Q&A with Whole Foods Market

I recently caught up with Russ Benblatt, executive marketing coordinator for Whole  Foods Market’s Florida Region, to ask him about how the company’s locally-grown promise is brought to life in its produce sections here in Florida.   Regarding the Coral Gables store, 50/1000 produce items are locally-sourced.

KI:  The Whole Foods Market website mentions that the Company currently works with over 275 farmers and producers in the South region.  What percentage of these farmers are in Florida? 

WFM:  Well, first I need to clarify, we are not the South Region.  We are the Florida Region.  The South Region is made up of Georgia, North & South Carolina, Alabama and Tennessee.  Those 275 local farmers/producers include product manufacturers too, not just farmers.  As for here in Florida, we work with almost 100 local farmers and product producers.  I don’t have a breakout of farmers -vs- producers right now.  We’ve had a bunch added recently.

KI:  Are farms personally visited by Whole Foods buyers and if so how often?

WFM:  Absolutely!  In fact, we even have a person who’s job title is “Forager”…and his whole job is to travel from farm to farm working with growers on everything from getting their products into our stores, to helping some convert to organic farming.

KI: What locally-grown product is selling the best?  Is there consumer demand for more diversity and abundance of locally-grown product in-store? 

WFM:  As for best selling products, that really does vary from store to store within Florida, but also by time of year.  Locally grown products are always in demand, sometimes even as a replacement or alternative to organic.  Many of our customers would rather buy a locally gown conventional ear of corn, than an organic ear of corn that has to be shipped in from California.  I think that as more and more people become aware of the benefits of buying local, the demand will continue to rise.
 
KI:  How is Whole Foods working to grow the program in Florida?  What are the goals?

WFM:  Our search for locally grown produce and products is never ending.  We empower every Team Member in our stores to seek out and find new vendors for us.  As for goals, all I can say is that we haven’t set any limits, and just focus on finding more local products that our customers want.

KI:  Where do you see growth opportunities? 

WFM:  There are a lot of very small farms here in Florida that don’t grow enough to supply all of our stores in the state.  I think one of the best opportunities is to educate those growers that we still want to work with them.  If it means that they deliver directly to only one or two stores, then that’s what we’ll do.  The other big opportunity is letting the Florida farming community know about our Local Producer Loan Program.  As a company, we’ve set aside $10 million per year to fund loans to small local producers in the markets that we serve.  These loans are used for growth and expansion…which benefits everyone.  They get to grow their “business”, and we get more local products in our stores….it’s a great win win relationship.
 
KI:  How do you educate customers on locally-grown items?

WFM:  All locally grown items in our stores are clearly signed as being local, in fact, we even make a point of including the farm name and city where the product was grown.  We also produce “profiles” that we display at the product.  It tells our customers the story behind that product and includes a picture of the product or the grower themselves.  Now, please understand that these are not always possible, but we try to do as many as we can.  We’re actually in the middle of a push to create many more of these than we have.

KI:  Do farmers do appearances at stores to talk direct to consumers about what they do and their products? 

WFM:  Appearances like this are always a hit with our customers (and Team Members).  The biggest issue is getting them in when their product is at peak season.  Many farmers that we work with need to be on their farms when we want them in-store most.  We’re looking at ways to increase their presence for the 09-10 growing season.

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