Retailers

How Whole Foods Became a Leader in Local

Inside its team of ‘foragers’ scouting the country
Whole Foods exterior
Photographs courtesy of Whole Foods

For its legions of loyal shoppers, Whole Foods Market has long been a destination for locally sourced, innovative products within the organic and natural food space. Whether it’s a new local chocolate, coffee, wellness or beauty item, there’s an undeniable cool factor for customers when they feel they’re one of the first to “discover” these products.

How has the Austin, Texas-based grocer earned its stellar reputation for all things local? For one, it employs “local foragers” in every region across the country, team members on a constant mission to help small businesses grow, seek out and bring locally sourced and trending natural and organic products to Whole Foods Markets.

“Local has always been part of the DNA at Whole Foods Market,” Joanne Neugebauer, Mid-Atlantic local associate buyer, told WGB. Since the mid to late 2000s, Whole Foods has been developing dedicated points of contact for local producers among its team members. Often called “foragers,” these employees are tasked with finding and growing the best local producers from the communities in which Whole Foods operates.

“These passionate team members acted as part-seeker and part-guide to up-and-coming producers,” explains Neugebauer. “From the very beginning of Whole Foods Market, we’ve recognized the value local brings to our customers and community. We are proud of the partnerships we’ve forged and the businesses we’ve help grow over the years.”

whole foods local display

In addition to empowering its team members to help scout and act as local representatives in the communities in which it operates, Whole Foods currently employs 23 local foragers across its 11 regions.

“We [also] form partnerships with incubators and other community organizations to get access to new local products, even before they’re fully retail ready,” she adds. Whole Foods further invests in new brands through its Local Producer Loans program, which helps fledging businesses scale up. “We can [then] grow together and have the benefit of launching a local brand in just one store to start, and assisting that brand in growth and development from there.”

Whole Foods Market, which has opened a slew of new stores in recent weeks, continues to focus on local despite the added challenges of launching new products in a pandemic. “In light of the pandemic, many of our local producers have pivoted to fill the changing needs of our customers and community,” says Neugebauer. “Sourcing locally has allowed us to be an outlet and support new needs.”

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