To some entrepreneurs, the ultimate accomplishment is snagging a spot on the shelves of Whole Foods Market. But before you book your meeting with a store rep, you need to be sure your product fits the chain's demanding quality standards and the needs of its customers.
"The Whole Foods shopper is slightly different in that he or she is driven more by health and taste than by price," says Phil Lempert, a food analyst and trend watcher known as the Supermarket Guru. "You don't want to force-fit your product into Whole Foods if it isn't quite right."
So what's an entrepreneur to do to crack this market? First, it's important to understand that Whole Foods is decentralized. The company is organized by regions--11 in the U.S. and one in the U.K.--and each one has autonomous purchasing teams for all product categories. At the same time, decisions are also made on the local level. So, a single supermarket in the chain of 332 worldwide can opt to stock your line. "There are many paths to getting your product into our stores," says Jeremiah McElwee, executive Whole Body (supplements and personal care products) coordinator at Whole Foods in Austin, Texas.
Here are four strategies that can help you make the cut and grow your business:
Know What Makes Whole Foods--and Your Product--Distinctive.
If you think you're ready for your Whole Foods debut, first visit the company's website, which lists acceptable and unacceptable ingredients, quality standards and other important guidelines. "If your product doesn't fit, go back to the drawing board," McElwee says. If it does, make sure it meets one more requirement: distinctiveness. Whole Foods isn't looking for me-too products, McElwee says. For example, an existing Whole Foods vendor found a source for fair-trade cacao from a small tribe in Panama. "This company is going to be making chocolate bars and supplements using this super high-end antioxidant," McElwee says. "This was such a compelling story--it's a functional food, it's fair-trade, and we had nothing like it in the stores so it made sense to launch this line of products nationally."
Pitch Your Local Whole Foods Store First.
But don't count on that kind of national launch. When Irene Costello, cofounder of Boston-based Effie's Homemade decided to try to expand the company's crackers and biscuits beyond specialty food stores, she and her partner first approached the local Brighton, Mass., Whole Foods store. "We had an untried, untested product line so we had to prove ourselves," she says. "We did demos at this store and met the marketing manager. She liked us and loved our first product, the oatcakes. She got behind the brand." Once Effie's established a track record in Whole Foods' North Atlantic region and the brand won some industry awards, Costello decided to gauge interest in stocking the line at more Whole Foods stores. Today, Effie's products are available at 93 stores in five regions.
Study Store Layouts.
Before you meet with a local Whole Foods buyer, study the store aisle-by-aisle so you know exactly where you think your product should be stocked. "Think of the store in real estate terms and sketch out whether your product is meant as a quick counter pickup or whether it's strictly a grocery or bakery item," says Mitchell Merrick, vice president of domestic sales at Jessie Steele, a whimsical apron and kitchen goods company based in Berkeley, Calif. "Tell your rep where you could see your product in the store. You want to lead the horse to water so to speak." Initially, Jessie Steele items were stocked only in the Whole Body department with personal care products, but the company eventually got them in the grocery aisles of some Whole Foods stores, too. The products are now stocked in about 30 stores in the Pacific Northwest and North Atlantic regions.
Build Buzz at Farmers' Markets.
While you're getting your Whole Foods paperwork in order, sell your wares at your area farmers' markets. That's where many Whole Foods buyers browse regularly, looking for regional artisanal goods. That was the lucky discovery of Chris Buskirk, cofounder of Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Gina's Homemade, a line of soft Italian cheeses and biscotti. "When we started selling at farmers' markets, we didn't know there was any likelihood of the Whole Foods buyers seeing us there," he says. "We were primarily interested in developing a brand identity and getting our product in front of people who cared about food." After a few months working the farmers' markets, Buskirk started calling his local Whole Foods without getting a response. After several attempts, he finally reached a buyer, who knew about the company both because of the farmers' markets and because Whole Foods customers were coming in and asking for Gina's Homemade. "Happily, our line got approved on the spot" after a tasting, Buskirk says. Gina's Homemade is now available at the seven Whole Foods stores in Arizona, as well as the two in southern Nevada.
Lambeth Hochwald is a freelance journalist, whose stories have appeared in magazines such as Coastal Living, O The Oprah Magazine, Real Simple and Redbook. She is also an adjunct professor at NYU's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.