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How Whole Foods Market Finds the Next Big Thing

CEO Jason Buechel takes Progressive Grocer on a tour of the Super Bowl of food trade shows
Gina Acosta, Progressive Grocer
Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, Calif., attracted more than 67,000 attendees this year.

Imagine you are the CEO of Whole Foods Market and you are walking through the crowded halls of Natural Products Expo West, “the Super Bowl of food shows,” in Anaheim, Calif., with more than 67,000 attendees and 3,000 exhibitors. How do you make sense of it all? Who do you see first? And how do you cope with all the people peppering you with pitches?

Progressive Grocer had the opportunity to walk the show with Jason Buechel and learn how the leader of the iconic retailer judges the buzziest new products that may, or may not be, perfect for Whole Foods Market’s shelves.

[RELATED: The Top 3 Trends at The NGA Show and Expo West]

Nana Joes Granola

Our first stop at the show is a booth for a product that Buechel already knows well: Nana Joes Granola, a handmade granola purveyor based in Northern California. Founder Michelle Pusateri started Nana Joes Granola in 2010 with the goal of bringing all natural, whole food ingredients back to grocery store shelves.

Progressive Grocer: Oh, this looks like quality granola. 

Jason Buechel: Yeah, this was a product that [former Whole Foods Market CEO] Walter [Robb] told me about. He asked whether I had tried Nana Joes, and I hadn’t. He had some mailed to me and I thought, ‘Oh, this stuff is great.’ For me it has become a staple. 

A couple of years ago, Buechel visited Nana Joes headquarters for a “crash course in granola making” as part of the retailer’s Whole Conversations Tour, which gave Buechel the opportunity to meet local suppliers and learn about their operations and products alongside Whole Foods Market Team Members in the months leading up to his new role as CEO.

PG: Jason, why is this a great product for Whole Foods Market shelves?

JB: The number one thing I would say is the differentiation is outstanding. One of the things that I really don't like with granola is many of them have a lot of sugar. We really look at the nutrition panels. I actually like making my own granola because you can make it so much healthier. The problem is it's time-consuming. And so finding a product that actually has clean ingredients, the Nana Joes label is impressive. But I also love that there's a decadence to what they do as well. This can be a dessert, it’s so good. And they do special seasonal flavors as well that are just outstanding. It just aligns so well with the current diet trends that are all about clean label. They have all of these unique flavors but without a lot of sugar or other ingredients. Nana Joes really is in a category by itself with granola. …We merchandise it with the rest of the granola but it’s also cross-merchandised across the store.

PG: So how do you eat it, with milk, no milk, as a snack?

JB: It depends. If I'm taking this on a hike or something, I'm actually just eating it as a snack. In the morning I sometimes put it in plant-based milk. Or I may just throw this on top of yogurt with a little bit of blueberries or banana. 

Michelle Pusateri: We are woman-owned, no soy, no fillers, paleo, certified gluten-free, and all of our almonds are regeneratively grown. 

Last year Nana Joes was named as a “brand to watch” and participant in Whole Foods Market’s Local and Emerging Accelerator Program (LEAP) On the Verge cohort. 

PG: What does the LEAP program mean to a brand, a company like yours, a business like yours?

MP: For me it was a lot about the actual curriculum and the agenda that we went through and education program. But also meeting other vendors, other people just like me trying to grow. 

PG: Do you have share groups?

MP: Yeah, so we can ask questions like, ‘Who do you use for this?’ or ‘Who do you use for that?’ Or, ‘Do you have any recommendations on launching nationwide with Whole Foods?’ Everybody's sharing their information so we can grow that. I'm hoping to get into a couple more regions in the next year. That's the hope and that's what the LEAP program is, helping people get into more regions and help you with the education of knowing what to expect.


After sampling some of Nana Joes’ granola, Buechel and I move on, walking past booth after booth in the Hot Products section of the show’s North Hall. We walk past exhibitors such as Brami, which makes protein-and fiber-packed pastas as well as snack packs filled with pickled Lupini beans.

Buechel tells the server at the booth that he would like to try the Mediterranean Medley flavor of the beans. 

JB: I'll try the chili lime as well.

The Brami server says Lupini beans are super beans, “an incredibly nutrient dense bean. Kind of similar to a soybean but higher protein, prebiotic fiber, and less carbs than a chickpea.” 

Buechel is impressed.


Next up we walk past the booths of Farmented, a maker of pickled carrots, kimchi and kraut, and Popzup, which makes bagged popcorn in flavors such as butter and truffle.

JB: I like anything with truffles.

PG: Oh, me too. Love it. Love truffles. 

Buechel tells Julie Lapham, founder and CEO of Popzup Popcorn, that he likes the product.

