Howard Wainer: The Man behind the Magazine

How Howie Wainer turned a dying publication into a thriving, innovative magazine.

Written By:
Kaylynn Chiarello-Ebner
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See the rest of our 30th Anniversary Coverage:
Letter from the Publisher
| Five Trends over Five Years
2009-2014 Timeline | Company Bios

On paper, Howard Wainer (or Howie to many of us) is the president of Wainer Finest Communications, the publisher of WholeFoods Magazine. But in reality, he is the father of WholeFoods as we know it today. Truly a visionary, he saw something in a failing publication and breathed new life into it, making it the most loved and respected trade magazine in the industry. What’s more, Wainer touched countless individuals, believing in them and standing by them when their futures in this burgeoning industry were uncertain. It is for all these reasons and more that the Natural Products Association is honoring him this year  with its President’s Award.

Here, we highlight the man behind the magazine and how he has made a mark on the natural products industry throughout his 30 years at WholeFoods.

From Subs to Sales
Wainer, a self-described “Brooklyn Boy,” is probably one of the hardest working people you’ll ever meet. He started off in the magazine world selling subscriptions for a large trade publisher called Fairchild, which quickly promoted him to a senior position in Chicago. While it was a good job, Wainer wasn’t satisfied. Too few of his colleagues had their hearts in their work. Sure, they made money for the company, but it was disheartening for Wainer to see colleagues cutting corners and not giving it their all.

Always one to put forth his best effort (and then some), Wainer transferred back to New York and was promoted to advertising sales for Women’s Wear Daily magazine. After nine years, he moved onto a new publication that served movie theaters in New York City, and was quite successful.

As time went on, Wainer moved out of the industry for a few years, but he soon found himself back in magazine advertising, this time for Howmark Publishing. Here, it seems Wainer started to hit his stride in magazine sales, and everything he touched became golden. “The first one I sold was a pet magazine, and we became number one in that market,” Wainer recalls. Next came Army/Navy Store and Outdoor Merchandiser, another resounding success for Wainer.

The third magazine he worked on there was Health Foods Business, which was his first exposure to the health food industry. “At that time, the industry was just developing from ‘dietetic foods.’ It wasn’t even called ‘health foods’ then,” says Wainer, who before long was selling all three publications simultaneously. Somehow, through a special combination of hard work, talent and smarts, Wainer made all three magazines number one in their industries.

The Beginnings of WholeFoods Magazine
Meanwhile, a competitor publication called WholeFoods Magazine was floundering. The magazine was founded by Steven M. Haines in 1977 and had come under the ownership of Larry Hester in 1980. In the early 1980s, Hester was on a mission to find the best and brightest advertising salesperson in the magazine industry to join him. He zeroed in on none other than Howie Wainer, and offered him the opportunity of a lifetime.

 
  Howard Wainer’s original WholeFoods team: (l to r) Douglas Stinson, editor; Sandra Wainer, circulation director; Wainer, publisher; Daniel McSweeney, associate editor; (seated l to r) Debra Slater, editorial assistant; Claire Monteschio, art director.

Hester gave Wainer the chance to buy a partial ownership of WholeFoods Magazine. Wainer was intrigued, but first needed the approval of the big boss: his wife, Sandra.

Howie was weighing the pros and cons of going to WholeFoods or taking other lucrative counteroffers from his current employer. Sandy, on the other hand, was drawn to WholeFoods. Wainer says Sandy typically was not the decisive one in their marriage, but this time, things were different.

“To my surprise,” says Wainer, “Sandy said directly, ‘You’re going to do it, right?’”

So with Sandy’s incredible support, Wainer partnered up with Hester. “He set me up in an office in Metuchen, NJ, in a three-story walk-up with no e-mail or fax at the time,” Wainer remembers. Hester maintained his publication company in Santa Ana, where WholeFoods was laid out with manuscript prepared by Wainer’s team in New Jersey.

April 1984 was the first WholeFoods issue of which Wainer was a part, but he had an incredible following from his time at Health Foods Business. Wainer’s reputation helped him dig WholeFoods out of its hole. One company after another heard about Wainer’s new venture and signed up for advertising. Many of Wainer’s first clients are still placing ads in WholeFoods.

