What natural and organic buyers want at Newtopia Now

Retailers look to New Hope Network's new natural products program and trade show to guide conscious CPG innovation and growth. Find out more.

Steven Hoffman

June 26, 2024

16 Min Read
Alamy

As the natural, organic, regenerative and “conscious CPG” industry prepares to gather in Denver, Colorado, on August 25-28 for the inaugural Newtopia Now, a number of retailers attending and participating in the event shared their thoughts on what drives their purchasing and foraging decisions today.

They also shared perspectives on how they best like to work with partner brands to achieve their goals and serve their customers—and how Newtopia Now can provide value in helping match them with companies and brands in a more intimate, innovative and curated trade show and conference setting.

Numerous retail buyers, foragers and business owners across the country participated in this story, ranging from large chains such as Whole Foods Market and Sprouts Farmers Market; smaller chains such as Earth Fare and Bristol Farms; online retailer Thrive Market; and independent grocers St. Vrain Market and Mustard Seed Market & Café.

Here’s what these retailers shared about today’s marketplace, what drives their purchasing decisions and how they are turning to the upcoming Newtopia Now as a key new resource to help them in their work.

Casey Gaston, Executive Leader, Local and Emerging Brands, Center Store, Whole Foods Market

Founded in 1980 and based in Austin, Texas, Whole Foods Market operates more than 530 stores in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Casey Gaston is a featured presenter at Newtopia Now as part of a panel discussion, How to Get Your Product into Whole Foods Market, at 10:15 a.m. Tuesday, August 27.

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Things are always changing in business and we have to remain nimble. Today, Whole Foods Market is connecting with suppliers in a lot more ways than ever before. Getting the attention of our merchants and foragers hasn’t changed as much, however. Start by doing your homework: utilize the Whole Foods Market Supplier Portal and review our quality and product standards. New and emerging brands can connect through our keystone incubation program, LEAP (Local and Emerging Accelerator Program). The LEAP Early Growth cohort, which works with early growth brands, is now in its third year and applications have tripled. While a limited number of brands are selected for a given cohort, others still get on to our radar as a result of the application process. Our Local Producer Loan Program also remains a strong pillar for Whole Foods Market.

As a forager team, we’re excited that the format of Newtopia Now is different. While large brands can get much of the visibility at a show like Expo West, Newtopia Now allows emerging brands to be the stars. We can’t wait to experience a show dedicated to new and emerging brands. We are looking for innovation and trends, and are excited to see brands that have something to show us. We like the concept of matchmaking, and we’ll be hosting some of our own meetings at the event. We’re going to lean in on all the tools and programs New Hope is providing at Newtopia Now.

Darren Viscount, Senior Natural Living Category Manager, Bristol Farms

Founded in 1982, Bristol Farms operates 13 stores in Southern California. With 27 years’ experience in retail, Darren Viscount is a featured presenter as part of a panel discussion, Leading Natural Living Buyers Tell All: Thrive, PCC and Bristol Farms, at 1:30 p.m. Monday, August 26.

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Shopping for natural foods is less of a destination now than when I first started in the industry. Today, natural products can also be found online, in mass market, in conventional— there is a lot more opportunity for people to purchase these products. In addition, when there is disruption in the economy like we’ve seen over the past few years, people want value.

That said, while ingredients and quality are certainly a factor, our customers are looking for value. So, when I work with brands, I make sure we have promotions, including long-term promotional agreements and/or quarterly promotions. We also put an emphasis on staff training, whether it’s in-store, online or team training sessions. We want to help our customers so that when they get home, they know they’ve made the right decision on product selection.

Today, social media drives a lot of our purchasing decisions. We monitor TikTok and Instagram to see what’s trending. Right now, for example, trends in supplements include magnesium, creatine, high protein products, electrolytes, gut biome and health, probiotics and more. There are a lot of influencers on social media that drive people to our stores, too.

