Food - Destination Whole Foods

How local products make it from the farmers market to the supermarket

Say you're a local maker and you've got the tastiest pickled pawpaws in town — an item you think should be sold at your neighborhood Whole Foods. Now what? How does a local product make it onto one of those shelves?

The Austin-based supermarket chain has more than 400 stores in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. Whole Foods boasts having the "highest quality natural and organic products available." With more than 700 locally made products and counting stocked across its Southern region, Whole Foods attempts to imbue a sense of place through its inventory. The store sources 10 percent to 15 percent of all its grocery goods locally and is considered one of the most effective springboards for locally made brands.

The Whole Foods system is broken into 12 regions. Each region has coordinators and buyers for different categories (prepared foods, grocery, produce, etc.). Each department has a local liaison who fields inquiries from potential suppliers and manages relationships between local producers, stores, and the regional office. Liaisons seek out new goods on an ongoing basis, actively scouting local farmers markets for up-and-coming products, especially when the opening of a new store is on the horizon.

According to Kate Medley, who manages the liaisons in our region, there is no secret formula for getting into Whole Foods. Medley says Whole Foods' goal is to appeal to varying demographics, which is why, despite Atlanta's proximity to North Georgia orchards, you might see local stores stocking more Washington apples than apples from nearby Ellijay.

Before initiating the rigorous application process, prospective producers should, first and foremost, ensure their products avoid the more than 75 items on Whole Foods' unacceptable ingredients list. No-nos include artificial colors and flavors, bleached flour, and high fructose corn syrup.

"It's important for people to know on the front end that it's really hard, lots of paperwork and hurdles," Medley says. "It's ultimately a service to our customers. All of our core values mean we are doing the homework for you."

Medley also recommends local makers know what distinguishes their product from possible competitors. Do you have a compelling story? Because "It's good" and "My friends love this stuff" are not enough. Walk the store and find the place where you would see your jar. Is it a good fit? Are there competitors with better ingredients?

"Partnering with people that have the same ethics and morals is important to us," says Nick Melvin, the Atlanta chef behind Doux South pickles. Doux South landed a spot in its first Whole Foods store in March 2014. Now they're available in stores across the country.

Melvin approached Whole Foods though a distributor, a broker who introduces new items to stores, to get his foot in the door. The slow process began with pickles on the olive bar at the Briarcliff location, then jars on the shelf, then jars in other local stores, and, finally, jars in stores nationwide.

Ayesha Paul of Atlanta-based Pop Stars Gourmet Pops had a PB&J pop that used Whole Foods brand peanut butter and jelly in the recipe. As time went on, the grocery department noticed she was purchasing oodles of peanut butter and jelly. Word got back to a team leader who spoke with Paul the next time she was in. Paul told him about her pops, brought some samples in at his request, and, a month later, Pop Stars could be found in Whole Foods' coolers. Once in stores, Paul says business increased noticeably through catering jobs and referrals from people who were introduced to her pops through the store. "It was a great platform for our product," Paul says.

Melvin says the exposure from Whole Foods placement dramatically changed his business, too. Stores actively promoted his pickles, and they sold well. When Melvin needed to up his production to keep up with demand, he looked to Whole Foods. In July 2015, Doux South was accepted into Whole Foods' Local Product Loan Program, a program that awards local businesses low-interest loans. The extra funds allowed Melvin to purchase additional equipment and increase Doux South's production.

So, to all the Atlanta makers who want to sell their wares at Whole Foods someday, remember that foragers step up their scouting efforts when new stores open and we've currently got two (Brookhaven and Midtown) in the works.

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