Several companies credit Wainer with giving them their start, thanks to the connections he helped them make and the advice he gave them. One such company was Natrol, Inc. “From the moment I met Howard, decades ago, I knew I had made a personal friend for life and someone that I could learn from to help build my business,” says Elliott Balbert, founder, former president and CEO of Natrol, Inc., Chatsworth, CA. “As a struggling company that Natrol was back in the 80s, Howard provided me insight and advice that was quantifiable in many ways.”

Balbert adds, “Howard had insight, character and a sense of fair play that was totally unique. I will never forget his kindness and friendship over the years.”

Bob Weinstein, vice president of sales at Futurebiotics LLC, had a similar sense of Wainer. At the time, Weinstein was president of Sherman Foods, the country’s oldest Health Food Distributor. “Howie was a breath of fresh air as he was one of the ‘new’ folks coming into a small, but growing industry,” says Weinstein. “Howie was always open to listening and learning…a gentleman, a friend, a source of excellent industry information.”

 
Howard Wainer with his wife Sandra Wainer.  

Indeed, many of his first clients quickly became friends. At tradeshows, Wainer remembers that exhibitors weren’t packing up the moment the closing bell rang. “Everyone hung around, hugged and kissed. We didn’t want to leave. It was so beautiful. It was such a warm industry,” he says. “I love this industry so much.”

WholeFoods Magazine had been losing over $300,000 a year before Wainer came on board; but by the June 1984 issue—just three issues into his WholeFoods tenure—Wainer was turning a profit with 60–80 pages of advertising per month. And the best was yet to come.

Wainer’s WholeFoods Magazine
Innovation at WholeFoods. Right from the beginning, Wainer was full of ideas. “I decided our position would be to have the largest circulation in the industry,” he says. “I just felt we should expose the grocery stores, the pharmacies and others to our industry.” Soon, these “outsiders” were learning all about natural health right alongside traditional health food stores.

In addition, he was dedicated to the education of its core readers, the natural products stores. The mantra is held as the highest priority at WholeFoods to this day.

“In my first editorial,” says Wainer, “I said that WholeFoods would be the finest editorial product in the industry.”

To make this promise a reality, the publication worked hard to qualify for BPA accreditation, which it hadn’t achieved before, and honed in its circulation on natural products businesses. Of course, BPA certification proves that the publication is sent to real, legitimate readers in certain categories (like natural products stores). BPA certification is essential, Wainer believes, for proving a publication’s worth in terms of its circulation.

 
  The first cover of WholeFoods Magazine with Howard Wainer onboard.

To pass the magazine’s first BPA audit, Wainer’s circulation manager at the time, Casie Boyle Armstrong, worked her magic, says Wainer. “She worked so hard to get us that BPA,” he says. “I want to thank her again for all her hard work.” BPA qualification is still a designation which WholeFoods Magazine maintains, while competitors have dropped it.

Next, Wainer turned his focus to the editorial content. “I felt the best way we could service the health foods industry was to give more information about the products. Customers come into health food stores to learn about products, and we wanted to give the stores the information they needed,” says Wainer.

Wainer continued an ongoing Debate section and debuted an “It Worked for Me” column in November 1984, Deals & Displays in January 1985, the WholeFoods Achievement Award in 1985, the ever-popular What’s Selling page in February 1986 and the HBC Counter in October 1988. The innovation kept on rolling along with the addition of some of the best-read and most well-respected columns in the industry.

“He turned this little pamphlet into a beautiful magazine,” says Heather Wainer, current publisher of WholeFoods, of her father, Howie. “That’s the special thing about the magazine. You can literally see the pride in his work.”

Calling on columnists. Trademarks of today’s WholeFoods Magazine are its three regular columns, which are Vitamin Connection, written by renowned researcher Richard A. Passwater, Ph.D.; Legal Tips, written by attorney Scott Tips, president of the Natural Health Federation; and Merchandising Insights, authored by Jay Jacobowitz, founder of Retail Insights. When Wainer took the reins at WholeFoods, none of these columns were in existence, but he had the foresight to add them to the pages of the magazine.

Originally, the publication had a column called Health Connection with rotating authors. “It was very popular among store owners with guest writers every month,” says Wainer. But he knew he could make it even better.

