Whole Foods Deals with Ramadan Controversy

Discussion
Aug 11, 2011
George Anderson

Imagine a grocery store running a promotion for Matzoh leading up to the Passover season without mentioning the holiday. How about a sale on chocolate bunnies without a mention of Easter? So, why would a retailer launching a line of halal food products at the same time as Ramadan, not include mention of the month-long holiday in store signage?

Okay, so the last question was rhetorical, but the answer became public when an internal memo from one of Whole Foods’ divisions was obtained and published by the Houston Press.

The first part of the memo was company-wide: "We recently introduced a line of frozen products in Grocery that are Halal certified (meet Muslim dietary laws) called Saffron Road. With the introduction of this line company wide, and the beginning of Ramadan last week, we posted a product giveaway on the Whole Story blog (on July 31) to generate awareness and interest in the products. Some people have misinterpreted the blog post to mean we are celebrating or promoting Ramadan in our stores. The misinterpretation has generated some negative feedback from a small segment of vocal and angry consumers and bloggers."

The story became sensationalized when the Houston Press published an added note from Whole Foods’ Southwest division: "While we want to continue with the program, it is probably best that we don’t specifically call out or ‘promote’ Ramadan… We should not highlight Ramadan in signage in our stores as that could be considered ‘celebrating or promoting’ Ramadan."

The published memo spread across the internet with (personal opinion) Islamaphobes probably taking solace in the belief they had achieved a small victory with Whole Foods pulling Ramadan signs from its stores. On the other hand, Muslims and those promoting religious freedom would be obviously concerned that the chain would so easily cave to a small group of people with extreme beliefs.

To try and set the record straight on the whole matter, an unidentified spokesperson for Whole Foods told CNN, "(We) never sent a communication from our headquarters requesting stores take down signs at all. We have 12 different operating regions and one region reacted by sending out directions to promote halal and not specifically Ramadan after some online negative comments."

Discussion Questions: What do you make of Whole Foods’ reaction to “negative feedback from a small segment of vocal and angry consumers and bloggers” concerning the launch of its Saffron Road line? How should it approach marketing and merchandising halal foods for future Islamic holidays?

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19 Comments on "Whole Foods Deals with Ramadan Controversy"


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Dick Seesel
Guest
9 years 9 months ago

Whole Foods’ best reaction would have been no reaction. To George’s point, Whole Foods was not “celebrating” Ramadan but merely creating awareness of halal foods during a seasonal opportunity. (And, as he also pointed out, no different from building a stronger presentation of Passover-themed foods at the right time of year.) For a company that has built its marketing platform on being more enlightened than the competition, this is an inappropriate response to a vocal minority.

Bob Phibbs
Guest
9 years 9 months ago

Incredibly sad what we as Americans have become lately. We are better than this. Diversity. Respect. Community.

Doug Stephens
Guest
Doug Stephens
9 years 9 months ago

Here’s a reality check… The latest U.S. census data has revealed (among other things) that America is diversifying ethnically at a pace dramatically faster than even expert demographers anticipated.

Anyone out there who’s hoping to quell the rising tide of ethnic marketing, product development and yes…religious freedom, is simply living in a world that no longer exists.

Ian Percy
Guest
9 years 9 months ago
Why do we so easily let small groups of selfish, self-centered, bigoted, non-thinking people sway what we do? Why do we think it’s important to try and keep EVERYONE happy? I remember a story about books being removed from libraries because ONE–that’s ONE–person was “offended.” Did I mention it was ONE person? We talk about the imperative that a retail entity needs to “differentiate” but then that same store tries to keep everyone happy. I say unless you have people who don’t like your stuff you haven’t differentiated. Personally, I’m tired of what seems to be our national slogan “Stupid People Rule.” Many years ago in Canada the Prime Minister was Pierre Elliot Trudeau. He was amazing because he didn’t care if you liked his decisions or not…and he was the most popular PM ever. He was accused of saying “Fuddle-Duddle” to an angry citizen. Lip readers thought otherwise. Actually Canada has a history of ‘damn the torpedoes’. They changed the flag to a huge uproar. The Government said “Get over it!” They created one… Read more »
Steve Montgomery
Guest
9 years 9 months ago

