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Inside the Emerging Brands Program at Whole Foods Market

Progressive Grocer talks with retailer’s local brand planner about its fast-growing accelerator program
Lynn Petrak, Progressive Grocer
Kelly Landrieu
Kelly Landrieu, principal planner, local and emerging brands at Whole Foods, is instrumental in mentorship efforts like the accelerator program.

Whole Foods Market has long been known for carrying – and championing – local producers and makers. The retailer keeps upping the ante in this area, offering more opportunities for potential supplier partners to get products to shelf and get their businesses higher off the ground.

Applications are now open for the 2024 Local and Emerging Accelerator Program (LEAP) that identifies 10 innovative food brands not yet sold in the grocer’s stores to join its Early Growth cohort. The chosen participants will take part in a 12-week educational curriculum and then be considered for placement on the grocer’s shelves in their home city or area; they also will be eligible for a $25,000 equity investment from a donor-advised fund managed by the Austin Community Foundation. This is the third year of the program that fuses entrepreneurship, mentorship and discovery for the benefit of the company, its vendor partners and shoppers.

Progressive Grocer recently spoke with Kelly Landrieu, principal planner for local and emerging brands at Whole Foods. A former forager herself, she has worked with other foragers and the merchandising team to build on the early success of the LEAP program. “We keep learning year after year. We have always seen the need to focus day to day on working with our brands, and we know that we can make a huge difference with this group of brands. Whole Foods Market has incredibly smart and diverse team members and diverse supplier partners that we can come together and support,” she said.

[RELATED: Your Burning Whole Foods Market Questions Answered]

Since the 2022 launch, the LEAP program has garnered more interest among brands, making the review process both interesting and challenging. “It’s really hard – last year, we had over 1,000 applications," reported Landrieu, who shared some of the criteria that the company’s panel of 10 foragers look for in submissions. “We narrow it down, looking for innovation, mission alignment and brands we can make an impact with that show strong growth potential.”

Seeing the level of passion and creativity in the field is inspiring, she added: “Everyone gets really excited. It recharges you to see what’s out there, what’s coming next. This is a great pipeline for us, too, and we’ve onboarded a lot of brands, even if we don’t put them in the accelerator.”

While the LEAP initiative lifts brands on the path to expand their business, participants also lift each other through the experience. “One of my favorite things about the cohorts is the different places and backgrounds that people come from, and how they come together as a community to support each other. The cohorts from last year still meet once a week as they are getting ready to launch in stores,” Landrieu shared.

Last year, Whole Foods launched On the Verge, a second LEAP cohort for current suppliers who are performing well in the emerging space and show strong potential. Several of those participants have been chosen as 2024 cohort members after being nominated by Whole Foods market merchants and foragers. They include Dare Vegan CheeseEvergreenFunky MelloMokuMyles Comfort FoodPainterland SistersThe Organic Pantry Co.SharSinto Gourmet and Uncle Waithley’s.

Meanwhile, Landrieu is looking forward to reviewing submissions for the LEAP program. “There is so much joy in the industry when you see people working hard and succeeding. It absolutely revitalizes me and makes me excited to open my inbox,” she declared.

The LEAP application portal will close April 19 and the 2024 cohorts will be announced in July.

Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods has more than 500 stores in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. The company is a wholly owned subsidiary of Seattle-based Amazon, which is No. 2 on The PG 100, Progressive Grocer’s 2023 list of top food and consumables retailers in North America. Both Whole Foods and Amazon were named among PG’s Retailers of the Century.

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