On Tuesday, the Houston Press reported that Whole Foods was backing away from a marketing campaign it had launched to promote Halal products for Ramadan, which started on August 1. According to an internal letter intercepted by Eating Our Words blogger Katharine Shilcutt, the company instructed its workers: "It is probably best that we don't specifically call out or 'promote' Ramadan." The letter went on, "we should not highlight Ramadan in signage in our stores as that could be considered 'Celebrating or promoting' Ramadan."
But 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.
The story didn't stop there, though. Since it came out in the Houston Press this morning, it's been picked up by Gawker, whose headline said the chain "caved to wingnuts" and the Huffington Post, which said the retailer had "Abandon[ed]" the "Ramadan Marketing Campaign." The Washington Post was a little more measured: "Whole Foods under fire for internal email about halal promotion at Ramadan."
Before we go any further, a bit of background on the marketing campaign itself: Whole Foods got a little attention in late July when it launched a Ramadan-oriented marketing campaign. The low-key marketing effort basically consisted of introducing a line of products from Saffron Road, the maker of Halal frozen foods, and featuring them in couple of company blog posts. Its website also ran content from Yvonne Maffei, of My Halal Kitchen. Fast Company's Neal Ungerleider reported on July 28, "While it is a relatively small promotion, it also marks a new benchmark for the Muslim-American community: the first coordinated Ramadan promotion by a national supermarket chain."
The campaign was met with polite interest from business journals and Muslim groups, and, in one case, a vitriolic screed that apparently "spooked" (in Burkhart's words) one region into trying to abandon it altogether. That blog post came from Debbie Schlussel, the same blogger who said the February attack on CBS correspondent Lara Logan in Cairo "kinda warms my heart" because, she said, it showed the inherent violence of Islam. On July 29, Schlussel posted an item blasting the "anti-Israel" Whole Foods' decision to launch a Ramadan-based promotion. "The question is, how long ’til Whole Foods no longer carries pork and other non-halal products? Answer: Not long," she wrote. She also attacked this Whole Foods company blog post on the promotion as "Islamo-pandering," and finished with this:
Here’s a tip, Whole Foods: there is NOTHING “cosmopolitan” about Islam. In fact, Islam is the antonym to cosmopolitan. Retro is in. Retro back to the year 622 and the values of savages will NEVER be in.
Whole Foods . . . For the Organically Conscious Jihadist. Way more humane because, hey, “free range chickens” can run away from the IED. allahu natural fruitbar.
Schlussel's isn't the only right-leaning or anti-Islam site to pick up on the Whole Foods promotion, but it seems to be the one influencing the Whole Foods region. Bare Naked Islam ran a post on the promotion, as did Free Republic. But those two sites did little more than reprint the Fast Company story (though Bare Naked Islam added in a whole bunch of videos of cows being slaughtered).
But Schlussel's post responded directly to a Whole Foods blog post, and that's what the Houston Press's letter focused on: "Some people have misinterpreted the blog post to mean we are celebrating or promoting Ramadan in our stores," the letter read. The misinterpretation has generated some negative feedback from a small segment of vocal and angry consumers and bloggers."
Burkhart agreed that it was probably Schlussel's post that started the whole flap, but she said it was input from shoppers that made regional management send out that unfortunate email. "A lot of the response too was also from our shoppers. Unfortunately I think it can be easy to be alarmed by a blog post or something like that that makes you really start to question the offerings, and so we were getting a lot of questions from shoppers, and I think in the process of answering some of those questions, an email was probably sent out just to try to avoid some of those questions going forward."