“Have you thought about trying to get your product into Whole Foods?”
–Every single person that’s crossed your path since starting your food business
Of course you have. Getting on the shelves of Whole Foods is considered to be a huge accomplishment for any business. It’s legitimizing, and it’s a rare opportunity to introduce your product to an engaged customer base on a larger (and potentially national) scale. Whole Foods makes a point of carrying products from small, local producers.
John Mackay, CEO of Whole Foods, says that they have “done more to advance…artisanal food producers…than any other business currently operating in North America”, and the Wall Street Journal calls them the “ultimate gatekeeper for specialty-foods”. Their Local Producer Loan Program has given out $14 million in low-interest loans to qualifying local producers such as Colorado’s Boulder Ice Cream, Epicurean Butter Company, and Justin’s Nut Butter. According to the NY Times, their “decentralized structure allows store and regional managers to incorporate small lots and batches into their mix, a boon for small companies.” But is it right for you and your small business? Here are some things to consider before taking that path.
Is Whole Foods’ Target Customer Your Target Customer?
Whole Foods focuses on organic, non-GMO, nutritious, community-focused, and fair-trade products. Their shoppers are typically more concerned with health than price. Potential suppliers have to adhere to strict ingredient quality standards. When going through the approval process, you might be asked to alter your ingredients, cooking process, or your nutritional labeling. What is your target customer concerned with? Making these changes might not be worth the time or expense if the values of your target customer don’t match those of Whole Foods’. Errol Schweizer, Executive Global Grocery Coordinator of Whole Foods, warns, “ You don’t want to force fit your product into Whole Foods if it isn’t quite right.”
Consider Your Brand Positioning
What does your product bring to the table? It needs to be something special to get in the door at Whole Foods. They’re not interested in just a chocolate bar, for example. They want one that’s fair-trade and organic. Additionally, a local product that brings something special (ingredients, environmental-focus, interesting story, etc) will do better on the shelf if it doesn’t have to compete with the lower-priced, less special Whole Foods store brand.
Additional Reading: Make Your Startup Food Biz Look Big With These Special Tips
The Approval Process Can be Lengthy and Involved
Depending on your area, your first contact might be with a store’s grocery team leader, a regional grocery buyer, or a local forager (people who are specifically tasked with building vendor relationships in local communities). You’ll fill out new item paperwork and go through the new supplier audit process. You might be asked to change your label, ingredients, packaging, or even your company name. The more established your business is, the more difficult this process can be. Aaron Falber, owner of Farm to Skillet, knew he wanted to be a Whole Foods supplier from the beginning. He approached Whole Foods and began the audit process at the start of his first farmers market season. His chopped fresh vegetable blends received organic certification early on, and only a few changes to his label were required. By the time the farmers market season was over he had received his first Whole Foods order.
Wait…You’re Not Done Yet!
Getting into Whole Foods is just the beginning. Schweizer says that “the most important thing any vendor can do is budget for promotion, including demos in stores which can really help you get your product noticed, if you’re a new vendor.” Falber does between 2 and 4 demos per week. He says, “You need to build relationships with store managers, demo, follow up, and do anything and everything you can to support the account.”
Don’t Count on a National Launch
Local products are rarely launched nationally right away. This can be disappointing if you’ve got your fingers crossed for overnight success. It can be a blessing, though, for small businesses that want to maintain control of their growth. The buyers at Whole Foods avoid giving companies more than they can handle, and they aren’t interested in companies that want to explode in growth just to sell out. Your level of distribution depends on how well your product sells on the local level, your desire or readiness to expand, and how willing you are to partner with them in moving your product. Falber says, “Whole Foods gives you many sales opportunities across the region, but you have to step up and make it happen”.
Whole Foods is generally thought to be the holy grail of retailers for any artisan food business. Which is why people will never stop asking if you’ve ever thought of trying, and why people will always give you a high-five if your product has made it in. But getting in isn’t easy, their values might not be in line with yours, and the work continues even after you’ve experienced the thrill of seeing your pride and joy on the shelf. It’s the right fit for many businesses, but that doesn’t mean it has to be for yours.
Does becoming a Whole Foods supplier seem like a good fit for your artisan food business? Leave your comments below.
You can find Farm to Skillet at these locations.
Photo credit: brokeassgourmet.com