I worked at Whole Foods for almost four years, the majority of which I spent in the bakery as a cake decorator in a fun, busy suburban store. It had some serious ups and downs and a variety of challenges that were unique to the company and their customer demographic. I’m glad I had the experience because it tested my mettle and grew some great friendships. After reading 7 Life Lessons I Learned from Working at Starbucks, I was inspired to write my own list, with an organic, artisan, locally sourced Whole Foods twist. Here are 5 indispensable life lessons I learned while working at one of the most beloved/hated grocery store chains in the country…
1. Ask forgiveness, not permission. This was one of the gems of wisdom my first supervisor imparted to me. We were in the middle of a power outage and had to figure out what to do without bothering the store managers, who had enough on their plates. It holds up in almost all life situations: If you know what needs to be done and you can do it, it’s better to act than to wait around for someone to tell you to do so. If you make mistakes, you can at least say that you did something, and hey, you did your best.
2. Speak up for yourself and for others. My first manager in the bakery at Whole Foods demonstrated this beautifully in a pretty epic “the customer isn’t always right” moment: A customer had come in claiming that a cake a coworker had made was the worst cake she’d ever seen. We, of course, re-made the cake to the customer’s liking, but my manager took the customer aside and told her that her employee had studied pastry and run her own bakery and so while the customer didn’t like it, it certainly wasn’t the worst cake she’d ever seen. That set a serious precedent for me as an employee — any time I felt I or any of my coworkers was being mistreated, I brought it to the attention of someone who was in the position to fix the problem. It’s amazing what a little confidence and great management can do.
3. Some people are just plain weird. I’ve seen other retail employees jump to the defense of those customers who drive you bonkers, and I’ll leave that to other retail employees, because sometimes customers are just bizarre. This is true in any line of work, but Whole Foods attracted a breed of customers who were on that next-level weird game, who were convinced that the red lights at check-out lanes were irradiating food (no) or that the Illuminati were conspiring to kill off 95% of the population with soy. Seriously. I had a customer tell me that, and then start to giggle in a supremely creepy fashion. The most useful wisdom I gleaned from these experiences? You can’t fix or justify weird, you just have to roll with it.
4. Asshole customers are the salt that gives kick to the general awesome-customer ooey gooey caramel. I have so many “bad customer” stories that they’re not worth telling. What is worth saying is that we had customers who were consistently kind, thankful, and interested in the employees as human beings. We were told to create relationships with our customers, and it was easy to do because the majority of them were at least personable and at best really wonderful to transact with. It gave me a lot of faith in humanity that customers were happy to wait, happy to be served, happy to have good products available to buy, and happy to talk to us.
5. Have an exit plan. As much as Whole Foods is a good company to work for, unless you really love retail (and some people do!), you should get out before you’re desperate to get out, and trust me, that day will come. I swear there must be a condition called “retail burnout” because I experienced it and saw many other employees experience it, too. You’ll be doing yourself and your work environment a favor to start thinking about what you really want from a career early on, so that you can stay happy and on top of your game while you’re at your retail job.
Rebecca Vipond Brink is a Chicago-based traveling photographer and scribe who now makes cakes exclusively for the people she loves out of her apartment kitchen. Follow her at @rebeccavbrink, at facebook.com/vitat.rex, and on her blog, Flare and Fade.