Our goal at Newtopia Now is to foster closer relationships with brands we meet at the event. I like to attend events such as Newtopia Now because I get to talk directly with founders, CEOs, product developers and other brand leaders and speak with them about how they will support our stores, our teams and our customers. It is valuable to me in building community on a business and personal level. With Newtopia Now structured as a more intimate event, we hope to get more one-on-one time with the vendors and find brands to cultivate and nourish from the ground up.

Phillip Nabors, Co-founder, Mustard Seed Market & Café

With two full service stores and a restaurant serving the Akron, Ohio, market, Mustard Seed Market & Café, established in 1981, is one of Ohio’s largest independently owned retailers of natural and organic products. Cofounded by Margaret and Phillip Nabors, their sons Gabe and Abraham now lead operations for the stores. Phillip served as president of the Retailer Division of the NPA (formerly NNFA) in 1993 and served for 10 years on the Natural Foods Committee of FMI—the Food Marketing Institute.

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From the early days, we were unique from the more “pill-driven” health food stores of the time. We made a conscious effort to bring in locally sourced food, whatever we could get from producers and distributors. By having as much food as possible, we enjoyed a large trade area—a 50-mile-plus radius.

Now, the trade area is much smaller and we have to compete with everyone. We have to really sharpen our pencil on price to be competitive. The early days were about education; the customers went on a learning journey with us. Now that you can find natural foods just about everywhere, it’s “What’s the price?”

However, there remains the mission, along with the opportunity to educate, and we’ve always been the trustworthy source of information. We’re actually sincere about the mission of propagating wellness. Some people get that and are willing to drive or pay a bit more to support us. For Newtopia Now, I’m the test pilot for our company. I’m intrigued about the Matchmaking program and have signed up for it.

If I look back at all the best times I’ve had at shows, it’s the deeper conversations. Not just about the attributes of the product, but also alignment on values. I’ve always learned a lot from interacting with suppliers and brands, and I enjoy meeting new people and running into peers and colleagues I’ve known for decades. Plus, I learn a lot from other retailers. I’m looking forward to interacting with all these constituents on a deeper level at Newtopia Now.

I’d like to add that I appreciate all that New Hope Network has done over the decades and what a critical role it has played in growing the natural products industry. Their trade shows in large part enabled the industry’s growth. They have delivered an amazing product over the years. The fact that the company is trying something new makes me want to support them all the more.

Scott Romano, Vice President, Forager, Sprouts Farmers Market

Based in Phoenix, Arizona, Sprouts Farmers Market operates more than 400 stores in 23 states. Scott Romano is a featured presenter as part of the panel discussion, How to Get Noticed by the Sprouts Forager Team, at 12:30 p.m. Monday, August 26.

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Sprouts Farmers Market operates more than 400 stores in 23 states, and is looking to grow the store base at 10% per year going forward. Innovation is our key, and differentiation is what Sprouts is seeking.

When you think of today’s retail landscape, anyone can carry these products. So, for us in making buying decisions, differentiation and innovation lead the first round, and then we look for taste, number one. We scorecard every brand we bring in—we look at attributes such as diversity/minority owned, sustainability, is the product on trend, for example, regenerative agriculture, mushroom adaptogens, probiotics, etc. Then, based on a point system, we will place products in one of three buckets: yes, we want to pursue further; hold and let’s keep it in the pipeline; or decline and thank you, we’ll pass.

While we are being a little more selective, we do have a foraging program for new brands that can help take some of the costs out of the system. The foraging program is a 90-day test period where select brands can receive sales data and general engagement insight. We’re also able to learn from that to prepare the brand for next steps, be it regional or national, and also continue to evolve the program to have a higher success rate with brands we launch. Currently, we are finding success with brands that have built some kind of online B2C presence before expanding into brick and mortar.

