By Ben Joravsky
Did Whole Foods muscle in on a hot pretzel idea?
For the last few years Whole Foods has raked in millions by brilliantly marketing itself as the hip and healthy place to buy groceries.
It's all a ruse according to Scott Holstein, who says the health-food conglomerate betrayed its image of being socially responsible by ripping him off. "They took my recipe for apple-cinnamon pretzels and without permission started making pretzels and selling them at their Sheffield store," he says. "In other words the alternative store with the earrings and tattoos screwed me."
Whole Foods head baker Bobby Turner says he has "no comment" about the allegations.
The story begins in November 1994, when Kim Oster and Holstein met at a Richard Bach book signing, fell in love, got engaged, and decided to go into the pretzel-making business. "We wanted to do something together," says Holstein. "And Kim said, 'Why not gourmet pretzels?'"
Why not indeed. "We're talking about a low-fat gourmet pretzel with exotic flavors that you can sell to coffee shops, yogurt shops, bars, restaurants, and eventually grocery stores," says Holstein. "It's the food for the '90s."
Needing only a product, they got an oven and a mixer and started baking. "Those first batches were awful--we couldn't sell them to a dog," says Holstein. "That's when we knew it would take some time to learn how to make a pretzel."
They hired a chef to help experiment with different flavors, concocting a soft and chewy pretzel that tastes a little like bread and, depending on the flavor, has between 150 and 210 calories and zero and six grams of fat. In April they had a taste testing for friends and family. The verdict was thumbs up, especially for the apple cinnamon pretzel. "We knew we were on to something," says Holstein. "And we got busy."
By day Holstein worked as a computer operator at a bank and Oster worked at an ad agency. By night they baked. "We pooled our money--enough money to rent a kitchen and hire a baker," says Holstein. "I learned how to roll dough and twist the pretzels and experiment with different flavors, like cheddar jalapeno, Michigan dry cherry, sourdough Parmesan, and onion dill. We were up to our elbows in dough."
By summer's end they were clearing about $500 a week selling their product--Kim & Scott's Gourmet Pretzels--at the Heartland Cafe and the East Bank Club. That's when they decided they needed to hire an outside bakery to keep up with the orders.
"We were baking five nights a week from six until midnight, and it was exhausting," says Holstein. "I spent so much time in the kitchen I didn't have enough time to market my pretzel. All we wanted was a bakery to bake our pretzels according to our recipe--we would do all the selling."
In August they went to Fingerhut Bakeries, a 100-year-old Cicero-based, family-run operation, which displays on the walls pictures of its famous pastries--like a gargantuan birthday cake once made for President Eisenhower. "We met with Herb Fingerhut and gave him our recipe, and he made up some products," says Holstein. "But there was a little too much sugar and shortening; it didn't really match our image for the pretzel--you know, the low-fat healthy thing."
Whole Foods, on the other hand, seemed ideal. In September they met with Turner at his bakery and walked away "very impressed," says Holstein. "Bobby's a young guy in a T-shirt and blue jeans. He had short hair, but he said it used to be long and now his wife gave him a hard time for looking like a yuppie. We laughed at that. We seemed to have a lot in common: Bobby had done the Whole Foods team leadership weekend, which was similar to the personal-growth weekend I'd done as part of the New Warriors men's movement. We were like friends."
At the end of that first meeting Turner asked for the pretzel recipe. "He said he needed it to make some samples," says Holstein. "We said, 'Look, we're new at business. We're worried about getting ripped off.' Bobby said, 'Don't worry, I'll sign anything.' I should have had a secret contract in my pocket ready for him to sign. But I thought it wouldn't be cool to talk about contracts; asking them to sign something is a way of saying 'I don't trust you.' Besides, this is Whole Foods; they're not going to screw us. So we said, 'No problem,' and we showed him our recipes for apple cinnamon and regular pretzels."
On October 10 they met again. "Bobby said he wanted to sell the pretzels under the Whole Foods name," says Holstein. "I was confused; we only wanted them to make pretzels for us, we didn't want them to sell it. I said, 'Bobby, until we walked in here you weren't even thinking of selling gourmet soft pretzels.' He said, 'Oh no, I had thought of it before, you guys only put the fire under my butt.' I said, 'We spent a lot of money developing these gourmet pretzels.' He said, 'Don't worry, we'll only sell regular or with cheese, no apple cinnamon.'"
