In 2021 alone, Whole Foods Market added 500 new local brands to its supplier roster and 6,500 new local items to shelves.
A new Whole Foods Market program aims to formalize what the grocer has been doing since the company was founded in 1980: lifting up suppliers of local products.
The grocer announced it will begin accepting applications for a new initiative called the Local and Emerging Accelerator Program on March 1.
The program, which supports the company’s core value of serving and supporting a local experience for its customers, will offer mentorship directly from Whole Foods Market experts, tailored education for small and emerging producers and the potential for financial support to promote business growth.
Additionally, selected producers’ products will gain placement on the shelves of their home city’s Whole Foods Market stores.
Will Betts, VP of local merchandising at Whole Foods Market, spoke to Progressive Grocer about the new program.
"With this program, we're looking to facilitate a higher level of partnership between suppliers and Whole Foods Market. And we're focusing on smaller suppliers, with a local angle," Betts said. "So it's going to pave the way for suppliers located across the entire U.S. and Canada to receive mentorship directly from our expert team members on how to effectively get their product in Whole Foods Market, and also give them further education on how to be successful once they're in the stores."
For the consumer, the pandemic has put an even brighter spotlight on how buying local foods can reduce the threat of supply chain shocks while offering social, economic, nutritional and environmental benefits. Betts said the company is seeing how important local products are in the customer mindset.
"It's important that our customers know about the products that are made locally, and that they know about the people that make them and that they understand that by supporting local, that the impact of their purchases will really be felt within the community," Betts said. "When you go into our stores, we love to show customers profiles of these local producers, with pictures and a story. We think that really strengthens that connection to community that's so important with Whole Foods Market, and such a core value of what we do."
Whole Foods defines "local" as a product produced within the operating state or up to 275 miles from the store selling the product. In 2021, the company added 500 new local brands to its supplier roster and 6,500 new local items to shelves.
"We have been expanding our local assortment for years," Betts said. "We continue to expand our assortment. ... We're looking for innovation in trends and flavors. We're looking for sustainability in how ingredients are grown, also sustainability in packaging. And then if it's a food product, I always like to come back to taste, and that it really helps to be delicious, you know? And going back to this concept of taste of place is that we have unique assortments in our stores throughout the country, and local is a big part of that. So we want the flavors to be representative of the communities where our stores are located."
Several national brands have grown with support from Whole Foods, including investments from the company’s Local Producer Loan Program. Vital Farms, now available across multiple retailers, is one example of a brand that Whole Foods supported, including a $100,000 Local Producer Loan Program loan as well as an equity investment from the retailer.
“The team at Whole Foods Market has been so much more than a customer; they’ve been a partner in our mission to bring ethical food to the table for 15 years,” said Matt O’Hayer, founder and executive chairman of Vital Farms. “In fact, when I founded Vital Farms in 2007, I was inspired by Whole Foods’ practice of Conscious Capitalism, a stakeholder-driven business model that we’ve practiced from then until today. In our earlier days, I wanted to bring high-quality pasture-raised eggs to households across the country but needed a scalable channel beyond local farmers markets. Whole Foods Market was our first national customer. They shared our commitment to ethical food production and played an important role in growing our brand to what it is today.”
To apply to be a member of the Local and Emerging Accelerator Program cohort, brands must fill out an application by April 8. Selected cohort members will be announced in late summer.
Members of the initial cohort will participate in a 10-week curriculum taught by Whole Foods Market experts, undergo a yearlong mentorship with a Local Forager and have access to other growth-related supplier benefits.
Because Whole Foods Market may carry products from selected suppliers, among other requirements, all products must meet Whole Foods Market quality standards and product safety requirements prior to being unveiled in the stores.
Supplier participants who successfully complete the program have the potential to receive a $25,000 equity investment from a donor-advised fund managed by the Austin Community Foundation, with proceeds benefiting Whole Foods Market’s private operating Foundations.
The first certified-organic national grocer, Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods has more than 500 stores in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. The company is No. 26 on The PG 100, Progressive Grocer’s 2021 list of the top retailers of food and consumables in the United States, while its parent company, Seattle-based Amazon, is No. 2 on PG’s list.