For many of Bend’s food and drink makers, selling their wares at the local Whole Foods was a first step toward regional distribution.
“You could contact the local forager and talk about how you could feature your product,” said Jennifer Moore, co-founder of Jem Organics, which makes its gourmet nut-butter spreads in Bend.
Five years ago, Moore was delivering products to the Bend Whole Foods in person and shipping directly to a store in Portland. Whole Foods eventually took on the product in its Pacific Northwest and Northern California regions.
Moore isn’t sure what kind of odds a start-up company would have with Whole Foods since it was acquired by Amazon.com in August.
The company appears to be centralizing its buying decisions and giving small vendors fewer opportunities to get a foot in the door, according to Bend-based producers who have a presence in Whole Foods.
Brenda Steele, a Denver-based food broker, said in an email that Whole Foods began making changes to its buying process two years ago, and for brand new products, the process seems to have come to a halt since the acquisition.
“They’re really trying to control the business process,” said Ashley Phelps, owner of Color Kitchen, which makes plant-based food dyes and baking sprinkles. “It’s a big deal in the food world.”
Phelps said she has heard through an independent broker that salespeople are no longer allowed to go into stores and talk to Whole Foods buyers. Color Kitchen continues to sell its product at Whole Foods stores in the Pacific Northwest, Northern California and the Midwest, but she doesn’t expect the company to decide on a national roll-out until 2019.
Whole Foods also hasn’t taken up any of the new products she introduced in 2017, even while she gained distribution in other grocery chains.
“Everybody’s just kind of frozen,” Phelps said.
Whole Foods did not respond to an inquiry from The Bulletin. In response to controversy over changes to the in-store demonstration program, Whole Foods general vice president of purchasing for nonperishables Don Clark offered this statement to The Washington Post: “For the past two years, we have been working to streamline our processes to ensure all our suppliers are supported and set up for success.”
Whole Foods hasn’t been the perfect launchpad for every food product. Debbie Fred, owner of Paleo Eats in Bend, has been selling her gluten-free, dairy-free meal bar at the local Whole Foods since 2012, but she said it’s not a significant source of revenue. Whole Foods is the only store that charges more than $4 for her bar, Fred said, and she thinks that’s one reason it’s never generated the kind of sales that would prompt Whole Foods to adopt it on a regional level.
Fred said she had more success with Colorado-based Natural Grocers, and Paleo Eats is sold in about two dozen of the stores.
“I decided those are my people,” she said.
Amazon promised to bring lower prices to Whole Foods, and a more streamlined buying process might be one way the new owner accomplishes that, Phelps said. “I think it’ll be better in the long run,” she said.
Previously, vendors like Color Kitchen had to make a separate application to every Whole Foods region, she said.
For those companies still hoping to gain regional distribution, grocers like Market of Choice might be the only option, Phelps said. “They can celebrate the small brands.”
But Randi Holm, co-owner of Holm Made Toffee Co., hasn’t given up on Whole Foods. “We are interested in getting back on the shelf in Bend and expanding regionally,” she said.
Holm was at the Northwest Food & Beverage World trade show in Portland this week, and she said she was encouraged to see a Whole Foods representative checking in with specialty-food exhibitors.
“That gives me hope,” Holm said, “because she’s still looking to forage local foods for their shelves.”
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