Whole Foods co-CEO sets goal of 1,000 U.S. stores

Tue Jun 21, 2011 10:16am EDT

* Currently has around 300 U.S. stores

* Sees opportunity in Canada, where it plans 35 stores

LOS ANGELES, June 21 (Reuters) - Whole Foods Market Inc (WFM.O) expects to one day have 1,000 stores in the United States, up from around 300 currently, co-Chief Executive Walter Robb said on Tuesday.

The upscale grocer is bullish on Canada and expects to increase its store count there from six currently to 35, Robb said at the Jefferies 2011 Global Consumer Conference on Tuesday.

He added that the company's flagship store in Britain recently turned cash-flow positive. As of April 10, Whole Foods had five stores in that market.

The upheaval in the commercial property market has created opportunities for companies looking to expand, and Whole Foods has identified locations where it "can put some bets down and take advantage of that," Robb said.

This time around, the chain has left itself flexibility room to exit leases should the economy significantly worsen, he said.

"We have some contingency plans so that if we needed to, we could slow down," said Robb, who added that leases now include exit and buyout clauses.

Robb said Whole Foods would give more detail on growth plans on the company's next quarterly earnings call.

After stumbling badly during the recession, Whole Foods is now outperforming other grocery sellers.

The largest seller of natural and organic foods in the United States has lowered prices, cleaned up its balance sheet and sharpened its focus on health.

Robb said the company -- which is gaining market share -- is now debt free and generating good free cash flow.

Whole Foods plans to use some of its cash to speed up store openings. It also is looking at a dividend and contemplating share buybacks, though the latter is a lower priority, Robb said.

As part of its health and wellness initiatives, Whole Foods also plans to open five wellness clubs in different cities around the United States.

For a monthly membership fee of around $50, members will get things like store discounts and access to supper clubs. The company also has hired medical doctors who have worked up a curriculum for the clubs and offer some services.

Robb called the investment in wellness club test "minor" at less than $5 million company-wide. (Reporting by Lisa Baertlein; Editing by Derek Caney)

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