Whole Foods executive offers advice to Cal Poly students

Whole Foods CEO shares business advice with Cal Poly students

Whole Foods Co-CEO Walter Robb spoke to Cal Poly students in a classroom setting on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016. Stephen Wolfe, an Agricultural Business senior shared his experience.
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Whole Foods Co-CEO Walter Robb spoke to Cal Poly students in a classroom setting on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016. Stephen Wolfe, an Agricultural Business senior shared his experience.

Whole Foods Market’s co-CEO Walter Robb had a clear message for Cal Poly students: “Where your talents and the needs of the world cross, there lies your vocation,” referencing a quote from Aristotle.

Robb spoke Thursday at a community discussion hosted by the Cal Poly Center for Sustainability in the Chumash Auditorium on campus.

“We never set out to make money. We set out to do something good in the world,” Robb said, talking about his start in the natural foods industry and noting that the students’ energy reminded him what it was like for him back then.

In 1976, Robb opened his first natural foods store, Mountain Marketplace, in Weaverville. He joined Whole Foods in 1991 and was named co-CEO along with John Mackey in 2010.

Robb mentioned a few of his early pursuits, and joked that he even went to law school for a day before deciding that bringing more whole food to the world was a really notable thing to work on.

Turning the talk to the natural foods industry, he reminded students that caring where food comes from is a recent mindset. He identified transparency, accountability and responsibility as future trends he sees for the industry.

Although people often want and expect cheaper food, “cheap food is what cheap food is,” Robb told the several hundred students gathered. Low-cost food contains fewer nutrients and is produced in a less responsible manner with more pesticides, he said.

He defended the company’s higher food prices, saying customers are paying for quality.

He also brought the company’s charitable side into the spotlight, discussing its three foundations and recent efforts to open stores in less affluent areas where people didn’t have access to healthy foods.

“I think food more than ever has come front and center,” Robb said — people are celebrating food, enjoying it, and have never before had so many choices. He said he expects the industry to continue growing.

In a Q&A session following the talk, Robb identified eliminating food waste as a focus of the company, giving Whole Foods a “B minus” on that issue. He addressed what he called the “mixed future” that farmers face with increasing regulations, taxes and labor costs. However, Robb said, people want food. The need for farmers is there, but there are also hurdles.

Robb’s 50-minute remarks were interrupted shortly after he started when a protestor stormed in front of the stage yelling that the company tortures animals and lies about it. A Direct Action Everywhere news release sent out shortly afterward identified the protestor as 14-year-old Zoe Rosenberg, who was with the animal rights network. She handed Robb a flower “for all the animals he has killed” and he accepted graciously, seemingly accustomed to being interrupted.

Robb’s time at Cal Poly included meeting with students and faculty, listening to student presentations and touring the Cal Poly Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship’s Hatchery.

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Whole Foods Market in San Luis Obispo

What’s new with the local store on Froom Ranch Way? Although co-CEO Walter Robb wasn’t able to discuss that, the local store’s team leader Steve Rhodes offered the following information in response to questions from The Tribune:

  • A remodel of the store will likely begin after the first of the year to offer customers more variety and venues.
  • General grocery items like cereal, milk and pasta, along with local grass-fed meat and organic produce, do well in the San Luis Obispo store. Natural and organic body care products also are popular.
  • Conventional produce doesn’t sell as well because customers tend to look for local, organic options.
  • The store sees mainly San Luis Obispo shoppers, both residents and Cal Poly students within a 15-mile radius.