Actually, quite a bit. Both chains have proved remarkably adept at selling themselves, without relying on television ads, as “local” and “close to home.” Their durability in rough economic times testifies to their ability to market not just a brand, but a way of life. Both chains also have a knack for popping up in their customers’ favorite vacation spots. There are Cracker Barrels in the family oases of Branson, Mo., and Pigeon Forge, Tenn., but no Whole Foods nearby. Whole Foods glimmers in elite spa and ski destinations such Maui, Hawaii, and Park City, Utah, while Cracker Barrel usually shuns beaches and bunny slopes.
True to the leanings of its constituents, Cracker Barrel’s political giving tilts conservative. In the 2010 elections, recipients of its corporate PAC contributions were a who’s who of Republican candidates, including tea party luminaries such as Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.), Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Pat Toomey (Pa.). Nine House Democrats received smaller contributions; all ranked among the most conservative Democrats in Congress and voted against health-care reform.
Whole Foods’ politics are more difficult to discern. In August, company Co-President Walter Robb joined dozens of other corporate chiefs in signing a pledge to abstain from political contributions until lawmakers “stop the partisan gridlock in Washington.” But the libertarian views of iconoclastic Whole Foods founder and chief executive John Mackey, who swears by yoga and Ayn Rand, cast a long shadow.
In August 2009, Mackey picked a fight with the left on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal, where he lambasted health-care reform and offered “The Whole Foods Alternative to Obamacare.” In retaliation, the United Food and Commercial Workers encouraged a boycott of the non-union grocery, and the St. Louis Tea Party Coalition launched a Whole Foods “buycott” to express support for Mackey.
Still, Whole Foods means “liberal elite” in the minds of many. In 2007, Obama undermined his campaign’s efforts to move beyond his professorial image when he asked an Iowa farm crowd: “Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and see what they charge for arugula?” Iowa didn’t have a Whole Foods — yet.
The political divide between Whole Foods shoppers and Cracker Barrel patrons doesn’t mean that either side is above poaching from the other. Glen Bolger, a founding partner of Public Opinion Strategies — a leading Republican polling firm whose Alexandria headquarters is less than a mile from a Whole Foods where he shops — knows that its constituency is vital.
“I’m not concerned about Republicans winning Whole Foods counties,” Bolger says. “I’m concerned about holding losses down.”