Mackey's background and socially conscious approach led to his unlikely road to success. After dropping out of three Texas colleges in the '70s, he moved into a vegetarian co-op where he focused on reading philosophy, cooking natural foods and being outdoors. Living in the co-op awakened his food consciousness and set the stage for what would eventually become Whole Foods.
In 1978, Mackey and his then girlfriend opened Safer Way, a vegetarian health food store, with an initial investment of $45,000 borrowed from friends and family. Neither had any business training and the store suffered financially while they learned the ropes of running a business. Realizing growth was necessary, Mackey secured an investment and persuaded the owner of a small natural foods store to merge with him. The business opened in 1980 in Austin, Texas, as Whole Foods Natural Market. It was the first supermarket-style natural foods store in the country with 10,000 square feet of space and a staff of 19 people.
The astonishing commitment from Mackey's customers made him realize the potential for his natural foods supermarket and the need to expand. He opened a second store that turned profitable within a year, thus beginning the company's expansion spree. By 1991, Whole Foods moved into Houston, Dallas, Louisiana, Northern California and North Carolina by acquiring and building new stores.
In 1992, with 12 stores and $92 million in sales, Whole Foods went public on Nasdaq to help fund its growth strategy. Since its IPO, Whole Foods has expanded aggressively with 25 percent of its growth from acquisitions that enabled it to gain entry into southern California, Boston and Washington DC. The company's expansion has helped to fuel continued growth in the natural products industry. With a store base generally concentrated in the top 25 metropolitan markets, Whole Foods is well positioned as Americans shift to healthier lifestyles.