Whole Foods seeks locally grown goods and produce but has strict criteria


POSTED: Sunday, February 08, 2009

For Thomas Andrew Doka, aka Andy of Andy's Bueno Salsa, being carried at Whole Foods Market has been a boon to business, with plenty of potential.





        If you have a product that you think would be a good fit for Whole Foods, contact Claire Sullivan at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Make sure your products meet Whole Foods' quality standards. Interested suppliers can find out about Whole Foods' quality standards and a list of unacceptable ingredients at the following links:

» Quality standards


» Unacceptable ingredients
 unacceptable-ingredients.php Unacceptable ingredients include artificial colors, artificial flavors, aspartame, bleached flour, FD&C colors, hydrogenated fats, saccharin, sulfites, etc.


“;Whole Foods has been a marvelous experience,”; he said. “;I love their whole philosophy of carrying natural products.”;

Doka sells his salsa at the Hawaii Farm Bureau farmer's markets on Thursdays and Saturdays, is carried at other natural foods stores as well as Times Supermarket, and is served on the breakfast burritos at Kalapawai Cafe in Kailua.

But he also was thrilled to get the Whole Foods account, which could lead to other opportunities on the mainland later, he hopes.

He enjoys the personal interaction there - like offering samples the Saturday before Super Bowl Sunday.

When Whole Foods opens on Maui next year, Doka said he's looking forward to loading up his Honda Element with salsa, getting on the Hawaii Superferry, and personally delivering it to the store himself.

Right now, his salsa is the No. 31 seller out of the dairy section in the back of the store - not bad, considering there are more than 100 items.

“;I like doing one thing and doing it well,”; he said.

Doka's dialogue with Whole Foods actually began at the farmer's market at Kapiolani Community College one Saturday morning. Most of the ingredients in his salsa, he said, are locally grown, and the distinction is the freshness.


The criteria

Getting onto Whole Foods' shelves requires passing several hoops.




Wish list

        Produce Whole Foods is looking for from local suppliers:

» Regular potatoes


» Celery


» Carrots


» Spinach


» Grapefruit


» Peaches


» Plums


» Nectarines


» Regular yellow and white onions


Whole Foods has a stringent set of requirements before a product can be carried on its shelves, according to Claire Sullivan, vendor and community relations manager.

Among them: Quality standards which include all-natural ingredients (Whole Foods won't accept artificial preservatives, colors, sweeteners and hydrogenated fats). While Whole Foods does seek out organically grown foods, it carries conventional items as well.

Suppliers are required to carry liability insurance of at least $1 million, carry a Universal Product Code (UPC) label and nutritional breakdown information. If the item is organic, it must be certified by a third party, which can include the Hawaii Organic Farmer's Association.

For some small vendors who only sell at local farmer's markets, these can be a hurdle.

However, Whole Foods is happy to help a small vendor along if it's a quality product, according to Sullivan. That means help with finding insurance, getting a UPC code or finding software that breaks down nutritional information.

The Texas-based natural foods retailer currently has plans to open three more stores in Hawaii. It has more than 270 stores in North America and the United Kingdom.

A few vendors - Kumu Farms on Molokai, for example - have been able to offer their papayas at the Kahala store as well as other Whole Foods in the southern pacific region. Volcano Island Honey and Royal Hawaiian Honey were both already carried at Whole Foods on the mainland, and are now carried here as well.

Currently, about 30 percent of the produce at Whole Foods is local - from avocados to bananas, limes, fennel, kale, tomatoes, and papayas.

The number of local vendors has been growing. Since opening, new products added to the growing list include fresh pasta from Mi's Italian Bistro in Kona (and chef Morgan Starr), as well as potted plants from Herbaceous, tropical fruits from ONO Organic Farms on Maui, Aunt Phyllis' Onolicious Macadamia Nut Butter, and Waialua Chocolate.

The floral section now has a number of new suppliers, including living vases from 1st look Exteriors, potted orchids from PiliPots as well as orchids from Ivan Komoda in Upcountry Maui.

During the holidays, Whole Foods offered poinsettias from Leilani Nursery and Norfolk pine wreaths from Helemano Farms.

The Whole Foods team personally visits every farm and factory, and actively seeks locally grown goods.

Al Santoro of Poamoho Organic Produce on the North Shore, one of the first to be selected, says he's looking forward to developing a long-term relationship with Whole Foods.

