The “topknot” on the aptly named Sumo citrus peels away like butter. This mandarin bred for giants cracks open as John Gengel inhales the tangy air. The highly seasonal fruit from Japan is a featured display at the Whole Foods Market in Belmar, west of downtown Denver, where Gengel is the store’s team leader.
Gengel, 37, will be the big cheese at the new Frisco Whole Foods Market, which is set to open April 29. It will be the company’s highest-elevation store. After 14 years working at Whole Foods, Gengel is excited to finally call Summit County home.
The round button pinned to Gengel’s gray sweater, worn over a red-and-white plaid button-down, shares that he is a product of New York. Born 60 miles outside of New York City, Gengel spent the majority of his youth in Lake Placid, where he participated in a future-Olympic prep program.
He would complete his classes by 11 a.m., then get on a bus to the mountain and ski the rest of the day. He frequently spends his weekends in Summit County, he said, winter and summer.
“I really think of that as home,” he said. “It reminds me of Frisco, actually — a rich history of winter sports. It’s a mountain town that’s touristy, but with a really good sense of community.”
Gengel dropped out of school in Oswego to play in a band, touring up and down the East Coast. Then, three weeks after moving to Boulder, he was short on cash and heard from a friend the local Whole Foods was hiring. He started as a produce team member, stacking lemons into perfect pyramids.
“I was like, ‘I don’t want to work in a grocery store, but I need a job.’ Very quickly it transformed from being like, ‘This is going to be a temporary thing until I figure out what I want to do’ into, like, ‘I love coming to work every day,’” he said.
As he continued to work at Whole Foods, Gengel started eating healthier and even learning how to cook. He has worked at multiple Colorado stores, in addition to a stint of exactly 365 days at a Santa Fe store.
“Some people come to Whole Foods because they hear it’s a great place to work, or their personal goals align with the company mission,” he said. “It was kind of opposite for me. I came to Whole Foods because I needed a job, and Whole Foods changed me.”
From the ground up
In order to account for the seasonal worker population, Gengel is staffing the Frisco store using a 55 percent full-time, 45 percent part-time ratio.
“A lot of those people like to play hard, and they like to work hard,” he said. “If they are going to be there for a short term, we can hire on a part-time basis and it’s a win-win.”
He has already hired most of the team leaders — employees in charge of sections such as meats, seafood and produce. He said people from Whole Foods stores all over the country applied to come to Summit.
Rumors of a Frisco store cropped up four or five years ago, and Gengel was instantly hooked on the idea. The Frisco store will employ 158 people total and is still in the process of hiring.
“What an amazing opportunity both professionally and personally,” he said. “As the store team leader, it’s your baby. You’re the first person on the project, and it’s about making key decisions that are going to form this store and bond with the community.”
Whole Foods offers its employees a 20 percent discount, which can increase to 30 percent with a voluntary health evaluation. Gengel said innovation comes from the bottom up, and employees are encouraged to put ideas out there.
“My job is really to create an environment where team members are happy, healthy and we dialogue,” he said. “Some ideas are awesome, some are epic failures, but that’s not a bad thing.”
The 68,000-square-foot Belmar store Gengel has called home for nearly four years is more than double the size of the Frisco store, which will total 32,000 square feet, closer to the company’s average.
“This is where it all happens, where the magic happens,” he said. “I’m not the cubicle type; this is the marketplace. You never know what’s going to happen.”
When he arrives, Gengel throws down his bag and hits the floor, connecting with different departments to see what challenges or tasks they’re facing for the day.
The bakery in Frisco will offer doughnuts with jelly filling stuffed to order, as well as an espresso machine and fresh juice bar. Though his background in produce makes him slightly biased, Gengel said seasonal offerings are a huge part of the Whole Foods culture in every department. The Belmar store features more than 1,500 local products, and the Frisco store will focus on hyper-local offerings, too.
“We do inspections of facilities, too, so from creation to your mouth, we know what’s happened to all of it,” he said.
A different set of standards
Whole Foods follows welfare and food safety guidelines and holds its products to high standards, including no antibiotics, no hormones. Over in the barbecue section, a smoker the size of a Volkswagen bus is waiting patiently to start the day.
