Whole Foods calls meeting with rattled suppliers, Bezos dines on iguana, Alexa laughs

iguana crawls out of whole foods bag

Jessica Fu

iguana crawls out of whole foods bag

Jessica Fu

We're keeping tabs on the beast that is Amazon-Whole Foods (alternatively, A-Whole). This is your weekly round-up of news, separated from the noise.

At the Explorers Club annual dinner on Saturday night, Amazon CEO—and richest man alive—Jeff Bezos was pictured eating roasted iguana. The photograph itself, a portrait of over-the-top Silicon Valley decadence, is composed like a Frans Hals painting, and is very unsettling. Click here if you dare, and more on what he was doing there, below. But first:

Suppliers to Whole Foods: We need to talk

Major suppliers to Whole Foods Market are frustrated with changes at the store, and the company has called an emergency meeting to soothe tensions, CNBC reports. Individual vendors wouldn’t go on the record for the story, but a Whole Foods spokesperson confirmed that a meeting will take place on March 19. According to CNBC, the conversation is intended to  “reassure the brands of relations after Whole Foods’ sale to Amazon.” (We’re not sure exactly what that means.)

Existing suppliers want to be sure that, in a time of big changes at Whole Foods, they won’t be next on the chopping block.
For months, Amazon has insisted that everything’s going just fine with its Whole Foods acquisition. Social media griping about empty shelves and subpar produce hasn’t been entirely anecdotal—in January, Barclays analysts found “entirely empty shelves” and produce that “appeared to have deteriorated” in spot-checked stores across the country. But both Whole Foods and its new parent company have dismissed complaints. “We’ve made no changes post acquisition that would have impacted anything related to in-stock, except perhaps the fact that the price decreases have brought up demand and there’s an amount of rebalancing related to that,” Brian Orlavsky, Amazon’s chief financial officer, said on an earnings call last month.

Still, the March 19 meeting is a sign there’s real trouble in paradise. Vendors are angry about a spate of recent changes they feel will make it more difficult for them to do business with Whole Foods, according to the CNBC story. Grievances include new in-store policies that will make it more expensive to score prominent placement on Whole Foods shelves, and a shift toward centralized purchasing that makes for higher barriers to entry for regional suppliers. (That shift, to be fair, began before the acquisition by Amazon.) CNBC’s sources also said they were unhappy with Amazon’s shock-and-awe communication style, its habit of announcing major top-down changes before making nice with suppliers first.

Last week, we reported the cautionary tale of Atlanta Fresh, a Georgia dairy that closed with millions in debt when Whole Foods suddenly dropped its seven-year, $100-million contract. Existing suppliers want to be sure that, in a time of big changes at Whole Foods, they won’t be next on the chopping block.

TL:DR: Major food companies will meet with Whole Foods execs for an airing of grievances. Stay tuned.

Amazon, Whole Foods, and UNFI: a happy thruple

For every sign of trouble between Whole Foods and Amazon, there’s a sign we’re still in the honeymoon phase. According to Amazon’s 10-K filing—the same financial report that, as we reported last week, suggested the company will pay no federal income tax in 2017—the company paid $24.7 billion in “unconditional purchase agreements,” reports CNBC. Payments to Whole Foods’ longtime distributor, United Natural Foods, Inc. (UNFI), were almost entirely responsible for the vast sum—which means Amazon has signed up to take on $22 billion in future purchases from UNFI.

Expect Amazon to get really serious about its foray into the grocery business.
Before the acquisition, Amazon had never spent more than $2 billion in this manner in a single year, according to CNBC. So this should be good news for Whole Foods’ current suppliers: It means Amazon intends to continue working with a large number of current suppliers, and won’t radically rethink which kinds of products make it to the shelf. At least for now.

It’s also a major investment. So expect Amazon to get really serious about its foray into the grocery business.

TL;DR: A federal tax filing shows Amazon investing billions to preserve the relationship between Whole Foods and its primary distributor, UNFI.

Bezos eats iguana, promising the moon

Jeff Bezos didn’t just attend the Explorers Club benefit for the free iguana meat. He was also there to accept the Buzz Aldrin Space Exploration Award, which he won not only because he’s very powerful and rich, but because he’s funding efforts to lower barriers to space travel.

We’re fucked—and to the robots, it’s hilarious.
“I’m in the process of converting my Amazon lottery winnings into a much lower price of admission so we can go explore the solar system,” Bezos said, somehow managing to sound intrepid and humane while also likening the global financial system to a gas station scratch-off ticket.

We may need Bezos to subsidize rockets and get us cheaply into space. If Stephen Hawking is right in claiming we’ve taxed our fragile planet too heavily to sustain life here for another thousand years, Amazon-branded spaceships could just be our only hope. (Prime members only, though.)

Maybe that’s why Alexa keeps laughing at random intervals, freaking out Amazon Echo owners everywhere. We’re fucked—and to the robots, it’s hilarious.

TL:DR: Jeff Bezos ate iguana flesh, we live in a waking nightmare, and it’s time to give up on Planet Earth.

Joe Fassler is The Counter's deputy editor. His reporting has been included in The Best American Food Writing and twice nominated for a James Beard Media Award. A 2019 - 2020 Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder, he's the author of two books: a novel, The Sky Was Ours (forthcoming from Penguin Books), and Light the Dark: Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process.