Sprouts is looking forward to going to Newtopia Now. There will be a team of folks foraging on the floor, and I will be participating in a Buyer Side Chat to help vendors learn how to get in front of the buyers at Sprouts. The first year is more exploratory for us, however, we’re excited to see the different neighborhoods Newtopia Now has planned, and experience a show in a different way. As a more intimate and focused event, it is a welcome bookend to Natural Products Expo West.

Mitch Orland, Senior Vice President of Merchandising and Marketing, Earth Fare

Earth Fare, founded in 1975 and based in Asheville, North Carolina, is a leading chain of natural and organic food supermarkets with 18 locations in seven states throughout the southeastern U.S. A new ownership group, comprising some of Earth Fare’s original founders, purchased Earth Fare out of bankruptcy in 2020 and has been re-establishing the company as a natural foods retail leader across the Southeast.

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We opened four years ago during the COVID pandemic when new owners bought Earth Fare out bankruptcy. The group comprises some of the original founders. Since then, we learned we have to reinvent ourselves. We have to be first to market, customer service is key, our people are important, and value perception is super important. Our industry is known for prices higher than conventional, but Earth Fare has combatted this price perception by offering discounts, promotions, every day deals and a Healthy Rewards in-store loyalty program.

Also, we like to stay on top of the trends and are getting out in front on regenerative food and farming. We are closely aligned with the Plant Based Foods Association, the regenerative Land to Market program, Regenified and others. We continue to cultivate these relationships and often they’ll tell us about brands that we can explore.

In addition, one of the top trends we’re working on is ‘craft vegan.’ It’s a trend that was reported on in 2023 by New Hope Network, and in fact, I coined the term to describe the next generation of artisan-made vegan foods, including plant-based aged cheeses, dairy-free butters, deli meats made from mycelium-based Koji, and more. We are getting a handle on food waste, and our program Save & Stop Waste has diverted over half a million pounds of food from landfills over four years.

Personally, I like to forage at local farmers markets within driving distance of our stores. It’s a great way to find local producers and supports the communities. We can bring product to market faster than anyone else—from farmers market to shelf in as little as three weeks. I’m also a chef, so what lights me up about my job is supporting small emerging brands and see what they’re going to do next.

Earth Fare is bringing a full team to Newtopia Now, and we are planning to do something fun—however, it’s a secret for now! For us, it’s about connection, learning, team building and what’s on the horizon. I’m glad New Hope is doing more to directly link the buyers and brands with this first-time event.

Neil Sullivan, Co-owner, St. Vrain Market

Located in Lyons, Colorado, the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, in a historic building that once served as a creamery in the 1800s, family owned and operated St. Vrain Market is well known in the area for its selection of natural, organic and specialty products, premium meats and fresh baked goods. Co-owner Neil Sullivan’s experience includes working at the former upscale Sutton Place Gourmet in Washington, DC.

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My wife and I have owned St. Vrain Market for 16 years. It had been a grocery store for many years and has a 100-plus year history. The store was run down when we bought it, so we traveled around to visit independently owned, single-store retailers in northern California. We modeled a lot of what we do today on some of the things we saw coming out of these stores, including local sourcing. We also modeled the store as a European style market—you can shop here for the day’s or a few days’ needs.

We created a tagline when we launched St. Vrain Market: ‘Local and Fresh.’ We asked ourselves, how do you meet the needs of a local community by also supporting that local community? We source many products from fresh and local producers. We give the town something they can be proud of and the community has responded.

People know us best for our bakery—it comprises 20% of our revenue and we employ five full-time bakers—plus an all-natural deli and a very nice meat case. The produce we offer is almost all organic; we have a great dairy selection and we feature local and national brands.

We are far from a commodity player. When we look for supplier partners, we have a specific set of criteria. We’re looking for brands that share both beliefs and practices and can be a great partner for us. Clean ingredients, sustainable-focused packaging, conscious, mission-based businesses—we and other independent retailers are prioritizing these attributes over commodity pricing.