 
Larry Hester, co-owner of WholeFoods Magazine until 2000, with his wife.  

In 1984, Wainer went on a sales call to Solgar and met with its founder Allen Skolnick and his son, Rand. After the presentation, the elder Skolnick said, “Well, you haven’t really been at this publication even a year yet, and we’re not ready to advertise,” Wainer recalls. “But I commend what you’re doing and I’m going to do something better for you.”

And with that, Skolnick gave WholeFoods a wonderful gift. “I’m going to let Dr. Passwater write for you. It will be a column that I know the retailers will enjoy,” said Skolnick.

Wainer already knew Passwater very well and without hesitation said, “I’ll take him!” Wainer, too, believed the column would be invaluable, and he was right. To this day, the column is one of the most requested and best-read sections of WholeFoods Magazine.

With Passwater on the team, WholeFoods was all set on supplements science. But soon, Wainer felt the publication needed a little something extra. Peter Vizel, Wainer’s friend on the West Coast, was passionate about the industry. One day, he came to Wainer and said, “Howie, you’re doing such a wonderful job with WholeFoods Magazine that I’m going to give you a present. I’m going to give you Scott Tips.”

In 1984, he introduced Wainer to Tips, a young attorney with some big clients like Sandy Shaw and Durk Pearson, well-known proponents of sports nutrition and protein supplementation. “Scott was a real nice guy,” says Wainer of Tips, and he knew immediately Tips would be a great match for the publication. The readers never had a regular legal column before, and Wainer felt Tips was just the person to bring it to them. “Scott just did a wonderful job writing for WholeFoods, and he still does,” Wainer says. “Right from the beginning, readers would write letters saying how much they loved Scott’s column.” The comments continue to pour in to this day.

 
  Howard Wainer (at podium) presents an award at an NNFA convention.

Two pieces of the columnist puzzle were in place.

Like Passwater, Wainer also knew WholeFoods’ third columnist before he wrote for the publication. Wainer frequently was in touch with Jay Jacobowitz, who worked for Stow Mills at the time, regarding advertising. Wainer and Jacobowitz became friends, and when Jay moved from the world of natural products distribution to consulting, he came to WholeFoods and volunteered to write for the publication.

“Jay is the smartest guy in the world when it comes to health foods,” says Wainer. “So I said, ‘Alright, Jay, give me a few sample columns.’” The sample articles were enlightening, and Wainer quickly agreed that Jay should write for WholeFoods, with the first column debuting in January 1999.

“One of the best decisions I even made was putting Jay on our staff,” Wainer states. “He is incredibly knowledgeable.”

And with that, Wainer developed the strongest team of columnists of any industry trade publication.

It should be noted that while these writers are currently WholeFoods’ columnists, others have graced the pages of the publication. One noteworthy writer was responsible for writing about herbs and botanicals in response to retailers’ growing interest in selling herbs.

“I knew they needed information,” says Wainer. “So I went to Mark Blumenthal, one of my oldest friends from my Health Foods Business days. He owned Sweethardt Herbs at the time. I said, ‘You know, Mark. You should write for me. The way you take everyone aside to explain things and you’re so dedicated to herbs...You would be a wonderful columnist.’”

 
Howard Wainer presenting the 1986
WholeFoods Achievement Award to Thomas B. Harding, Jr.
 

Blumenthal hesitated at first, but Wainer convinced him to try just one sample column in 1991. “He became so enthused and so wonderful, that he eventually wrote a monthly column for me and went on to do great things in the world of herbs. I wish him every success,” said Wainer of Blumenthal, who became the founder /executive director of the American Botanical Council (ABC) and publisher of HerbalGram.

Blumenthal, meanwhile, connects his success with Wainer. He states, “All my work with HerbalGram and, to some extent, the founding of ABC in 1988—the nonprofit organization I started to help shepherd HerbalGram from newsletter to magazine format—all derived from my being invited to write my first column for Howie.”

Like many, Wainer gave Blumenthal a chance to spread his roots through WholeFoods. “I owe my career in herbal education journalism to him,” says Blumenthal. “To Howie goes the credit (or perhaps, in the eyes of some of my potential detractors, the blame) for the fact that I’ve now written hundreds of articles and reviews, co-authored and published books, and am advocating for science-based and responsible herbal medicine…Howie Wainer is a significant figure in my world with respect to writing, editing and publishing.”