This country was founded because people sought freedom–including the freedom of religion. As was pointed out, food retailers promote typical foodstuffs for a variety of holidays–religious and other. This is not to indicate that they are promoting or supporting any particular holiday or event, only that they want to ensure that their customers are aware that they are selling items that fit within their customs and beliefs. I see no reason the halal foods should be treated any differently from those foods promoted for Passover or Christmas.

Ryan Mathews
Guest
9 years 9 months ago
Ramadan is as a valid a religious holiday as Easter. And perhaps, given its relatively low lack of commercialization at least in America, it may be an even more truly religious time. There is, after all, nothing inherently religious about chocolate bunnies, inflatable lawn baskets, marshmallow eggs and those weird yellow sticky candy chickens. Like Passover, Ramadan is a primarily religious time, sacred to observant Muslims. If Whole Foods wants to attract Muslim customers, they shouldn’t be apologetic about it. If they don’t, they shouldn’t have introduced Saffron Road in the first place. Of course they were promoting Halal foods — who introduces a new line without promoting it? And, just as obviously, the introduction coincided with Ramadan — not a coincidence. Whole Foods needs to be consistent. If it’s promoting Easter, Passover, Christmas and/or any other Christian or Jewish celebration with signage in its stores it ought to do the same for Ramadan. If Ramadan is out the rest should be as well. The majority of Muslims in this country (and around the world… Read more »
Tony Orlando
Guest
9 years 9 months ago

I’m sorry, but this is much ado about nothing. I can offend everyone, and anyone, without even trying hard these days, as the “sensitive media idiots” will swoop down on anything to start a controversy, because it gives them ratings. Don’t we have bigger issues to deal with? It is absurd.

Roger Saunders
Guest
9 years 9 months ago
Internal communication is vital. And, with a new product line coming into the stores, the opening statement was useful and appropriate. However, the local region made a poor judgment call in expanding upon it. If they needed added comment to the press (items like this always get out), the PR team needed to take over and address the issue in a positive manner, that “Whole Foods respects and honors traditions and practices of all religions and faiths. If we can profitably and effectively provide services and products to members of those faiths, we are delighted to do so. As in all of our relations, we embrace the importance of diversity. We are committed to quality foods, service, and customer attention.” Regional PR and Marketing teams need to be a part of these discussions for training purposes — knowing how to appropriately handle issues that may set one group off, while appealing to another, is something that has to be dealt with in all businesses. “Crisis” is mitigated by having effective plans in place on the… Read more »
Cathy Hotka
Guest
9 years 9 months ago

Why let a few ignorant reactionaries create an agenda? Foodies all over the country are trying new things, and most of us celebrate diversity. It is, after all, the American Way.

Warren Thayer
Guest
9 years 9 months ago

Sad that we’re letting the Islamophobic ‘American Taliban’ increasingly rule this country. Whatever happened to the courage and common sense of our founders?

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.
Guest
9 years 9 months ago

Knowledge of, respect for, or appreciation of diversity does not occur without promotion. How were members of the Muslim community not using Facebook but walking through the store supposed to identify the Saffron brand as being Halal? Some brands are advertised as Kosher, especially around Jewish holidays. Halal is not terrorist food; it is food approved for use by devout Muslims. If Whole Foods is not willing to publicly promote the brand, why are they carrying it?

Geoffrey Igharo
Guest
Geoffrey Igharo
9 years 9 months ago

Ryan Mathews’ commentary earlier in this thread is spot on. If we can celebrate and profit from interest in Passover/Kosher food, Easter, Chinese New Year and so on, there should be absolutely no issue to discuss with doing the same thing around Ramadan/Halal food. End of story.

