Small Businesses Find Shelf Space At Whole Foods Market

By Evan Jones
Reading Eagle, Pa.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Several local Pennsylvania entrepreneurs describe their experiences getting into Whole Foods and what has happened since they made it onto the shelves.

Reading Eagle, Pa.

When customers first enter the Whole Foods Market in Lower Macungie Township, Lehigh County, they find themselves in a sea of fresh fruits and vegetables all neatly arranged in what looks like a farmers market.

Rows of radishes, bunches of broccoli and racks of bananas help make up a colorful array.

If you take a closer look at some of the vegetables at the organic-based supermarket, you’ll see a sign revealing their origin. For instance, the turnips came from Red Earth Farms, Lynn Township, Lehigh County. A bright red tag alerts customers to produce that is from a local vendor.

In fact, Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market IP LP specializes in bringing locally based products to the shelves of its more than 400 stores nationwide.

The Lower Macungie store, in the Hamilton Crossings shopping center, just over the line from Berks County along Route 222, has been stocking its shelves with regional products from produce to meats to craft beer.

In fact, there are several products from greater Berks on the shelves of the Whole Foods, which opened in September.

Two from Berks
Just off the produce aisles, Whole Foods sells its bath and body merchandise in a section known as Whole Body. Two companies from Berks that are represented are Tangerine Betty, a Wernersville company that makes organic lip balms, and Paisley & Co. Bath Boutique & Fragrance Bar, Kutztown.

Tangerine Betty, which had been only sold online and at some boutiques, saw an uptick in sales since it went on sale at Whole Foods, said Beth Niedrowski, the company’s creator and CEO.

Niedrowski, who makes her product at her home, has seen her orders gradually rise from “a couple hundred to a couple thousand.”

“It’s doing pretty well,” said Niedrowski. “We’re getting orders from the Lehigh Valley market, so you must assume we are reaching customers at Whole Foods. I also see comments on the website from people who have purchased them at Whole Foods. I definitely see it as a bonus.”

Kavita Patel, who is Whole Foods’ new director of local purchasing and programs in the Mid-Atlantic region, said the company is always looking for potential products for all parts of the store.

“We try to do as good a job within a 100-mile radius with every department,” said Patel, who has been with Whole Foods for 14 years. “It’s proven to be a year-round effort. We look for new things that people are consuming.”

Patel, who previously worked at locations in Texas, New York and New Jersey, said Pennsylvania offers a lot of opportunities.

“I’m superexcited to go into a new area,” she said. “In Pennsylvania, there are so many farms. I’ll scout things out. It’s an interesting mix from local networks, farmers markets and supplier summits.”

The supplier summits are opportunities for entrepreneurs to make presentations to Whole Foods buyers to get their products on the shelves.

“They are timed with a new store opening, about six to eight months out,” Patel said.

Tangerine Betty and Paisley, were able to successfully get their products into the store this way.

The audition
To find potential vendors, Whole Foods placed ads in area newspapers and invited them to fill out an extensive application.
Paisley & Co. owner Joanne Lapic said it asked for specifics about her business, such as the items produced and how natural they are.

“There are general guidelines for acceptable product ingredients in this application,” Lapic said. “Certain things that may be outside of their allowable ingredients are described, but not yet in full detail.”

Those who make it past this round then were invited for a face-to-face pitch with buyers at a location in Lancaster.

Patel said that depending on the number of applications, they could see several dozen products ranging from someone who just whipped it up in their garage to seasoned pros.

“We see everything from stuff in a Mason jar with no URL code to things that are ready-packaged,” she said. “Those who have been in the business for years were ready for us.”

Lapic said it was like auditioning for a show.

“The meeting was similar to a theater cattle call,” Lapic said. “You arrive, they check your name against a list and you are given a number. You then wait in a general waiting area with other vendors, who can be selling anything from hogs to hairpins.

“When your number is called, you are led by a Whole Foods team member to a team of two to four people, who are sitting at a table in a large, noisy room that is reminiscent of a middle school cafeteria.”

She said there was a table for each type of product, and for Lapic and Niedrowski, they were each guided to meet with the Whole Body team. They then got up to 20 minutes to make their pitch.

“You empty your bag of samples, explaining to them what the items are and answering their rapid-fire questions,” Lapic said. “While you are talking, they are opening, sniffing, trying on, talking to each other. . . . but you have to continue to explain everything as you pull it from your carrier, while fielding their questions.”

She added that she could feel the adrenaline flowing.

“Within a couple of minutes, they are saying, ‘We want this’ or ‘Can you make this colored with just alfalfa?’ or ‘How many of these can you make each week?’ while you are still pulling out other products,” Lapic said.

Niedrowski said she was grilled on Tangerine Betty’s ingredients, especially since Whole Foods had to confirm they are organic.

“They have strict standards, which I like,” Niedrowski said. “They wanted to know every ingredient and you couldn’t just claim it on the label.”

Patel said Whole Foods representatives may also give feedback on such things as flavors and ingredients.
After that came the wait.

“They said they’d let me know in a week or so,” Niedrowski said. “I then got an email welcoming me to the Whole Foods family.”
Getting to a place such as Whole Foods was a dream come true for Niedrowski.

“I was totally nervous, but the buyers were so kind and so receptive to the product immediately,” Niedrowski said. “There was so much positive feedback. But I was nervous because Whole Foods was my dream destination. I was crossing my fingers and toes for this great opportunity.”

To the shelves
After being selected, vendors then negotiated what they can produce. Patel said Whole Foods will not demand increased production if the vendor isn’t capable of it.

“Part of the conversation is to find out what vendors are capable of,” Patel said. “We bring them into one store to introduce it, and we may then go to more and more. We want to know what are their long-term goals.”

Lapic said it took a while before Paisley’s first products were on their way up Route 222. Like Niedrowski, she had a lot of forms to fill out to confirm her ingredients, get into Whole Foods’ computer inventory system and make sure Paisley’s jars can accommodate UPC codes on their labels.

It was a process that started in the spring and lasted through the summer.

“The process to get into their system was several months long, because it meant a huge amount of paperwork,” Lapic said.

According to Lapic, each individual product had to have every single ingredient certified by Paisley & Co. as natural; there had to be significant upgrades or changes to Paisley & Co.’s insurance policies; the registration with the international global system of standards, or GS1, to get UPC codes; the design of new labels to accommodate the UPCs, etc.

“Our products made it into the store just in time for the opening, perhaps less than a week before,” she said.
That was especially the case for Niedrowski’s home-based business.

“It was overwhelming for someone running a small business out of their house,” Niedrowski said.

Gradually, she’d like to see Tangerine Betty on sale at other Whole Foods in Pennsylvania. The location in Lancaster, scheduled to open in 2018, would be a logical step.

“It’s currently one (Whole Foods) store,” Niedrowski said. “I’d like to see (the products) at Plymouth Meeting and other suburban Philadelphia locations, and eventually Lancaster.”

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