But, we also need entities such as New Hope Network to help us find those partners and sift through all that is out there in the broader industry. For us, Newtopia Now is helping to find the best ways to bring meaningful partnerships together and identify the brands that best align with our criteria. It will help cut through a lot of time and noise and not spin our wheels.

One of the trends we’re moving with is sustainable packaging in our foodservice and food preparation. We use compostable supplies almost exclusively. That’s the criteria I’m including in my Newtopia Now ‘dating profile.’ With Newtopia Now in the matchmaking business, it’s going to help me find suppliers that meet my dating profile.

Also, the event offers me an opportunity to get away from my business long enough as an owner-operator to get information outside of my store walls that I may not get otherwise. I’m also excited to engage at Newtopia Now with suppliers and partners that support minority owned businesses. Our mission statement at St. Vrain Market has nothing about food in it—it’s simply to build community. Our mission is to do well by doing good.

Kirstin Ratcliffe, Senior Category Manager, Beauty and Personal Care, Thrive Market

Thrive Market, based in Los Angeles, California, and founded in 2014, is the leading member-based online retailer offering natural, organic and regenerative products to healthy lifestyle consumers. Kirstin Ratcliffe is a featured presenter at Newtopia Now as part of a panel discussion, Leading Natural Living Buyers Tell All: Thrive, PCC and Bristol Farms, at 1:30 p.m. Monday, August 26.

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Our mission at Thrive Market is to make healthy and sustainable living easy and affordable and for everyone. We work with the biggest companies in the natural space to up and coming independent brands. Providing our members value is true to the core of our mission—we want to give people access everywhere. So, when we are looking for brand partners, value and price are a part of it; it’s one of the first conversations we have.

Being a fully online business, a huge focus for us is to meet our members where they are and to provide convenience. Convenience is a big factor, and we keep that in mind when we are curating. We have a tight pulse on what our members are looking for, and always strive to bring the products they know and love directly to them via Thrive Market. We take the guesswork out of finding healthy products for their entire home, and aim to be that healthy and sustainable destination where they can buy their groceries, as well as their shampoo, body wash, vitamins, toothpaste, cleaning products, etc.  

Another key area we hone in on is our standards. We restrict 1,000+ ingredients, including phthalates, parabens, petroleum-derived ingredients and others, which you can learn more about on our website. Certified organic is a first choice when we can; non-GMO is nonnegotiable. We are always seeking more sustainable alternatives, including packaging. With beauty and personal care products, we closely follow standards put forward by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), and we require testing (i.e. for heavy metals) for certain ingredients of concern. We will require certain testing, if needed. We also carry cruelty free brands and prioritize Fair Trade Certified, as well as those brands that support regenerative sourcing and farming.

We’ve always had a strong relationship with New Hope Network. We view its shows as a great way to connect with existing partners, discover new brands, create relationships with private label and third-party partners, and learn about what’s new and trending. We’re excited about the new experience that Newtopia Now offers, coming on the back of participant surveys to understand what they wanted from a show. The marketplaces, or neighborhoods, they’ve teased out is interesting and will provide an opportunity to see how products stand out against each other on the shelf. It’s also particularly important for us that a brand can stand out in an online environment. That’s what we’ll be looking for, as well as partners whose mission(s) aligns with our own.

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Newtopia Now, New Hope Network's new trade show, is set for Aug. 25-28 at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver, Colorado. For more information and to register, click here.

About the Author(s)

Steven Hoffman

Compass Natural

Steven Hoffman is managing director of Compass Natural, providing brand marketing, PR, social media and strategic business development services to natural, organic and sustainable products businesses. He also helps direct fundraising efforts on behalf of Regeneration International. Previously, he served as marketing director for the Arrowhead Mills organic brand, as the former editorial director of Natural Foods Merchandiser magazine, former education director of Natural Products Expo East and West and co-founder of LOHAS Journal. Contact [email protected].

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