Julie Lapham: I know we've tried a couple of times to get into Whole Foods but it hasn’t really worked out. If there was any opportunity to revisit that. … We've been growing organically, we're not interested in venture capital or investing. Last year we actually moved into a new facility. It's an old refurbished mill that is just consistent with who we are. We tripled our capacity. We invested in some big machines to make sure we keep up with our growth.

Buechel takes her card.

JB: Well, I'm with the team tomorrow morning sharing out some of the exciting things that I saw, so I'll be bringing this to my team tomorrow.

In the next aisle, someone is giving out samples of celery soup, and Buechel says he makes it. 

JB: I make celery soup.

PG: I've never made that. You made one that was delicious? 

JB: I had it at a restaurant. When I end up liking something at a restaurant, I figure out how I can recreate it.

We walk past the booth for Maazah, a new line of lentil dips.

JB: There’s a great Mexican restaurant in Austin called Suerte. They have these refried lentils that are so good.

PG: Refried lentils, mmmm sounds delicious.

Later we walk past brands such as Tinpot Creamery (artisanal ice cream with 16% butterfat); Chi Chi Foods (high protein “oats” made with chickpeas instead of grains); Hive (hard honey beverages and waters made with Manuka honey); Rockit apples (lunchbox size fruits); and Life Cykel mushroom extracts, where Buechel stops to sample.

Life Cykel

JB: Mushrooms are so big. Every year. We were doing our 10th annual product trends report, and one of the things the team is doing is looking back at the last 10 years and mushrooms year over year are on-trend for health, energy, everything.

Do you guys want to try some, the mushroom guy says.

Buechel and I both nod yes.

Life Cykel offers six different mushroom extract products. “We're a liquid extract brand, and we have a patent pending extraction process,” the guy says. “A lot of other brands will crush the product and then they'll make a gummy out of it or they'll put it into a powder and then use it in their coffee. You're not getting as many nutrients. There’s not as much bioavailable as this. It's actually a month-long extraction process.”

Burroughs Family Farms

After drinking some mushroom extract optimized to “enhance brain function and focus,” I am guided toward a tent outside to see another one of Whole Foods Market’s favorite suppliers: Burroughs Family Farms, owned and operated by Ward and Rose Marie Burroughs and their daughter, Benina Montes. 

The Burroughs are fifth-generation farmers in Denair, Calif., producing and selling organic almonds, olive oil, milk, cheese, and grass-based eggs and meats. What started out as a small dairy in 1906 is now a full circle collaboration of farms that are family-owned and operated to offer hand-raised and sustainably-grown products while protecting soil and water for generations to come.

Montes started farming almonds with her father on their farm in 2002. In 2006, she started the transition to organic production for the almond acres and by 2015 the entire farm was certified organic. In June 2022 the farm was certified Regenerative organic by the Regenerative Organic Alliance.

Buechel had just visited the farm a few weeks before attending the Expo West show as part of a program he created called In the Field with Jason. Team Members from across the company join Buechel on In the Field trips to visit suppliers and experience firsthand the work producers are doing in regenerative agriculture, sustainability, and through programs like Sourced for Good.

[RELATED:  Whole Foods CEO Shares Leadership Style, Vision for Future]

Benina Montes: We're the first regenerative organic certified almond farm in the country. We started out with organic certification, and as we kept going, we just kept transitioning more and more. And we started talking about regenerativeness. Like really? One more thing to do. But then there was some research that came out highlighting the difference between conventional and regenerative. And I thought, how do we get more information on this? … Because we're in the Central Valley, and we have water issues. I'm really proud that last year we were able to harvest with a catch frame style of harvest. … We're just pushing as hard as we can because we have to do more than organics, we have to be regenerative.

Buechel is a big fan of the Burroughs, their heritage, and the innovation of their new product: Regenerative Organic Almond Milk Concentrate. The product was nominated as a finalist for a NEXTY award at Expo West this year. Sourced from estate grown almonds farmed using regenerative agricultural practices, the almond milk concentrate can be incorporated into smoothies, baked goods, or enjoyed simply as a beverage. 

PG: I feel like I got to try a lot of cool things walking this show with you.

JB: The best part is hearing the stories. The reasons behind why they created the product. Why it is that they care about what they care about. You can feel that out really quick.

Suddenly, a woman with chocolate bars interrupts our goodbye.

Woman with chocolate bars: I'm so sorry for interrupting you, Whole Foods. I just have two of these and I'd like you to try them.

JB: That's my favorite thing. 

The woman says the chocolates are made with oatmilk and “they've got only one gram of sugar,” which makes Buechel happy.

JB: This is like my jam. I study this.

Woman with chocolate bars: If you have any feedback, just send it over.

PG: Thank you very much for the tour, Jason.

JB: I’ll see you here next year.

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