On October 25 they returned for a third meeting. "Bobby said that the managers wanted to sell the apple cinnamon pretzels in their stores, and they might want to sell them at other stores....In other words they were going to take our product, put their name on it, and sell it--without paying us."
A week later a friend called to say she'd seen apple cinnamon pretzels at Whole Foods. "I called Bobby and he said, 'I gotta do what's best for Whole Foods,'" says Holstein. "I said, 'Bobby, did you agree not to sell flavored pretzels?' There was silence. I said, 'Answer that.' He said, 'Yes, I did agree, but I changed my mind.' I said, 'I have no alternative but to get a lawyer.' There was a long pause and then he said, 'I can't really talk to you about it if you're threatening me.' I said, 'These aren't threats, I'm really going to do it.'"
Holstein has tasted the Whole Foods pretzel and says it's almost identical to his. So Holstein and Oster hired a lawyer and filed a federal suit, which contends that Whole Foods "did not hold the Plaintiff's confidential and proprietary information in trust, but instead wrongfully used the information." The suit seeks to prevent Whole Foods from selling the pretzels, and to pay Holstein and Oster's legal fees and an undetermined amount in damages.
In the meantime Fingerhut's baking Holstein's pretzels. "They cut down on the shortening and sugar so it's fine," says Holstein. "They really are a great company, you know. So what if they're more blue collar than hip. I went with the hip company once and they screwed me. I learned my lesson: you can't judge a book by its cover. It's what's inside a person that counts."
In a Different Voice
At the moment poet Julie Parson-Nesbitt, director of the Duncan YMCA's creative-writing program, has two homes. "My husband has a good job in Milwaukee, and I have a good job here. It requires some back and forth."
That back-and-forth existence is symbolic of her life and her poetry. Raised on the North Shore, she's lived in villages, cities, and towns all over the world, distilling her experience into moving accounts of outsiders searching for an identity.
Her first collection, Finders, from West End Press, is now in bookstores (she'll read from it at 7:30 PM on March 26 at Women & Children First). Her poems deal with her interracial marriage, black-Jewish relations, and the struggle of new immigrants in Uptown. In "Lineage" she relates the hardships of immigrants in Chicago to those of the Pilgrims and to her own experience teaching English to factory workers in Chengdu, a large industrial city in China.
When I was homesick in a land that felt ugly and hostile to me
I felt a first--grudging--sympathy for the pilgrims.
But it's not the same. I may know how
they felt when they landed
but the land was not theirs to name.
At that moment, the moss became concrete,
the rivers ran asphalt, and the rain fell acid.
They have tried for 400 years
to rename the land
in order to make it their own
but there are fourteen languages
on my block alone: we are winning.
Her most powerful and controversial poem is about Laurie Dann, who killed and wounded several North Shore schoolchildren when she burst into a Winnetka school and started shooting. "Poem for Laurie Wasserman Dann" recalls that she and Dann were in the same high school graduating class:
I remembered vaguely, that face--
a fuzzy yearbook version--
watching other high school students
treading their way down the echoing halls
of New Trier High School
"the country's best"
then her face became my own
as I leaned against those piss-green walls
watching the parade of gee-gees,
and phoebes in their short green cheerleader skirts....
In the mirror
of the girls' washroom, I inhaled
cigarette smoke and boredom,
escape from the study hall where the only thing that ever happened
was the time Doug Nierman,
overhearing the ordinary,
stood: big, blond football player, up from his cramped desk and said: "I'm Jewish."
She says, "I was really scared when I wrote this poem, scared of what I was going to find when I started to dig into the layers of my life and Laurie Dann's life and the lives of a lot of people on the North Shore. I found a lot of anger, a lot of adolescent anguish, all those unresolved issues of who's inside and outside, who's cool and who's not cool. Obviously I'm not condoning what Laurie Dann did--I went to the school where she shot those little kids. I was horrified by what she did. But I wasn't ready to deny her existence, as so many people wanted to do. We didn't want to listen to the meaning of her act, because what it said was so horrible."
The final lines of the poem are in Dann's voice:
You thought i needed you
but you need me.
Cry now. Cry.
Parson-Nesbitt says, "The ending is my rendition of Laurie Dann's voice, and it's very scary. I was trying to feel why she did it--not as a reason, but as an emotional expression of anger and hurt. Until now that poem has never been published. I've often wondered if it would have been accepted somewhere if I hadn't added her voice. Like I said, you can find some pretty scary things in your poetry once you start poking around."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.