The people in and around Ojai, Calif., are coming forward with ideas and inspiration to create local food products. Settled among them, Westridge Market is seizing the opportunity to reciprocate this community's longtime support by making local an on-shelf priority.
For Store Manager David Austin there is no special formula to working with local vendors outside of making himself accessible, setting aside extra time to collaborate, and being open and honest when answering questions and giving opinions.
It's true, bringing neighborhood brands to market might encumber everyday efficiencies, but from the perspective of someone who continues to go there, these sorts of symbiotic relationships are every bit worth forging.
Here, Austin shares the how and why.
newhope360: How do you define local?
David Austin: To us, there are two types of local products. The first being a food product that is grown and produced using local products (within about a 100-mile radius). The second type is a food company that is based locally that might have ingredients that are not available locally and are sourced from out of the area. For example, a local company might sell coffee or tea that is sourced out of the area. For us, both are an important part of our selection and deserve our attention and support.
newhope360: Why focus on local?
DA: A large part of our local products are produced right here in our own community by our neighbors, customers and friends. Supporting these products is essentially supporting our community, which comes naturally in a small town like Ojai. As a third-generation family owned and operated business, we have been receiving the support of our community for over 40 years. It’s essential for all of the small businesses in the community to support each other for us to be successful.
newhope360: How does Westridge Market support local food and product companies and why is it important to your store?
DA: Some of the ways we support our local companies include:
- Giving them information on packaging and labeling requirements
- Educating them on the challenges that a small business may face
- Sharing information about the successes of other local small businesses
- Sharing information about reliable and affordable packaging and labeling companies
- Helping create a network of small businesses to share information and support
Many of these companies are started by people outside of the food industry and information is their greatest asset.
newhope360: How has your store benefited from its efforts to support local food and product companies?
DA: I hope we have become a destination for people who enjoy supporting local products. Our sales from local products are continuing to grow each year. The most rewarding benefit from supporting local companies has been witnessing their success.
newhope360: In turn, how are you benefiting these local product companies?
DA: According to some of the local companies, the biggest benefit we’ve offered has been providing a platform for them to introduce their product. In many cases, we have been the first location to carry these products. Larger stores are hesitant to take a chance on small startup food companies. So the opportunity to establish a sales history is very valuable and helps them take the next steps towards gaining broader distribution.
All our local products are selling well due to the growing support and awareness of the benefits of buying locally. Some of the companies that have recently participated in our local vendor sampling days include:
- Lori’s Lavender Lemonade
- Heavenly Honey Co.
- Zhena’s Teas
- Dona Celes Beans
- Ojai Olive Oil
- Coconut World
- Regalo Olive Oil
- Earl’s Gone Wild BBQ Sauce
- Handsome Carver’s Peanut Butter
- Ojai Chocolate
- Chef Stroh’s Pestos
- Ocean Ranch Granola
- Be the Bee Honey
- Ojai Valley Food Co.
- Santa Barbara Pistachios
- Ojai Jalapeno Jelly
- Culinary Collections
- Burst Marshmallow
- The Ojai Bubble
newhope360: How does promoting local products differ from highlighting other products in your store?
DA: Local products are given preferred merchandising at Westridge. This includes eye-level shelf locations, displays close to the registers, larger displays in high traffic areas and more in-store features.
But by far, the most effective way we’ve promoted and supported our local vendors has been through the monthly local product sampling days. Once a month we invite five to eight companies to set up tables outside and throughout the store to sample and promote their products. We also hold an annual event in October with 20 to 25 vendors.
newhope360: What challenges exist to stocking local?
DA: Smaller companies can occasionally run into supply and production issues. Some products are made with seasonally available ingredients and are not available year-round. But these challenges are heavily outweighed by the benefits of stocking local products.
newhope360: What advice would you offer other retailers wanting to increase their local offerings?
DA: The first step is to foster an environment in which you are approachable and supportive. Developing a reputation as a source for local products is so important. There is a growing group of consumers that are not just incidentally buying local, but are actively seeking out local products. The growth of farmers markets is evidence of this trend. The local farmers market is also a great place for retailers to learn what local products are being produced in the area.
Having a great selection of local products is a good start, but not enough on its own. The most successful way to promote local product sales is through sampling events. These events have benefits beyond generating sales. Giving your customers a chance to connect with the people behind these products—to meet them firsthand and to hear the stories that inspired them to create the products—creates brand loyalty.
Another side effect of these events is connecting local vendors with each other. We found they are surprisingly willing to share information and resources with each other. They also offer each other support and share creative ideas. Having a community of customers, vendors and retailers all supporting each other is the key to the success of local products.
newhope360: We’ve heard that local trumps organic more and more these days. What’s your take and what do your customers prefer?
DA: Organic foods have become a global business. Certified organic foods now come from all over the world. In my experience, when given a choice, customers prefer local foods over non-local organic foods. But, there is plenty of room for both on our shelves.
I think that most consumers’ ideal product is one that is both local and certified organic. Unfortunately the organic certification process is cost prohibitive for most small local companies. That is something that I hope changes in the near future.