“If I’m ever having a bad day I just open the doors to the smoker and feel better,” Gengel said.
Signs on every item in the cases identify where the meat comes from and highlight local items. It took almost a decade for the store to bring in a local chicken, but now it has that as well.
Bob Wickwar, Belmar meats team leader, said the quality of the meat is incredibly important. Customers can pick up anything and know it meets the store standards.
“All the meat end-to-end, none of it is raised with antibiotics or steroids or anything to make it grow quicker,” he said. “We make all the sausage in house, smoke the bacon, all of it is cut in-house and ground in-house.”
As Gengel rips open a box of parmesan crisps to snack on, he explains that the store in Frisco will also eventually offer catering. There is a prepared hot-and-cold bar, with rotating themed selections, such as Mardi Gras or African foods. All of the food in the prepared section follows the same standards — all-natural, no preservatives.
“I imagine someone who just skied eight hours, is super tired, super hungry, and we’ll have this nice dining area and a heated outdoor area with fireplaces,” Gengel said. “It’ll be a very après ski environment.”
Recombinant bovine growth hormone (rGBH) is commonly given to dairy cows to make them produce more milk. No dairy items in any Whole Foods store come from hormone-treated cows — milk, cheese, all of it. A sign hanging over the egg cartons reads: “Only two out of 100 eggs eaten are cage free.” All of the Whole Foods eggs are cage-free, including the ones used in the bakery.
“We aren’t a health food store, we’re an all-natural, organic grocer,” Gengal said. “We try to do our best to put the information out there, so people can make the most informed decision.”
The seafood department sets the same high-quality standards for its fish, whether wild-caught or farm-raised. There are no antibiotics, steroids or hormones, and as seafood team trainer Robert Reynolds explained, the water levels must also be safe for the fish.
Whole Foods does not use chemical dyes to color salmon, but rather adds pigment using algae and shrimp. The seafood team will cut any fish and season it, for free, and will provide recipes and cooking tips. A cooking kitchen in the store offers a number of classes, even beginner knife skills (picture kids chopping Play-Doh).
Back in familiar turf, Gengel makes a beeline toward the wall stacked high with colorful produce, shelves of broccoli, peppers and cucumbers. He passes a bin of tomatoes that come from a farm less than 1 mile away.
“No matter what your health restrictions are, everyone eats produce,” he said. “It’s fresh and vibrant and full of nutrition.”
Produce presents a certain challenge in Summit County, especially in the winter. Whole Foods has a store in Basalt, so Gengel is consulting with the store team leader there about what it’s like to traverse the mountain pass from the Denver warehouse.
“There will be challenges on certain days, but we will do our best,” he said.
Produce team leader Dan Luther also cracks open a Sumo. Whole Foods is big on letting customers try items before buying them. Luther is passionate about organics, but wants everyone to feel comfortable shopping at the store.
“If we didn’t sell conventional products, we’d miss out on a huge part of the market,” he said.
The produce team — like the other departments — keeps extensive logs of where a product comes from. Luther said integrity is key, making sure the customer isn’t being lied to about their food.
“If people say, ‘Prove this is organic,’ we can say, ‘Here you go,’” he said.
Local community is a driving force for Whole Foods. Stores give back a percentage of their net sales to local nonprofits and host event days for local vendors to come set up shop in the stores to promote their products.
A pile of “whole trade” organic red peppers is Whole Foods’ version of fair trade. The store offers whole-trade peppers, pineapples, bananas, cucumbers and more. Whole-trade items ensure farmers are using sustainable and environmental practices, but also help support the community in Mexico.
Farmers are paid a fair wage and have access to education and health care. The money they make from the peppers goes into building clinics and schools.
“Sometimes it’s more expensive, but it’s justified,” Luther said. “The quality of this stuff is excellent, it’s out of control — wicked good.”
As Gengel finishes his loop around the store, he points out a small table near the registers with “Whole Planet” products. With the sale of these items, Whole Foods helps provide micro-loans to women all around the world to start small businesses.
“We are here to serve the community,” he said. “It’s their store, and that’s why we’re there. We’re going to bring it big time.”