For Passwater, the opportunity to write for WholeFoods was especially rewarding because he wrote for someone who stood his ground. Passwater brings up a time in WholeFoods history when Victor Herbert, M.D. was intimidating those writing about supplements science by suing them. He and WholeFoods were targets.

Says Passwater, “This was real intimidation as it cost money to defend yourself. Also, scientists and others did not want to be harassed in public by Herbert’s groundless intimidating attacks.”

 

The WholeFoods Family

Other entrepreneurs have much to learn from WholeFoods president Howard Wainer. To be successful, Wainer believes, “You’ve got to be well informed about what you’re doing. You have to have a thirst for knowledge. You’ve got to be prepared to work, because nobody is going to do it for you…And, you must treat people well, because it all comes back to you.”

Over the years, these employees have made quite an impression on Wainer.

The chain of editors. Right after he bought a piece of WholeFoods Magazine, Wainer split the editor’s desk. Allison Stiles Deerr became the West Coast editor and he hired his first employee, Daniel McSweeney, to handle the East Coast editorial functions. “Dan learned so much from me, he started Vitamin Retailer,” says Wainer. “He puts out a fine publication and competes with us. We still remain friends and I’m very proud of what he learned from me.”

When Wainer moved the whole operation to New Jersey, Douglas Stinson took the editorial reins. “He was a wonderful writer,” says Wainer. “He really knew merchandising. He had so much talent.”

After Stinson, Marcia Parker Cox became editor of WholeFoods, and then, Wainer turned to McSweeney to lead WholeFoods. “He had the talent and he learned a lot here. We really put him through school,” says Wainer.

Next, Joe King became editor, followed by a gentleman that WholeFoods readers came to love: Alan Richman. Richman, previously the editor of Health Foods Business, occupied the WholeFoods editor’s desk from January 1995 until his retirement in January 2007. Richman still covers tradeshows for WholeFoods as needed. Says Wainer, “Alan has always been there for me. He’s one of my closest friends as well as a wonderful editor. WholeFoods wouldn’t have grown like it did without Alan. We’re very proud of our association with him.”

During this time, Richman worked alongside art director Bill Miller, “one of the most talented artists to work for WholeFoods,” says Wainer, remarking on his talent for drawing by hand. He also speaks of an earlier artist, Irene Kaschlaw, who was a “workaholic,” says Wainer, and commends the excellent work she did for WholeFoods.

When Richman retired, Wainer started a search for an editor to fill his shoes. He remembers his daughter, Heather, asking, “What are we going to do without Alan?” Says Wainer, “God looks out for us, and God sent us Kaylynn.”

He describes how Kaylynn Chiarello-Ebner, the magazine’s current editor, brought the publication into the 21st century and cares about the publication as if it was her own. “She does the job of 10 people,” he laughs.

WholeFoods’ current art director, Christina Smith, is another valuable person to Wainer. He states, “She’s a warm, caring person—someone we treasure very much.”

Circulation. By the late 1980s, the circulation department picked up a priceless employee: Sandy Wainer, who became director of the department. “She was a very detail-oriented person. It was the perfect job for her,” says Wainer of his wife. She had been a school teacher, and was determined to do things over and over until the job was done correctly.

Sandy protected the BPA certification that she and her husband felt so strongly about maintaining. “She did such a wonderful job, and was such an asset to the company,” says Wainer. “She really worked hard.”

Beyond the numbers and paper, Sandy had a gift when it came to interacting with WholeFoods’ core readership, the natural products retailers. The retailers would seek out her ear at tradeshows. “She was a wonderful woman,” says Wainer.

Sandy worked with the late Barbara Fortunato, another beloved WholeFoods employee. “She had a tough life, but she always smiled,” says Wainer. “She could pick up whoever was down.”

As Sandy became sick in her late years and took a step back from the magazine, it was a huge loss for WholeFoods. Sandy passed away in April 2011, and is sorely missed by those who knew her.

