Bean growers, chutney makers, gluten-free granola manufacturers and at least 100 other food producers from across Whole Foods 7-state Rocky Mountain region converged on Boulder, Colo. this week for a chance to see their product on the store's illustrious shelves. "If you think you're going to get rich in this industry, you may as well get up and leave now; this is a tough business," warned Paul McLean, Rocky Mountain region vice president of purchasing. Still, the air was pregnant with high hopes as the packed house was peppered with advice from such successes as Justin Gold from Justin's Nut Butter and Mike Schultz founder of Schultz's Gourmet Hot Sauce.
Elisa Bosley, senior food editor for Delicious Living and I headed to the event looking for a sneak peak at never-before-seen products. While we were able to intercept a few people between chats with all-important grocery buyers, we didn't scratch the surface. Most of the morning was consumed by presentations from Whole Foods executives educating producers on how to establish successful relationships with the store. The afternoon was filled with valuable one-on-one scheduled sit downs between producers and buyers.
Though our sample-ready bags remained empty, what we did come away with was a great example of how retailers large and small can go a long way toward supporting local vendors. Until this symposium, Whole Foods, to the best of my knowledge, has never formally opened its doors to small food producers--many which likely have little or no distribution. I can imagine such an act would be more hassle than helpful for the store. Generally, before a product makes it onto the grocery shelf, a vendor must ensure a few basic things: demand, growth and a reliable supply chain. Opening its doors to fledgling companies who may not have these things could be a colossal waste of time. Luckily for those in attendance, Whole Foods doesn't feel this way.
Tom Rich, Rocky Mountain region grocery coordinator, helped organize the symposium as a way to foster relationships with producers in his backyard. During a brief introduction he highlighted Whole Foods small business loan program, and detailed how vendors can utilize the expertise of seasoned grocery buyers to build their operations. Of course, many smaller naturals stores established their businesses and continue to thrive through with these kinds of relationships. But, in an increasingly competitive retail market, larger chains are following suit, trying to differentiate from the competition by securing exclusive producer contracts.
Even if your store now works successfully with local producers, it couldn't hurt to extend a hand to other vendors in your area by following Whole Foods' lead and organizing a formal get-to-know you event at your store. The producers we spoke with, some who came from as far as Kansas and jumped at the chance, mostly sought advice and an opportunity to build meaningful relationships. You don't have to be a huge supermarket chain to offer the same opportunities in your neck of the woods.