(USA TODAY) Whole Foods, the natural foods kingpin, is planning an upscale health resort where guests could stay and learn about a healthier lifestyle.
"We have the perfect vehicle for this," says Whole Foods co-founder John Mackey, who has not discussed the plan with other media. "Think of it as a center where people would go for a day, a weekend or a week for healthy lifestyle education."
The resort - which would use Whole Foods in its name -- would likely open in or near downtown Austin, where the company plans to expand its headquarters, perhaps within the next three years, he says.
The company is negotiating for real estate - and searching for the right hotel chain to operate the health resort, Mackey says. Opening additional health resorts would depend on the success -- or failure -- of this one, he says.
The better-for-you trend remains a multibillion-dollar industry, even in a tough economy. While hit hard early in the economic downturn, the 346-store Whole Foods chain has come roaring back, with its sales and stock price up handsomely. The move into the health resort business would mark a continuing evolution from selling healthy food to promoting an active lifestyle.
A health resort -- in the mold of Canyon Ranch or Pritikin Center -- could be a huge hit that catapults the brand in new directions, or it could be a flop, Mackey concedes. "It's an experiment, and you never know if experiments will be successful or not." For example, he says, the five education-focused Wellness Clubs that Whole Foods has tested in a handful of stores have not worked. "It wasn't a total bomb," he says, "but we couldn't reach critical mass."
The health resort idea came from an in-house program to improve eating and lifestyle habits of Whole Foods employees -- focused on weight loss and reduction in blood pressure and cholesterol. "I've seen it improve the lives of hundreds of our team members," Mackey says.
Now, Mackey wants to spread the concept beyond staff.
Brand guru Robert Passikoff says the move could be a slam dunk. "To move from natural foods to natural spas works," says Passikoff, who notes Whole Foods ranks first in brand recognition in the natural foods category. "Whole Foods is really a category unto itself."