The current WholeFoods staff: (standing l to r) Sean McCormick, advertising sales manager; Tim Person, associate editor; Howard Wainer, president; Heather Wainer, publisher; James Ciuffreda, controller (seated l to r) Katy Widmer, editorial assistant; Jasmine Burroughs, circulation assistant; Kaylynn Chiarello-Ebner, editor/associate publisher; Christina Smith, art director/production manager.
   

Passwater says some stopped writing the truth about supplements science to avoid this harassment. Passwater, on the other hand, exposed Herbert’s questionable record as a physician and scientist and was hit with a lawsuit. Despite being advised to settle, Passwater says he and Wainer “stood by our principles and said we would go to court and defend the truth. [In the end,] the court threw out the suit.”

Passwater and Wainer took similar risks with Passwater’s biting exposés against the FDA’s illegal attacks on the health food industry. “Howie did not shy away,” says Passwater. “We called it as it was to get the truth out.” As a result, both WholeFoods Magazine and Passwater received the John Peter Zenger Free Press Award.

These examples prove something important about Wainer. “What stands out about Howie to me is his love of and service to the health food industry and his willingness to go the limit to defend the industry,” says Passwater.

Growing with the Times
Under Wainer’s leadership, WholeFoods grew in the 1990s, carrying more and more advertisers. But it also began to capture the hearts of its readers. Says Wainer, “I had sold trade magazines most of my career, and I never got such a reception to a publication as I did with this one. We got so many letters—people just loved it. At tradeshows, retailers would hug me and thank me for our work. It inspired us to do an even better job.”

And so, the magazine matured, and as competitors came into the marketplace with other publications and tradeshows, WholeFoods not only stood its ground, but got better and better. Before long, Wainer began publishing four other magazines in other industries, which are no longer in existence.

Wainer even ran a tradeshow for three years. “Everywhere I went, people asked me for WholeFoods to run a tradeshow,” says Wainer. He was no stranger to this side of the business, having previously run a successful tradeshow for another publication. Says Wainer, “Again, we were very educationally oriented, so the WholeFoods tradeshow would have an accent on education and learning about products.”

Wainer had the support of some big names in the industry as exhibitors and speakers, including the late Joe Bassett, who owned Bassett’s Health Food Stores in Toledo, OH. “He volunteered to do a seminar for me in every slot,” says Wainer. “He was an amazing guy. He helped so many people in this industry.”

But in the end, the focus always came back to the publication. “WholeFoods Magazine was always my baby. My daughter, Heather, always said WholeFoods was my and Sandy’s second child. And, it really was,” Wainer says, reflecting on his long days, evenings and weekends working on the publication. “It was hard work.”

As the business grew, so too did the responsibility. By the late 1990s, what was once a negative item on Larry Hester’s profit and loss statement had become quite a success, thanks to Wainer. “I turned it around and WholeFoods became one of his most profitable publications,” says Wainer.

Eventually, Hester sold his publications to Harcourt Brace, but hung onto WholeFoods. The pair continued to grow the magazine. But around 1998–1999, Hester no longer wanted to be on the East Coast, where WholeFoods was based, and suggested he and Wainer sell the magazine.

“Like Heather said, this publication is like my second child,” says Wainer. “I would never sell WholeFoods. I realized I had to find some way to buy the other percentage of the magazine.”

The price was steep, at a few million. “I was a kid from Brooklyn,” Wainer laughs. “I didn’t have millions.” He begged Hester to loan him the money to buy the other piece of WholeFoods. Hester did just that in 2000, and after five lean years of hard work, the business was entirely Wainer’s.

One might think that Wainer would have pocketed any and all profits after the purchase. But Wainer isn’t just a smart and determined businessman; he’s also a generous and caring owner. Instead, employees at Wainer Finest Communications (publisher of WholeFoods) received generous yearend bonuses and profit-sharing to take care of their retirement.

WholeFoods’ Today and Tomorrow
Today, Wainer still comes into the office several times a week and makes important decisions about WholeFoods Magazine. But, he prides himself on having a great staff to take care of his “baby.”

“Now, we have the best staff. In every position, we probably have the best person we’ve ever had. We have a staff that I could go away for 10 years and not have to worry. That’s a wonderful thing,” Wainer states.