Gene Detroyer
Guest
9 years 9 months ago

Wasn’t it the Houston Press that criticized Walmart for opening the SuperMercado?

There is not much to add. My colleagues said it all very well. Whole Foods should be embarrassed by this incident. There should have been only one reaction…promote with Ramadan signs as they would promote with Easter and Passover signs. And if need be, say good-bye to those who object.

James Tenser
Guest
9 years 9 months ago

Whole Foods has nothing to apologize for here. In America, it may and should offer high quality products that appeal to customer segments of varied preferences and interests, religious and otherwise.

In my opinion, even the original “offending” internal email was a forthright way of facing the odious agenda of a few individuals who seek to infect others with their paranoia and bigotry.

Genuine tolerance is a proud American core value that our young men and women are fighting for and dying to protect. It shames them when we cave to a few phobic individuals who mistake the mere mention of a religious holiday as a threat.

Eliott Olson
Guest
Eliott Olson
9 years 9 months ago

Ramadan is always a great month for food sales in the Middle East as Iftar, the breaking of the fast has evolved into a banquet with the finest foods all night long. In addition to eating the best foods, there is also a lot of gift giving and charitable donations. Any store that that chooses to ignore Ramadan doesn’t like to sell more. Think of your sales gains if Christmas was extended over thirty days. That is the potential of Ramadan.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest
9 years 9 months ago

While all of the pro-freedom comments here would probably delight every social reformer from Patrick Henry to MLK, this is, after all, (supposed to be) a discussion about issues from a retail perspective: does the initial introduction of the product line make business sense, and if so, what about the handling of the subsequent controversy?

The reality is, Muslims make up a small minority in this country–and in many regions even smaller still–and while it is possible for products catering to a small group to be a profitable (witness Kosher certifications) I can’t shake my suspicions WF was really trying to cater to the PC crowd by “making a statement” more than it was interested in (greatly) increasing sales; that they seem not to have anticipated the result doesn’t say very much about their thoroughness.

Ed Rosenbaum
Guest
9 years 9 months ago

It is a sad commentary when a few “meatheads” as Archie Bunker would say, can determine the paths a retailer will take in promoting a line of their business. This country has a diverse group of cultures. All must learn to live as one within the “United States” of America. When did we forget this? Or did we ever accept this?

Mark Burr
Guest
9 years 9 months ago
Certainly in just about every company there has been an email or a note that is just plain (and for lack of a better word) stupid. As Ron White the comedian would say “You can’t fix stupid.” While these things exist everywhere, singling them out and miscommunicating them as a company policy or company-wide dictate is just about the same as the note itself. Apparently, that can’t be fixed either. I am sure that sometime before next April 8th we’ll see the same memo saying not to mention Easter on the sugary peeps display. I believe someone’s previous comment said “Get over it.” And another said, aren’t there more important things to talk about? How about how retailers are watching and may potentially react to the crash of the markets in light of the distance to the holiday season? There has to be something more real and more important–really. I’m over it. Whether it be Whole Foods, Walmart, or any other successful retailer, some see the only way to compete is in this type of… Read more »
M. Jericho Banks PhD
Guest
M. Jericho Banks PhD
9 years 9 months ago

Whole Foods is not required to post signs encouraging shoppers to purchase certain items for Ramadan. If, on the other hand, they believe they can increase sales of those items by bringing attention to Ramadan, why not? And, if seasonal sales of halal products approach the sales levels of Passover and Easter products, promote Ramadan actively. The vast majority of Muslims are good citizens like you and me. Why not offer them the means to celebrate their religious holiday? What is achieved by ignoring a legitimate religious holiday celebrated by legitimate U.S. citizens?

And maybe, just maybe, a few devout Muslims – inspired by the embracing nature of Whole Foods and other retailers – will become more active in resisting those among them with violent agendas.

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