As correspondent Dan Rather reports, his 184 stores are seen as more than supermarkets — they're hailed as shrines to food that is good for you.
At a time when 60 percent of Americans are overweight, Mackey has tapped into a growing obsession with the old adage you are what you eat. Organic food has become one of the fastest growing parts of the food industry — two thirds of Americans bought organic last year. And as one of its top sellers, Mackey is raking in billions of dollars and discovering that not everyone thinks he's an angel.
All this from a man who dropped out of college — six times — searching, as he puts it, for the meaning of life.
John Mackey says he was just a "normal guy" — not a hippie — though at one time he had socialist leanings, grew his hair long and lived in a cooperative. "All my friends were doing it. So, I was influenced by my peer group," he explains.
Asked if he ever imagined that he would become a big man on campus in corporate America, Mackey says laughing, "That would be no!"
At the age of 52, John Mackey has become that big man on campus in corporate America, running a Fortune 500 company.
Yet, in one of the most competitive industries, Mackey's unorthodox approach has transformed Whole Foods Market into a business worth about $9 billion. In the last five years alone, the company's stock has grown faster than such powerhouses as eBay, Yahoo and Microsoft. And he has done it by creating a supermarket unlike any other.
"Shopping for groceries for most people is like a chore," says Mackey. "It's like doing the laundry or taking out the garbage. And we strive to make shopping engaging, fun and interactive."
And so, at Whole Foods, chefs can be seen in the aisles whipping up sautéed broccoli with garlic, while customers dine at a sushi bar. There are 600 kinds of cheese, 1,800 wines and six in-store eateries. In one corner of the Austin, Texas, store Rather visited with Mackey, customers could chose from 10 different peanut butters that they can grind themselves. And you can dip anything you want in a chocolate fountain.
All of this decadence comes with an unlikely flourish: it's supposed to be good for you. Virtually all of the food has no artificial preservatives, coloring, sweeteners or trans fats. But not everything is healthy. Mackey's stores sell beer and ice cream.
"'We're not holy foods,' what do you mean by that?" Rather asked, citing one of Mackey's quotes.
"There's always going to be people that don't think you go far enough," Mackey says. "We have certain standards the food has to meet. But then it's up to the customers to make those choices."
"Well, you've been quoted as saying, 'We don't think you'll go to hell if you don't shop at Whole Foods,' " Rather remarks.
"I hope not," Mackey replies.
Still, Mackey is about to take his standards to a whole new level. Appalled by the way animals are often treated at factory farms, he has come up with animal compassion standards. For an added price, shoppers can soon buy beef from cattle that were treated humanely, grazing on grass outdoors, and lobsters whose tanks were kept at the most comfortable temperature.
"In the end, what difference does it make whether you have a happy lobster or not? If the lobster's gonna be eventually dropped into boiling water, he's gonna be a dead lobster and it doesn't much matter," Rather says.
"Oh, Dan, are you gonna die someday?" Mackey replies. "Does the quality of your life not matter then? Since you're gonna eventually die? Get dropped in your own pot? At the end of the day, the quality of life is all we have, and it's just as important to that lobster, the quality of life that it lives — even if it's not as long — as the quality of your life."
"Bound to people who say this animal compassion standards business is a little beyond the pale," Rather says.
"I mean, I say they're entitled to their own opinions," Mackey says. "They should do what they think is right, and I'll do what I think is right."
That approach has infused his business — no matter how unorthodox. He lets his workers vote on whom to hire on their team, share in the profits and know what everyone else is being paid. They spend little on advertising, but give workers at each store $125,000 to spend on ideas to bring in new customers. In the Austin store, someone suggested an ice skating rink on the roof.