What does it take to land shelf space at Whole Foods Market? A forager shares all

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Whole foods market Grocery store start-up Innovation New product development

Whole Foods Market’s newest store opened this week in the historic Walter Reed Parks in Washington, DC, as an anchor for the redeveloping neighborhood and a new opportunity for area startups hoping to break into the competitive food and beverage industry.

The 47,000-square-foot store is significantly larger than the average Whole Foods, but like its predecessors it’s design and offerings are tailored to the surrounding neighborhood and community needs.

It also features more than 800 local brands from Washington, DC, and the nearby states of Maryland and Virginia, many of which were discovered by the retailer’s famed forager team who scour area farmers markets, local food events and area restaurants for new trends and products, and occasionally meet with enterprising entrepreneurs who show up at stores with little more than idea and a Tupperware of samples, as was the case 14 years ago for the co-founder of the now top selling refrigerated salad dressing company Tessemae’s All Natural​.

“The foragers – we’re a scrappy team located all over the country,”​ and we are central to several of Whole Foods Market’s core values, including caring about and for the community and our environment, and crafting win-win partnerships with suppliers, Regional Forager Daniela D’Ambroiso told FoodNavigator-USA.

She explained, “by sourcing local, we’re not only investing in the communities where our stores our located, but we cut down on bringing in products from other parts of the country,”​ which helps lower emissions.

Likewise, she said, “from a competitive standpoint, smaller suppliers help us diversify the products on our shelves. We carry a lot of products you might not find in other retailers and the communities around us love to support those local businesses.”

To help customers find local products in store, Whole Foods Market proudly promotes local brands with in-store signs that range from small shelf stickers that proclaim a product is local to larger banners that tell suppliers’ stories by featuring their photos, bios and a bit more about what inspired them or sets their products apart.

Whole Foods Market supports entrepreneurs with funding, mentorships

Whole Foods also supports new suppliers through a variety of mentorship programs, D’Ambrosio said.

“As soon as a product is discovered, one of the cool things about my job is I get to work hand-in-hand with a new supplier to bring them into our shelves. And this is sometimes a lot like coaching or mentoring. You know, whether about how to acquire a UPC or tweak their product or whatever it is,” ​she said.

“We also have a couple of really cool programs – one is the LEAP [Local and Emerging Accelerator Program] program, which is a local and emerging accelerator program that launched last year,”​ and includes a 12-week curriculum taught by Whole Foods Market and other industry experts, a year of mentorship from a Whole Foods Market Local Forager and access to other growth-related supplier benefits, she said.

One of the ten participants in the inaugural cohort was the confections company Numa, which is the brainchild of a mother-daughter team in Fallsington, Penn., not too far from the new Walter Reed store, where their better-for-you taffy made with traditional Chinese techniques is featured, D’Ambrosio said.

Whole Foods Market also supports new, local suppliers through its Local Producer Loan Program (LPLP), which has extended more than 360 low-interest loans to date, D’Ambrosio said.

As part of the Walter Reed store’s grand opening festivities June 28, the Whole Foods presented local supplier Dress It Up Dressing with a $150,000 low-interest LPLP loan, which will support the brand’s distribution expansion into the store and local area.

‘The hardest part of our jobs is making room for all these wonderful items’

As exciting as discovering new products is, D’Ambrosio warns not everyone and every product that she encounters can fit on Whole Foods Market’s limited shelf space – which means she often has to make tough decisions.

“The hardest part of our jobs is making room for all these wonderful items,”​ she said. “We only have so many feet in our store. So, if you pitch and product and it is a no today, that doesn’t mean it is a no tomorrow. So, just keep in contact and keep evolving, and let our team know what tweaks you’ve made or what you have learned by being in business over time.”

She also advises new brands – whether they secure shelf space of not – to adopt a collaborative, open mindset and listen to feedback – whether it is from the Whole Foods Market team or customers.

“It can be hard, right? Because your brand is your baby and an extension of yourself, but just being open to learning and really being ready to educate folks on how they should best use your product,”​ can make a difference in how consumers engage with a product and how a business grows, D’Ambrosio said.

‘Not every product needs to be global’

This feedback will also help brands determine if and when they are ready to expand nationally, or if they are best positioned as a local brand.

“Not every product needs to be global,”​ D’Ambrosio said. “There are certain products that really speak to the community where they are made or the region where they are based. And that’s ok. It is okay to have the top selling pasta sauce in Pennsylvania and not set your sights on just being in all stores. Because we have 500 plus stores out there, and that comes with a other set of learnings and questions and headaches.”

She added that growing too big too fast can also harm a brand.

“When you over promise and under deliver and then you have empty spots on the shelf where your product is supposed to be – that is not how an entrepreneur wants to be represented and that is not how we want your brand to come across at Whole Foods. We want to make sure that our suppliers feel supported, that they feel like they can meet demand and that they’re putting out a product that is consistently great,”​ she explained.

With that in mind, she reiterated, “my advice would just be get out there, get your get your product into as many people's hands and mouths as possible. Listen to the feedback, support store openings and promotions that we have going on and just kind of go with the flow.”

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