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Amazon’s Latest Market Disruption: 1.7 Million Free Bananas

SEATTLE— Amazon.com Inc. has transformed businessses including retailing, filmmaking and data storage. But no one anticipated the bananas.

It started with a brainstorm from founder and CEO Jeff Bezos that Amazon should offer everyone near its headquarters—not just employees—healthy, eco-friendly snacks as a public service. After considering oranges, Amazon picked bananas, and opened its first Community Banana Stand in late 2015.

It has since expanded to two stands on its corporate campus, which sprawls across several blocks in downtown Seattle, and says it has given out more than 1.7 million free bananas.

The response has been split. Most Amazonians like them. Other workers say it is now hard to find bananas in stock at nearby grocery stores. And some eateries in a two-block radius of the stands are feeling squished.

Anar, a vegetarian cafe next door to Amazon’s banana stand, slashed purchases of bananas, which it offers sliced as a yogurt topping for $1, because customers are ordering them less. Manager Hadley Jouflas suspects many grab a free Amazon banana to top off takeout orders.

The cafe has sought instead to change its banana strategy, including featuring a banana-based vegan eggnog and a chocolate banana drink—both hits.

“People have bananas on the brain,”  Ms. Jouflas says.

At Local Public Eatery, a restaurant next to the original banana stand, customers have slipped up on their manners. “It’s very common for them to have bananas when they come in for lunch,” says Sam Brown, a manager. Typically, “they eat it at their table,” along with whatever food they order. About three to four whole bananas are left behind each day, and they bus away even more peels.

Carly Knox, the manager at Jujubeet, a juice bar five minutes by foot from the original stand, says people jokingly ask if the bananas are free. “Unfortunately, we cannot give those out as freebies,” she says. In this case, the “Arrested Development” line that many Amazon fruit patrons quote just isn’t true: "There's always money in the banana stand!"

Amazon has traditionally been more frugal with its perks than other tech companies, which offer dry cleaning, haircuts, cold-brew coffee, nap pods and in-house yoga classes, among other things.

Amazon says it has given out more than 1.7 million free bananas. PHOTO: LAURA STEVENS/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Software developer John Krah recently joined Amazon from a startup that set out a full fruit basket, cereal and milk every day. He thinks “bananas are enough.” Now he skips grocery stores in favor of the Amazon stand, saying the economics work.

“Buying one banana is relatively expensive on a unit price, like a dollar,” Mr. Krah says, holding up a banana.

“Banistas” oversee the wooden cart operation, stacking up a selection of fruit, which range from green to bright yellow, as fast as passersby can take them. They move about 8,000 a day, Monday through Friday, at the two stands, according to Amazon. Eric Mountcastle, who was promoted last year from front desk receptionist to “bananager” and team leader, keeps a spreadsheet tracking demand.

Apples and other thin-skinned fruit typically need to be washed and are often wrapped, creating trash. “As far as the health codes go, you can hand out bananas and oranges, because they come in their own packaging,” says John Schoettler, Amazon’s vice president of global real estate and facilities, which include the banana stands. The stands have a compost bin for peels.

Bananager Mr. Mountcastle says he frequently fields requests for other types of fruit. “A lot of people have been wanting avocados lately,” as well as pears, he says. “Citrus is also very expensive. Bananas aren’t.” Amazon buys the bananas from a local supplier.

Kelsey Wildstone, an Amazon data center engineer, lives a few blocks away and has changed her route to work to make sure she can pick up one or two pieces of the fruit. She has become something of an office banana evangelist, offering her co-workers so many they have told her to stop.

A sign next to the stands suggests taking one. (The sign also appropriates a saying from another fruit: “A banana a day keeps the doctor away.”) Most visitors take two. Others take close to a dozen, claiming they have hungry co-workers—never, of course, that they hanker to bake banana bread after work. Some post photos on Instagram feeding the bananas to their dogs. The stand offers dog treats for four-legged friends.

“We’re banistas, we’re not really banista police,” explains Mr. Mountcastle, standing beside the wooden wagon on a recent rainy Wednesday.

Mr. Bezos is known to stop by his brainchild banana stand. Once, Mr. Mountcastle offered him a banana fact (banistas share a new one every day): What do you call a cluster of bananas? Answer: a hand.

He then asked the CEO what a single piece of the fruit is called. “A finger,” Mr. Bezos answered correctly.

“I also would have accepted banana,” said Mr. Mountcastle.