Whole lotta local foods love

Several months before the opening of the new Detroit Whole Foods Market, Stefanie Garcia and her team were hard at work; they weren’t part of the construction crew, but in a very real sense, they were building the store. Part of Chicago-based Garcia’s official job title is "Local Forager," and she was tasked with scouting area businesses to make sure that local goods were well represented on the store’s shelves.

Although the chain emphasizes organic or sustainably raised foods, eating local is also an important part of the philosophy -- local foods mean less miles traveled to reach the store, which means more eco-friendly. For the Detroit store, buying local was also a way of integrating the store into the community, a big priority for the company.  

With this goal in mind, Whole Foods reached out to small local vendors by holding a vendor fair in February, where businesses could bring their products to be sampled and considered. My company, Beau Bien Fine Foods, found out about the fair through an email from Scott Benson, formerly of Midtown Detroit, Inc; others got the email via FoodLab, a resource for small start-up food businesses.

The event had a festive, friendly meet-and-greet vibe; goodie bags were handed out that contained some of the local brands already being carried by the store’s other metro area locations. We sat down with a couple of the buyers from the Rochester store, they tasted our preserves, and before we knew it, we were discussing the necessary paperwork. Just like that, we’d gotten our first account with a major grocery chain.

Many Detroit vendors had already been selling in the suburban Whole Foods stores for some time. But in order to create even more of a local buzz for the store opening, Whole Foods requested that those companies come up with a new product that would be exclusive to the Midtown store for a specified time period. McClure’s Pickles debuted a Sweet & Spicy pickle; Simply Suzanne released a new flavor of granola, Apricot Spice; Germack came out with a Motown Munch snack mix. Beau Bien developed a Plum Honey preserve using Michigan plums and Michigan honey. 

I talked to a few of the Detroit businesses supplying Whole Foods to compare notes, and to get to know some of my peers. What I encountered was an inspiring and motivating bunch of fearless, talented, and driven entrepreneurs. Many of these people, myself included, knew little to nothing about the manufacturing process when they started; they simply had a product they wanted to share with the world, and figured it out as they went along. 

Marie Pronko of Maria’s Salsa tells a familiar story: "We were serving the salsa in the restaurant (formerly on Jos. Campau in Hamtramck) and people kept telling us, 'You should bottle that; I’d buy it.'" It took two years, but the Pronko family finally got their salsa off the ground with some help from MSU's Product Center, which assists fledgling food businesses with getting their products to market. Marie says, "It took us a while to find people to point us in the right direction," but once they did, the company was off and running. Now that they have the process down, Marie’s dad Al Pronko, who handles production, has even begun to co-pack for other companies.

One small hurdle to getting Maria’s Salsa into Whole Foods was that they had to alter their recipe slightly. Whole Foods has a list of ingredients that are not permitted, such as high fructose corn syrup and irradiated spices, so Maria's had to replace an ingredient and change labeling to conform to these standards. So did Nailah Ellis of Ellis Island Tea, but both women say it was worth the effort to have their products stocked by the store. 

Ellis also had to muddle through the process of learning things the hard way -- including her own recipe. The tea’s origins lie with Ellis’s grandfather, who brought it over from Jamaica, but it wasn’t as simple as just following a set of directions.

"Everything was trial and error. My grandfather wasn’t measuring, so I just had to play around until I got it right," Ellis says. She spent two whole years working on the recipe, brewing batches nearly every day, until she felt it was ready. Such stubborn determination could be explained by the fact that Ellis, just 24 years old, says she has known since she was a small child that she wanted to be an entrepreneur. 

Despite having no background in the beverage industry, let alone running a business, Ellis has forged ahead, and seen major growth in the past year as she has shifted from selling at Eastern Market to selling in retail locations. She says that the "quick cash" and high energy environment of selling at the market was somewhat addictive, but in the end she decided it was holding her back from seeking new opportunities, so she left the market to focus on retail sales.

Espy Thomas of Sweet Potato Sensations had no such childhood dreams of entrepreneurship. She laughs wryly when she describes how she got into the family business, founded by her parents Jeffrey and Cassandra Thomas in 1987 when she was just six years old. "Our parents have involved us ever since we were kids -- they used to make us put labels on," she says. 

Thomas jokes that she "tried to get away," going to school at Savannah College of Art and Design and then moving on to Atlanta, Connecticut and even overseas before returning to Detroit six years ago and succumbing to her destiny. Even when she lived out of state, she wasn’t exempt: "When I came home for the holidays, that was our busiest time, so I got put to work!"

In the background, her sister Jennifer, also working with the family, suggests that Espy's description of spending her holidays in forced labor might be just a bit exaggerated. The two seem to have an easy, fun-loving rapport that must come in handy when living and working together. "We’re always clowning," says Espy. 

Sweet Potato Sensations first got into the West Bloomfield Whole Foods because customers were asking for it there. Thomas says that while being in Whole Foods hasn’t made that big a difference in overall business, selling in a national chain does lend an air of legitimacy in the eyes of some customers.

That air of legitimacy, along with greater brand recognition and a boost in sales, is what many local vendors hope to achieve from the partnership with the store. Once a brand is accepted into one location, it’s much easier to get into the others, so it’s a great opportunity for smaller suppliers to establish a presence across the metro area. Get to know all of the great Detroit based food and beverage vendors in our handy sidebar here, and swing by 115 Mack Ave. to stock up on the exclusive products only available at the Midtown location.

Read more about Noelle Lothamer's take on the Detroit food scene on her blog Simmer Down!

Photos by Marvin Shaouni
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