Was Whole Foods planning to use the Islamic holiday of Ramadan to attract Muslim customers?
Some news outlets are reporting that Whole Foods, a popular grocery chain, recently sent an e-mail to all of its stores instructing staff not to promote the Islamic holiday of Ramadan this year. The e-mail claims that some bloggers and customers have "misinterpreted" a recent, online give-a-way to mean that the store planned to support the Islamic holiday.
But, at least one blogger -- Debbie Schlussel (a conservative who has covered Whole Foods extensively) -- believes that the letter may be a staged attempt to stem off negative publicity, while also serving as a mechanism to strike back at her for negative coverage she's given the company. Allow me to explain the background.
For context, let's start by first looking at a HoustonPress.com article that was published early Tuesday morning. According to its author, Katharine Shilcutt, the decision to refrain from promoting the holiday comes as a result of right-wing bloggers who the paper says "blindly associate Ramadan and Muslims with terrorism and burqas."
Just last week, Whole Foods began its promotion of Saffron Road's line of halal products throughout the holiday, which ends on August 29, via writer Yvonne Maffei's blog, My Halal Kitchen. That promotion was waylaid by what seems like a very small amount of criticism, according to an internal email that the Houston Press obtained recently.
Shilcutt goes on to claim that this e-mail pronouncement -- from Whole Foods -- that instructs stores not to celebrate Ramadan signifies a stark different from the past when the stores promoted halal items during the holiday and even featured signs that displayed the crescent moon (symbol of Islam).
Additionally, she writes that this action also differs greatly from the way the store celebrates Christmas, Easter and other religious-based holidays. She then shares text from the Whole Foods e-mail:
"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.
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."
So, which is it? Does the company wish to promote Ramadan or not? Based on this letter, it seems like Whole Foods is separating itself from the holiday, but Shilcutt indicates that it has actually promoted Ramadan in the past.
To the left, see a screen shot of Whole Foods' official blog (also mentioned in the internal e-mail) that Schlussel shared with readers (Whole Foods does seem to be promoting Ramadan on its official blog, no?). In the end, Schlussel denies claims that the company is reacting to her coverage of the incident. She writes:
The American Muslim world, the anti-Semitic and phony ADL, and left-wing media and blogosphere (including crackpot turncoat Charles Johnson) are upset that I posted about anti-Israel Whole Foods’ Ramadan promotion, and as a result of my post Whole Foods appears–appears!–to have caved. But that’s not really what’s going on. Don’t believe the hype. [...]
While I’d love to take credit for Whole Foods allegedly “caving” on Ramadan, that’s simply not what happened. Like I said, from the beginning Whole Foods never planned in-store Ramadan promotions, so there is no reason the chain would send this e-mail, other than to perpetrate a PR lie and more fiction.
According to Schlussel, Whole Foods was initially planning to "test the waters" by offering a promotion online (she claims they didn't want to turn their customers off, so they were treading carefully). In her writings, she takes issue with both the e-mail, itself, and Shilcutt's piece, as she explains her feeling that Whole Foods is likely making the entire controversy up to fight back against negative coverage she's given the company in the past.
An article on FastCompany.com does, indeed, affirm that the promotion was not planned in stores. But, it also shows an urge to purposefully attract Islamic customers:
No in-store promotions for the campaign are planned, instead, in an apparent attempt to test the waters, the promotion will start online. The "campaign focuses on reaching Muslim consumers online where they are already having conversations about halal foods, grocery shopping, and preparing for Ramadan,” Saffron Road spokesperson Lisa Mabe tells Fast Company.
In the end, it is quite possible that the company sent the e-mail in an effort to ensure that Ramadan is, indeed, not promoted in individual stores (perhaps to make sure everyone is on the same page). The release was careful to say "in our stores," thus the company never denied promoting the holiday online (if, indeed, it was doing so). Do you have a headache yet? I do.
This controversy is an intriguing one that we'll be sure to keep an eye on.
Update: The Atlantic threw another wrench into the story on Tuesday, writing that the letter at the center of the controversy was purportedly not actually sent from Whole Foods' corporate offices:
...a Whole Foods spokeswoman said today that the chain hadn't backed off of its Ramadan campaign at all, and that the letter featured in the Houston Press came from within one of its 12 operating regions. "Every region operates autonomously. They have their own set of leadership, their own offices," spokeswoman Liz Burkhart said. Unfortunately one region reacted by sending out directions to promote halal and to focus less on specifically Ramadan because they got some negative online comments." She wouldn't confirm which region it was, but the story came out in a Houston paper, so it's easy to surmise it was the Southwest region.
This was confirmed last evening on the grocery company's official Twitter Feed:
The plot thinkens.