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Wild Oats Starts "Locally Grown" Program

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When Whole Foods Market took over Wild Oats earlier this year, local customers wondered what the change would mean for the Memphis location. Among the slow but steady modifications at the store are a more substantial seafood department, a larger selection of prepared foods, a reorganized produce department, a number of new products, and the addition of Whole Foods' private-label brand, 365. A grand opening for the revamped store, which then will change its name to Whole Foods, is planned for October.

Although renovations and construction are still under way, Whole Foods has taken on a project that's very important to the company's overall philosophy: supporting local farmers, food vendors, and artisans by selling their products in the store. ("Local" in Whole Foods' terms means that produce, for example, has traveled less than seven hours by car or truck from the farm to the store.)

Late last month, Whole Foods invited local vendors to a low-key fair held at the Memphis Botanic Garden. The turnout was small, but Emily Broad, associate marketing coordinator for the company's Southern region, says that the Memphis store is still in transition and that the fair was only the first step toward incorporating more local products. A larger event, which will include workshops and a "Whole Foods 101" for current local vendors as well as prospects, is planned for the fall.

Elia Singer of Ophelia Snodgrass Apothecary is excited about the opportunity to sell her handmade and plant-based skin-care products through Whole Foods. "When I lived in Los Angeles, I sold my products to some of the smaller local health-food stores, but I didn't feel quite ready to approach the large national and international stores," Singer says. "It was somewhat intimidating, but I'm ready now. This seems like the perfect opportunity."

Some of Singer's products, such as soaps and soy-based candles, will be sold at the Poplar store in the coming month.

At the Botanic Garden, Broad met with each potential vendor, asking questions about the products, packaging, marketing, price point, and the vendor's interest in expanding into the regional market. The company's Southern region currently has 18 Whole Foods Markets. Depending on the product, it's possible for local vendors to expand regionally and even nationally.

"Most local vendors are savvy entrepreneurs," Broad says. "They have done their homework, they know their niche, and they have a pretty good idea what products we are interested in."

That means just about any local product that fits the company's profile -- even prepared foods -- especially if they fill a void that the store can't fill.

"If we don't have an in-house raw or vegan chef, we would definitely be interested in including those prepared foods from a local vendor," Broad says, referring to her meeting with a local vegan chef.

Although locally produced, packaged items are a great addition to the store, Broad acknowledges that locally grown fruits and vegetables are the heart and soul of the program.

"We really want to include more produce from local farmers and hope that we get approached about this option by more farmers in the area," Broad says.

The decision on which products actually make it onto shelves is made at the store level.

"Whole Foods empowers its individual stores and regional buyers to seek out the local products and vendors," Broad says.

In addition to being committed to the best products available while being environmentally conscious, Whole Foods also values the relationship customers may have with local vendors.

"Our customer may already know the products from a certain vendor because they have bought them at the farmers market before, which means they have a personal connection to the place and the person." Transparency is another driving force in Whole Foods' "locally grown" efforts. "

Our customers won't just see signs throughout the store that say 'local' but signs that include short profiles and, when possible, photos of the local vendors," Broad says. "That's how they can truly connect to the food they'll prepare for dinner that night."

For more information about Whole Foods' locally grown program, call Liza Burke at the Memphis store at 685-2293 or 761-9730 or visit wholefoods.com.

Wild Oats, 5022 Poplar (682-1090)

by Simone Wilson

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