Sunday, June 8, 2008

Retail Memo: A 'Day in the Life' of A Whole Foods Market Store Manager; Bare-Bones Office and All

Steph Steele, left, the new manager of Whole Foods' flagship Austin store, started out making sandwiches 13 years ago for a Whole Foods in California. At one of the tastings she now attends, chef Shoel Ross explains the dishes to Steele, Mercedes Lambing, second from left, and Patrick Dew.

The Austin American-Statesmen, a major daily newspaper based in Austin, Texas, hometown to and corporate headquarters of Whole Foods Market, Inc., regularly runs a feature called "A Day in the Life,:" A day in the life of a firefighter, a teacher, police officer, local entrepreneur, small business person, for example.

In today's edition (Sunday, June 8, 2008) of the paper's "A Day in the Life" feature, Austin American-Statesmen staff writer Lilly Rockwell has a well-written and colorful personality profile of Steph Steele, the new store manager of Whole Foods' 80,000 square foot crown jewel flagship natural foods superstore (more like food emporium) in downtown Austin.

The three year-old store has 630 employees and according to Natural~Specialty Foods Memo sources is currently doing in the neighborhood of $1 million per-week in gross sales.

Despite the enormity and upscale features of the 80,000 square foot flagship Whole Foods in downtown Austin, store manager Steele, who most recently worked at Whole Foods' store in San Rafael, in Marin County in the San Francisco Bay Area, has a small, bare-bones office, as writer Rockwell describes it.

This is true. A Natural~Specialty Foods Memo team member has been in and seen that office. It's like most all of the Whole Foods Market store managers offices, simple, small and yes, bare-bones.

Whole Foods doesn't want their managers to have big and fancy offices in-store for two primary reasons: it doesn't fit with the grocer's non-hierarchical team approach to operating a retail food store, and they want the store manager to spend as much time as possible--and then some-- out on the store floor with team members and customers because that's where the action is.

Since store manager Seph Steele just recently arrived in Austin from San Rafael in Marin County, we are reminded of a Whole Foods store very close to that unit in San Rafael, which is the supernatural grocer's tiny 15,000 square foot powerhouse market in Mill Valley, California, also in Marin County.

The Mill Valley Whole Foods was opened and managed for some time in the early 1990's by the grocer's now co-president, Walter Robb. The retailer is currently building a new, second store in Mill Valley.

We recall a visit to the Mill Valley store some years ago to see Whole Foods' Northern California regional buyer Jean Greenfield, who worked out of what was literally a closet (it was a closet converted into her "office") in the tiny back room of that 15,000 square foot store, which at that time did in the neighborhood of $400,000 a week in gross sales, and averages even more than that per-week today, despite still being only 15,000 square feet. Those are sales-per-square-foot numbers that should make any food retailer salivate.

To get to Ms. Greenfield's closet office, one first had to climb a ladder, since the closet converted into her buying office was in a loft above the floor in the cramped back room. It was a regular ladder, not stairs. Up the ladder and into the closet (she kept the door open most of the time) sellers, brokers and others went to do business with the regional buyer for Northern California.

Some years later, Whole Foods built its new Northern California regional headquarters in the Easy Bay Area city of Emeryville, and Ms. Greenfield got to move to a slightly bigger office, although she still used the Mill Valley store office often after that since she lived nearby at the time.

The closet office didn't go to waste though; the store's manager--Walter Robb had left to become Regional President for Northern California by that time--took it over. The store manager and Ms. Greenfield actually shared it before that, since she wasn't at her "buying office" every day.

At 37, Ms. Steele might be too young to know about those closeted buying and selling days. But she should take heart. Although her office at the 80,000 square foot downtown Austin flagship Whole Foods Market is relatively small and certainly is bare-bones, it sure beats a closet, although there was a certain charm to it none-the-less.

Read the feature profile, "A day in the life: Managing Whole Foods downtown," by Austin American-Statesman staff writer Lilly Rockwell here. There's also some great photographs along with the profile at the link.

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