By Becky Yerak and Tony Briscoe Chicago Tribune.
You could call it Whole Foods' version of "American Idol" or "The Voice."
When the organic grocer plans to open a store, it sometimes conducts an audition: Local vendors, some little more than hobbyists, pitch things they make or bake with the aspiration of one day supplying an ever-expanding number of Whole Foods' stores. Just getting a product picked for one Whole Foods store is a coveted endorsement.
Among the talents who emerged from about 70 entrepreneurs invited to audition for the Whole Foods store planned for Englewood is Rachel Bernier-Green, who bakes decorated sugar cookies in a commercial kitchen space she rents on Leavitt Street, just south of Grand, in Chicago.
"To be on the shelves of Whole Foods, which is my personal favorite grocery store, would be awesome," said Bernier-Green, 27.
Her business, Laine's Bake Shop, which honors a family name, started as a hobby in 2012 and has been selling cookies online.
While the Englewood store isn't slated to open until 2016, Whole Foods execs were wowed by her cookies and seemed eager to make an immediate deal.
"We could buy your product before Englewood," Robert Whittaker, the grocer's Midwest bakery coordinator, told Bernier-Green during an all-day meeting Jan. 23 for potential suppliers at Kennedy King College at Halsted and 63rd streets.
The grocer allowed Tribune reporters to sit in on the pitches. Whittaker, who said he envisioned Bernier-Green's cookies featured at an international cookie station in one store, asked her to send bulk cookie pricing information.
A week after the promising meeting with Whole Foods, Bernier-Green said she still feels like she is in "dreamland."
"I don't think it has sunk in fully," she said as she opened 1-pound blocks of butter and prepared to mix sugar, Dutch cocoa powder, salt and espresso powder for thumbprint-cookie ingredients headed for a 30-quart mixer. Her sister, Lizzy, is helping her bake and asks her older sister if her thumbprints pass muster.
Bernier-Green hopes that getting her foot in the door at one Whole Foods store leads to additional business with the merchant.
Almost a week after her Whole Foods meeting, while the smell of her Mexican wedding cookies fills the shared kitchen, Bernier-Green said she plans to buy her own walk-in freezer and cooler to put in the shared kitchen to prepare for supplying product to Whole Foods.
Bernier-Green, who also dreams of having her own retail store someday, said she will discuss potential financing options for the appliances, prices of which start at around $5,000, with the Greater Englewood Community Development Corp., which aims to spur economic development in the poor neighborhood.
"We're pricing models," said Green, wearing a white chef's jacket. "We can disassemble it and take it with us when we move into our own space."
When it comes time to hire employees, Bernier-Green said she plans to contact homeless shelters that have programs to help poor people find jobs. "We're hopeful we can get three currently homeless people who are in shelters into full-time jobs by the end of the year," she said.
Texas-based Whole Foods said it's especially keen on getting "hyperlocal" products, or those made in neighborhoods, into its stores. It's seeking to support 25 businesses in Englewood. Attendees hoping to land business from Whole Foods included Jimmy's Vegan Cookies and Grandma Maud's, a supplier of Southern-style food products.
Chicago companies already have grown as a result of such deals with Whole Foods. Take Scrumptious Pantry, which Lee Greene brought from Italy to Logan Square in 2010. A couple of years later, the company sold products such as pickles in just one Whole Foods store in Madison, Wis. Greene got a loan from the grocer to buy some equipment, including a refrigeration unit so she can stock up on peppers when they're in season, and now her company's Heirloom hot sauces -- made in collaboration with Co-op Sauce, another Chicago company -- are sold in Whole Foods stores nationwide.
"There are lots of cool, smart, little stores around Chicago, but when you're talking to someone at a party and you say that your products are sold at Whole Foods, people take you much more seriously," Greene said last week.
Scrumptious Pantry started with one person but now has two full-time workers and four part-timers, she said.
"If a serious company like Whole Foods starts carrying you, you stop being a cutesy hobby," she said. "It's really a chance to grow up, learn and become a promising startup."
Getting the nod from Whole Foods is not easy because the grocer expects vendors to meet its quality standards. Among the product no-nos: hydrogenated fats, high fructose corn syrup, red dye No. 40, and artificial preservatives, colors, flavors and sweeteners. More than 50 ingredients are banned from body-care products.
"If it does affect your product, we're here to guide you in a new direction," said Julie Blubaugh, a Midwest "forager" for Whole Foods who scouts for items that could be added to new-store shelves.
Among Whole Foods' requirements is that ready-to-eat food be prepared in a licensed commercial kitchen and that products meet government requirements for labeling and weights. Ingredients and subingredients must be disclosed.
Bernier-Green came prepared, handing out an ingredients list and explaining how she uses unbleached flour and no preservatives. . Laine's is based in Chicago's Oakland neighborhood, where Bernier-Green lives. In addition to her Mexican wedding cookies and thumbprint cookies, she makes sugar cookies in flavors such as vanilla bean, orange spice and mocha. Online, her decorated sugar cookies start at $4 apiece for custom designs and $3 for basic designs, with a minimum order of a dozen cookies per flavor.
Bernier-Green, the oldest of six children, said she was home-schooled and that her mother taught her fractions through recipes. An accountant, Bernier-Green holds bachelor's degrees in finance and accounting and a master's in taxation from the University of Illinois at Urban-Champaign.
Bernier-Green does most of the baking and decorating, but her father, mother and sister also are involved in the business, which is self-financed. Her sister currently lives in Ann Arbor but is moving back to Chicago to run day-to-day operations. Other entrepreneurs pitching items to Whole Foods included:
Your G Free Spot Sonia Negron started her gluten-free baking business five months ago. "About 4,000 brownies I threw away in order to create recipes that were edible, delicious and wouldn't fall apart," said Negron, a North Side resident. She does the baking herself.
Negron makes seven kinds of gluten-free brownies in an Elk Grove Village gluten-free commercial kitchen. The treats have names and recipes that reflect her Latina heritage, including El Mexicano Horchata and Dos Boricuas Fiery Orange. She has been shipping them as far away as New York.
"Right now it's just me doing everything," she said.
Negron, whose brownies sell for $3.75 each in Sweet Natalie's bakery in Geneva, said she was "pleasantly surprised" when she learned about the Whole Foods supplier summit in an email.
"I've been trying to get into the Whole Foods in Lincoln Park, and it's so saturated," she said. "It's hard to get an appointment."
She'd like to get into the Englewood store and eventually other Whole Foods locations.
Negron's bake shop was as much a personal endeavor as it was business. She has Celiac disease, an autoimmune disease caused by eating gluten.
"I was sick for seven years and I didn't know what was making me ill," said Negron, previously an interior designer. She went to nine different doctors and said she was either misdiagnosed or undiagnosed.
"I realized it was the food that was making me sick," she said.
Negron, 41, said she hopes working with Whole Foods will allow her to expand her gluten-free menu beyond brownies and to open her own retail store.