The Whole Foods effect: How local food businesses are benefiting from a national grocery chain

Espy Thomas knows what it takes to be a food entrepreneur.

"I've been doing this since I was five years old," she says about her work at Sweet Potato Sensations, a business she co-owns with her parents and her sister. Together, the Thomas family has been making sweet potato-based products in Detroit's Old Redford neighborhood since Espy's parents founded their business in 1987.

Marie Pronko is also a second generation co-owner of a family food business, Maria's House Made Salsa.

"I can recall my dad dicing and mixing one of his salsa recipes prior to the grand opening of our restaurant," Pronko writes on her business's website. Today she co-owns the company with her brother and parents.
Marie PronkoOrigin stories like these -- ones that are based on love of food and family -- are surprisingly common among local producers. Family support helps sustain these local businesses in the uncertain world of small-scale manufacturing. Now, however, Detroit's local food producers have another opportunity to sustain and grow their businesses: getting their products on the shelves of Whole Foods.

A Whole Foods market opened in June of last year in Midtown. The opening marked a huge turning point for local food businesses fortunate enough to have their goods carried at the national retailer's first Detroit store. Model D explored this opportunity in an article we ran in July of last year. A little over a year later, we checked in with a few of those owners to gauge how selling at Whole Foods has affected business.

Before a product can be stocked on Whole Foods' shelves, it must first meet the company's rigorous quality standards. Whole Foods lists banned ingredients and has an adherence to "organic" that goes beyond pesticides; they examine animal and worker welfare, require produce be non-irradiated (meaning not exposed to even micro amounts of radiation,) and proscribe other potentially harmful processes.

Sometimes the number of steps necessary to make a product Whole Foods-ready can be daunting, but the company is willing to cooperate with suppliers, says Allison Phelps of Whole Foods' Midwest Support Office.

"We'll work really closely with a potential supplier so that if they don't have the right ingredients, we won't simply say, 'No,' but will look to provide mentorship and take them through these steps."

"So many people have great ideas; they just lack the expertise having never sold at the grocery level," she adds.

None of the business owners Model D spoke with found the process of meeting the quality standards cumbersome. Either they hardly had to change anything about their product, as was the case with Beau Bien Fine Foods jams, or they found Whole Foods helpful in upgrading their products.
"They're honestly a really wonderful company to work with," says Pronko, who's salsa recipe had to be revised to meet Whole Foods' quality standards. "It absolutely improved our product. We got rid of ingredients that you shouldn't consume anyway."

Since making the changes, Maria's House Made Salsas has even started making some ingredients themselves.

Sweet Potato Sensations, which sells goods like pies, cookies, and waffles containing sweet potatoes, had difficulty deciding whether changing their product was the right thing to do. Ultimately, they decided they would, but it's still complicated. At Whole Foods, consumers can buy their pies (as well as their cookies), but they are different from the products they sell everywhere else because of how they source their butter. This means with every batch they have to make two different batters.

Espy Thomas"We have to ask, 'Is it worth it to change our product for one client?'" says Thomas. "Our pie is our staple thing and some people don't want you to change anything. Also some people have dietary issues or allergy issues -- there's so many ways to play it."

In most cases the overriding question is whether changing the way you do things for Whole Foods' sake will improve sales. The answer in most cases is yes.

"They've got a regular order with us," says Pronko. "They're one of our top stores in the area."

"[Since opening day at Whole Foods] our ordering has definitely increased," says Thomas, though she admits there may be a number of other factors at work in her company's growth.

Phelps says that if a product starts off at one Whole Foods store and sells well, there's the potential to expand to several stores within a region. Sometimes a product becomes a standard at Whole Foods nationally.

Many food business owners view selling at Whole Foods as a resume booster, a sign that their product has reached a high level of quality.

"They're very discriminating as far as the products they sell," says Noelle Lothamer, co-owner of Beau Bien Fine Foods. "There's a certain cache...It says to people, 'Okay, this is a quality product.' To have made the cut says something about your brand."

Espy Thomas agrees. "Whenever you sell a product at Whole Foods it draws more attention to what you're doing and adds an extra level of credibility," she says.

That added legitimacy affects not just consumers, but distributors and other grocers. "It's a nationwide company so it helps to get your foot in the door at other stores," says Lothamer.

While Whole Foods can't take all the credit for the success of local, family-owned food businesses, it can provide them with a helpful boost in sales, some added exposure, and an extra bit of security. For mom and pop (also brother and sister), that can be quite reassuring.

Editor's Note: Last week, Whole Foods co-CEO Walter Robb announced that the company is looking to open a second Detroit store. A story from the Detroit Free Press quoted Robb saying, "We found tremendous entrepreneurial spirit in the [Detroit] supplier community."

Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based freelance writer and improv comedian. Follow him on Twitter @AaronMondry.

All photos by Marvin Shaouni.

Support for this series on food and agriculture in Southeast Michigan is provided in part by the Detroit Food and Agriculture Network. See other stories in this series here.
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Read more articles by Aaron Mondry.

Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @AaronMondry.