The staff is now led by publisher Heather Wainer, who not only heads the sales team, but is also an integral part of every facet of WholeFoods Magazine. Like her father, Heather has a connection to WholeFoods that runs far deeper than just business. Printing the best-quality education to help a great industry is an immense responsibility, and the Wainers have tasked themselves with bringing this mission forward.

But, it wasn’t always a sure bet that Heather would enter the family business. “As a kid, I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up, but I knew I liked the media industry,” says Heather.

In the 1990s, Heather graduated from the University of Rhode Island and went looking for a job. In the end, she turned down offers from several outside companies and started at her father’s company.

Wainer insisted Heather learn about every department in his company. So, she spent a week in each area, including sales.

“At the time, I had a salesman named Ian Goldmunz, who was like a son to me. He became the best salesperson I ever worked with, next to Heather,” says Wainer.

And it was Ian’s intervention that brought Heather into the sales side of business. “Ian said to me, ‘You know, you ought to teach your daughter how to sell,’” says Wainer. Wainer hesitated, but Ian saw something in Heather. “Let me do it,” said Goldmunz, and Wainer agreed.

Goldmunz was tough on her, so tough that he’d sometimes bring her to tears. “I had sold clothes in retail and was good at it. But that’s a tangible. Selling an intangible is very different,” Heather says.

But Heather was hard-working and determined, Wainer Family traits. It wasn’t long before Heather came into her own, became the leader of WholeFoods’ sales force and the large accounts asked to deal directly with her.

“I fell in love with sales and with publishing and never looked back,” said Heather.

“This made me so proud,” says the elder Wainer, noting how his daughter rejuvenated WholeFoods with many creative ideas and formed relationships with the younger people coming into the industry. “She has just done a wonderful, wonderful job,” he says.

Tragically, Goldmunz never saw Heather’s full success as the publisher of WholeFoods. He passed away in 1993 at the age of 33. “He was such a wonderful person. It was such a huge loss losing him,” Wainer says.

Web. The biggest changes in WholeFoods Wainer has seen over the years are its digital platforms. “The big thing today is the Internet. If you look at our Web site, www.wholefoodsmagazine.com, you can see the investment we put into it,” says Wainer. “Heather is the one who really got us into digital.”

Like most companies of its age, WholeFoods’ first forays into the digital realm were modest. “It was very simple,” says Heather of establishing the magazine’s first footprints online.

 
Publisher Heather Wainer looks over an issue with her father and WholeFoods president, Howard Wainer.  

The second site, she says, was created by WholeFoods’ current advertising sales manager, Sean McCormick, who believed the magazine needed more of an online presence. “We quickly grew out of it, and we knew it was time to make a bigger investment in digital,” Heather explains.

And after a very thorough search, WholeFoods found a great partner to launch a bigger and better site in 2010. “I’m very proud of our Web site,” says Heather. “I think it’s one of the best-looking Web sites out there.

Four years later, the digital presence of WholeFoods has continued to grow with a mobile platform, extra features on the main site, social media outreach, several e-newsletters, videos, podcasts, a flip book and more. “We have monthly meetings every month to brainstorm ways to improve our digital presence,” Heather adds. “We’re very dedicated to this growing piece of the publishing industry. It really helps our readers and our customers.”

For this reason, WholeFoods debuted its online SourceBook Directory in 2012. “For years, people asked us to put our Source Directory online,” says Heather. “We are thrilled and proud to offer it now. We continue to grow that, too, with the goal of serving the technically savvy and low-tech users alike.”

But in an age when people have more access to digital resources than ever before, Heather says, “We are finding that people still want print and are thankful that WholeFoods is still available in print along with the digital editions. They say they are grateful that we continue to print physical issues, when other magazines are ceasing to do so. We’re glad to be able to give that to them.”

And so, Wainer’s “baby” is still thriving in print.

Shaping Lives
What Wainer founded and built, and Heather continues to add to, has rightfully earned a special place in the industry and in the hearts of those who have been part of WholeFoods as readers, customers and employees.

Perhaps, Blumenthal conveys best what Wainer means to so many of the people whose lives he has touched: “Thank you, Howie, for holding the door open for me, and encouraging me to walk through! I will always be grateful to you.” WF

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, February 2014