July 1, 2012

Market to Desktop: Whole Foods’ Chicago Headquarters

Employed by the best known farm-to-table purveyor in the U.S., the IT group at Whole Foods Market’s regional headquarters in Chicago has transformed monthly meetings into elaborate potluck lunches. “Food is a driving force for most of the staff,” Gensler senior associate Kate Clemens Davis points out. Surprisingly, however, the old office had no dedicated location for this important lunch ritual. It used to be relegated to randomly available conference rooms and break-out areas, even storage space. Which had the Gensler team asking: Why isn’t food the first thing you see when you walk in the door?

Gensler became familiar with the Whole Foods aesthetic, which strikes a perfect balance between sustainable earthiness and industrial chic, while serving as architect of record for a store in Chicago. An in-house interiors and branding specialist, Christine Sturch, always selects the finishes and designs the signage, but when executives turned to her for advice on a new Chicago office, she directed them straight to Gensler. “She knew retail but was wary of an office project,” Davis says. Still, such a visually savvy client made for a major team effort.

Whole Foods executives initially expressed dismay over a real-estate broker’s suggestion of a nondescript office building sited squarely amid steroid-scale versions of the Hard Rock Cafe, Rainforest Cafe, and McDonald’s, but Gensler saw the big plus. “The building was devoid of brick and timber, which is their usual loft style,” Davis says before drawing attention to the perfectly square 36,000-square-foot floor plate. “We were confident we could do something really special.”

Gensler’s discovery process, a slew of reconnaissance encompassing town-hall meetings and one-on-one interviews to determine how the workplace can enhance performance, revealed two employee populations: those who serve the individual stores and those who serve the region as a whole. “To keep the store group connected to the business group, we realized, we had to bring the store into the office, put the products on display,” Davis says. Thus, her team developed the concept of eat-ertainment. As a way to gather, food became the primary design cue—much more than a decorative conceit.

Items connected to each unit are displayed on shelving in that area, with a specific product, perhaps soy milk or natural peanut butter, showcased alongside quotations connecting it to Whole Foods’s seven core values. The shelving systems are built from interchangeable components: the basic plywood shelves, plus chalkboards and corkboards to be added at personal discretion. “So much of what we designed needs to be populated by the employees. It was scary to give up that control,” Davis admits.

While signage and product display tell the on the job story, materials and furnishings make a corporate statement. It’s partly about an industrial vibe. Flooring is concrete in the majority of the space. Where the ceiling slab is exposed, cable runs and trays were configured in tandem with the MEP engineer to coax elegance from utilitarian elements. And sustainability is the biggest message, right down to the inclusion of a bike room and lockers.

Bringing texture to the kitchen, the glazed brick lining the walls was locally sourced. So were the reclaimed Douglas fir beams that yielded the tops for the conference rooms’ tables. Wood for a soffit in reception came from a city program selling timber and veneer from trees killed by storms or disease. The intriguingly topographical wooden side of the reception desk is a section of a deconstructed silo—the grooves carved by years of dry grain rushing down. Workstations and office furniture, entirely recycled and refurbished, were provided by a company that Whole Foods introduced to Gensler. “We learned about a lot of sources we didn’t know,” Davis says. Better yet, this particular source cut costs by $500,000.

“Whole Foods is consistently rated as one of the best places to work,” Davis says. Certainly, members of the IT group are delighted by the new venue for their monthly potlucks. Gensler placed the employee kitchen’s long “community table” right off reception. That’s eat-ertainment.

Photography by Eric Laignel.

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