Thirty-two years and 345 stores later, Whole Foods is still smaller than Safeway, but almost three times as valuable as a company, because having that small army of Bobs and Harvs to source quality over quantity can bring bigger profits.
But it has also driven smaller competitors out of business and earned Whole Foods a snarky nickname from cost-conscious shoppers: "Whole Paycheck." Mackey hates that.
"We've done studies that show you can eat the healthiest diet in the world and not spend more than $4 or $5 a day per person," he said.
All of Whole Foods' employees know exactly what everyone else in the company makes and, as company policy, no one can make more than 19 times the average salary of at least $18 an hour. At other Fortune 500 companies, the CEO makes around 325 times more than that.
When Walter Robb was named Mackey's co-CEO a few years ago, the job didn't come with a lot of financial perks. For one, there was no raise in pay.
But not everyone is on board with the policy. Several years ago, employees at a Whole Foods in Madison, Wis. threatened to unionize. Robb said it was a situation where the company had "let them down."
"We went there and the culture had fallen apart," he said. "The team members lost faith that we meant what we said."
Robb said those employees eventually changed their minds, but the episode was a wakeup call on the road to "Conscious Capitalism," the title of Mackey's new book. In it, he preaches that the best companies are those that treat employees, customers, suppliers and neighbors as equal shareholders.
"Happy team members results in happy customers results in happy investors," Mackey said. "Honestly, the golden rule is the reason why they call it the golden rule, and yeah, businesses should be based on principles like the golden rule."