New York (AFP)

Whole Foods Market has grown from a tiny health-conscious grocer in Texas far from the US coasts into a giant in upscale foods nationwide, and now is moving into Britain and Canada.

The deal announced on Friday with Amazon could mean an even bigger impact for the pricey grocery chain sometimes known colloquially as "whole paycheck."

- History -

The company was founded in 1978 in Austin, Texas by 25-year-old college dropout John Mackey and 21-year-old Renee Lawson with money borrowed from family and friends.

Two years later Whole Foods Market was incorporated after their tiny SaferWay -- a parody of the once-dominant nationwide Safeway chain -- merged with Clarksville Natural Grocery.

Mackey views the chain as a "mission-driven" company in improving American food, and he and his team have grown Whole Foods through a series of acquisitions of like-minded food companies, including the Fresh Fields chain that started in the Washington, DC area.

- Operations -

The company now has 436 stores in 42 US states and Washington, DC.

Eight states do not have Whole Foods stores: Alaska, Delaware, Nevada, North Dakota, Montana, Vermont, West Virginia and Wyoming.

It also has expanded internationally, with 11 stores in Canada and nine in the United Kingdom.

In the 2016 fiscal year, the company had record sales of $15.7 billion, but comparable stores sales fell by 2.5 percent and profit was $507 million after declining for two years.

The company has just 1.2 percent share of the US food and grocery market, trailing far behind Wal-Mart (14.5 percent), Kroger (7.7 percent) and Costco (2.4 percent), among others, according to research firm GlobalData Retail. Amazon has just 0.2 percent.

- Philosophy -

Whole Foods calls itself "America's Healthiest Grocery Store" -- a title it has trademarked -- and says its mission is to "seek out the finest natural and organic foods available, maintain the strictest quality standards in the industry, and have an unshakeable commitment to sustainable agriculture."

Because of concerns about cruelty to animals, the company will not sell foie gras or live lobsters or crabs.

Considered a "first generation" organic market, the company was able to grow amid the rising interest in the United States in organic food and concerns about the dangers of pesticides and genetically-modified foods.

But that also posed a challenge and Whole Foods has suffered from competition as more stores have begun offering organic and natural foods at lower prices, including Wal-Mart, Kroger and Trader Joe's.

In an email to customers Friday titled "exciting news,"Whole Foods vowed to keep quality high.

"No artificial flavors, colors, preservatives, sweeteners or hydrogenated fats will ever be in any of the food we sell. Meat will still come from animals raised with no-added growth hormones, ever," the company said.

"Those standards are core to Whole Foods Market and we will remain committed to them."

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