthand to tell you a lot about what I enjoy and even my values. Why yes, I am a vegetarian; I will drop dollars on fancy cheese; and I do care, albeit too inconsistently to claim this as a virtue, how the people and animals involved in making my food are treated.

The way this brand loyalty functions as a signal of identity isn’t unique to me. Where once we indicated who we were by how we worshipped, where we lived and worked, what clubs and community organizations we joined, or how we voted, now our buying habits often fill that role instead. “The link between branding and identity is deep and long-established,” notes an article on cultivating brand relationships at Entrepreneur. “In the 1970s psychologists were already theorizing that buying certain brands helped people ‘reduce discrepancies between their actual and ideal self,'” and half a century later, the constant identity building of social media “plus the decay of more traditional sources of identity” make brand loyalty a more alluring signal of self than ever. Brands themselves encourage that allure, anthropomorphizing themselves in their marketing to slip into an uncanny valley of store-as-friend.

Despite my love of Whole Foods and a select group of other brands — by aesthetic, J.Crew; by thriftiness, Goodwill; by sense of communal obligation, local gift shops, craftsmen, and bookstores; by sheer volume of purchases, Target and Amazon — I find this buying-based identification unsettling. This is partially a lingering influence of my childhood household’s ban on clothes with writing on them because “we don’t do stores’ advertising for them.” But more than that, it’s because although what we buy is important, practically and ethically, it isn’t our defining feature.

Or, at least, it shouldn’t be. I don’t mind being known as someone who loves Whole Foods, but I don’t want that to be the first thing that comes to mind when anyone thinks of me. Those older contributors to identity, which ask me to think more substantively about the nature of the world and my place and obligations within it, are meaningful in a way my consumption habits rarely can be.

I have no plans to stop going to Whole Foods, but I want my purchases there to be less signal than servant, feeding the more consequential parts of who I am.

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