Santoro offers what's available or in season from his farm throughout the year, whether it's bananas, papayas, avocados, lemons, limes, pomelos, tangerines, oranges or mangoes.

One time, he offered a sampling of five local varieties grown in Hawaii at the store - which was a good way to educate consumers about what's available here.

The top-selling items at Whole Foods Market, so far, include the bulk soap offered by the Indigenous Soap Co. and Hawaiian Bath & Body of Waialua in the Whole Body section.

In prepared foods, the pizzas have been a hit, as have been smoked meats and whole chicken. In the store, reusable tote bags also have been a top-selling item, outperforming many mainland stores.

During the holidays, gift certificate sales outperformed those at mainland Whole Foods stores.

Through a new Big Island distributor called Adaptions, she said a number of smaller farmers also have been able to sell their produce at Whole Foods.

Sullivan fields at least 10 calls per week from new, potential vendors, and whether or not one makes it onto the shelves all depends on quality and fit. If the product is already carried at Whole Foods, then it's also tougher to make a pitch. Pricing is, of course, one of the criteria.


Wish list

But Whole Foods also has a wish list of locally produced goods it would like to carry.

“;If something's missing, we'll look for it,”; said Sullivan. “;There are so many things that could grow here that don't.”;

On that list: Regular yellow and white onions, regular potatoes, celery, spinach, carrots, grapefruit, peaches, plums and nectarines.

Hawaii has the climate to grow these items, according to Sullivan, but of course, there are a number of reasons why they are not cultivated here, which include complex land, water and labor issues.

“;We know we have customers who'd be delighted to have these things,”; she said.

While Whole Foods is not an agricultural development agency, Sullivan said: “;We can certainly be part of the conversation.”;

It's a balancing act, because Whole Foods tries to offer locally grown produce - fennel from the Big Island, for instance, but also offers fennel from California. What's grown locally, however, is a priority.

A recent find includes locally produced hummus from Freak Set, which got its start at the Pacific Gateway kitchen incubator.

Whole Foods also is looking for a local supplier of greens as the packaged salad greens now come from Earthbound, a mainland provider.

Farmer Dean Okimoto of Nalo Farms expects to fill that niche. Okimoto plans to sell greens at Whole Foods some time this month, as soon as his processing facility is up and running.

The processing facility will help him as well as others get food safety certification.

Some others who will get certified include Hamakua Springs tomatoes and Kahuku sweet corn, he said.

It's not so much the cost of the certifications - about $1,000 - but the costs or record-keeping and daily documentation that will add up, he said.

Okimoto's invested well over $1 million and nearly a year of time into building the plant, but believes it will be well worth it.

“;I tell everybody you've got to start looking at food safety and do it,”; said Okimoto, also president of the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation. “;If I'm going to tell everyone else, I figure I'd better do it, too.”;

Kukui Maunakea-Forth of Mala 'Ai Opio Organic Farm in Waianae also was among the first selected to supply Whole Foods.

MA'O Farm expanded another 11 acres in order to grow its operations, although it takes awhile to ready the soil. Up to 100 citrus trees have been planted next door, including limes, Meyer lemons, and oranges.

The deed was just finalized this past week, according to Maunakea-Forth.

“;It's been awesome,”; she said. “;It's helped to diversify what we offer, and so many of the vegetables we now grow out and make larger. We grow romaine a little larger.”;

Besides certified organic romaine lettuce, MA'O is selling kale, Swiss chard, mizuna, tat soi, eggplants, radishes, lemons, limes and recently, a few oranges, at Whole Foods Market.

A new crop of students also recently began working for the nonprofit, which offers paid-work scholarships at Leeward Community College while teaching them about agriculture.

MA'O, which also supplies a number of other stores and restaurants, is already booked for the next few months this year.

Whole Foods opened at Kahala Mall in September 2008, and is expected to open its second store at Maui Mall in the first quarter of 2010.

The Ward store, which was originally supposed to be the first store in Hawaii, has been stalled, but is still expected to move forward.

Another Whole Foods is slated to open in Kailua in the fall of 2011.

While the Whole Foods account has boosted business, Doka says he is just as loyal to his other accounts where he got started several years ago.

“;Every one of my accounts is significant,”; he said.

“;All of my customers receive the same love and aloha from me and my product as Whole Foods.”;