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September 20: East Side Whole Foods Opening Day

by Laura Richards
John Gass

Twelve years ago as a sophomore at Oak Park River Forest high school, John Gass was on the hunt for a part-time job to provide him with some spending money and give him an opportunity to save for his dream of going to culinary arts school. So he applied to be a bag boy at the Whole Foods store in River Forest, Illinois. Never in his wildest dreams did he think that he would still be working for Whole Foods at the age of 28.

After high school, John transferred to the Lincoln Park Whole Foods, hoping to work full time and save for school. Soon he was in charge of scheduling for a staff of fifty. His passion for food led him through positions as cheese buyer, then wine buyer. His abilities led him to positions of ever greater responsibilities. It soon became apparent to John that although he had begun his career at Whole Foods with a plan to save for school, plans can change.

On April 26, 2006 Gass received the exciting news that he would be the Store Team Leader for the new Whole Foods that was opening in Milwaukee. He packed his bags and moved from his home in Chicago to the Washington Heights neighborhood in Milwaukee to start building the new team from scratch. The new store promises to bring at least 120 new jobs to Milwaukeeans who would like an opportunity to work for a company that, after only 25 years, has over 180 stores in North America and the United Kingdom.

In other communities, the non-union grocery store has been met with controversy. John discussed the Whole Foods open door policy where all members are encouraged to speak their minds without fear of retaliation.

Whether it’s a bagger who wants to give “constructive criticism” to the team leader or the store team leader who wants to offer suggestions to the company, all are encouraged to help the store grow. John attests that all members are treated “fairly, honestly and with respect.”

One of the “core values” of Whole Foods is to “satisfy and delight our customers.” The new Milwaukee store will feature such delightful retail innovations as a beer and brat station affectionately called the “East Side Grill.” It will feature six local and German beers, three of which will be constant, three of which will change. John revealed that Lakefront and New Glarus breweries are on their list of local breweries. “We will definitely have Spotted Cow on tap,” John enthused. Whole Foods will also feature a made-to-order sushi station where customers can eat in or take out. A wine tasting station will offer patrons the opportunity to taste different wines before buying a bottle.

Another one of Whole Foods’ core values is “Caring about our communities and our environment.” John emphasized the store’s commitment to patronizing local farmers, although at this point John admits that he has not yet found any farmers to work with because of the volume the store requires. “It is just what’s right,” John emphasized. “We get a better product and it is much better for the environment.”

John pointed out that the company strives to be a good environmental citizen. “Whole Foods is the only Fortune 500 Company to offset 100% if its energy use with wind energy credits,” he said. That’s a tall order given the number of Whole Foods stores. As far as community citizenship is concerned, John is looking forward to getting to know his new neighbors. He stressed that he is interested in working with local artists and musicians.

What started as a part-time job has grown into a career for John Gass. He hopes someday to retire from Whole Foods. He is proud to predict that Whole Foods, and particularly the new East Side store, will be “the most exciting grocery store you’ve ever shopped in.”

The new East Side Whole Foods is scheduled to open at 9 am September 20. Mayor Tom Barrett will officiate at a bread breaking and ribbon cutting ceremony.

Whole Foods Market
E. North Ave and Prospect Ave

Riverwest Currents online edition – September, 2006