‘Food foragers’ search out local products for grocery chains

Eating local can mean shopping your local farmers market or participating in a community supported agriculture program. It also can mean seeking out local products at your favorite grocery store. These days, “local” is getting more and more shelf space.

How do those local products get to the store shelves? At Whole Foods Market, it's thanks to a staff of "food foragers," people like Kristin Sherman, who spends her days searching for local food entrepreneurs who are ready for the next big step in their business life.

Although visits to farmers markets are part of her job, sourcing local products also means research. She checks out shared commercial kitchens to see what’s being made there. She looks into university programs that support emerging brands and entrepreneurs. She follows the food buzz on social media.

Recently, she's brought Montane Sparkling Water and Root Baking Co. to the shelves of Whole Foods. Montane's waters are now sold throughout Whole Foods' Southern region. Root Baking Co. is baking bread just for the new Midtown Atlanta store. In time, Sherman hopes the bakery's footprint will expand.

Whole Foods carries more than 250 Georgia brands — what customers find in a store varies by location and store footprint — but Sherman said most stores will have at least 50 local brands.

“We’re looking for products with great taste, great quality and a great story,” Sherman said.

There’s an active effort to source certain categories locally, she said. “Locally roasted coffee, artisan bread, honey. These are things where people are looking for products made or sourced close to home.”

She shared a story about Howard Berk of Ellijay Mushrooms. They met at last spring’s AgLanta Conference on urban agriculture. “Our culinary coordinator was excited about the quality of [Berk’s] mushrooms, and together they developed a mushroom ice cream for the AgLanta Eats event,” Sherman said. “Now, we’re talking about how to scale that, and connect Howard with one of our many Atlanta-based frozen treat suppliers. We never expected it to take off as well as it did, but it’s been a fun project.”

Berk’s shiitake mushrooms are available in the produce section of all 44 stores in Whole Foods’ Southern region.

Jennifer Badger seeks out local foods for the Fresh Market. Her work also involves lots of research, as well as partnering with groups like Georgia Grown from the Georgia Department of Agriculture. The Fresh Market’s 13 Georgia stores can choose from more than 270 Georgia products to stock their shelves. The Fresh Market highlights these local products in specialty displays set apart from the regular store shelves.

Researching new products includes visits to national food shows and combing through newspapers and magazines for stories about food entrepreneurs. “And, we’re living in the digital age,” Badger said. “It’s fun to find new products online. One of my co-workers found Free Birds Vegan Bakery on Facebook. Their gluten-free cookies are delicious, and now we have them in some of our Georgia stores.”

Customer requests also are a big factor in finding new products. “We have a portal where our guests can make requests directly to our merchandising department, and we look there for great ideas about what people want us to carry,” Badger said.

Looking for new products tends to be done on a regional basis. “We like to look at one area at a time,” Badger said. “We think about the food traditions in that area. What are the flavor profiles people are looking for? Then, we collect samples of the products and compare them side by side.”

Once a product is selected, Badger and her colleagues work to make sure the food company is ready to handle the wholesale market. "We love it when a company can grow to be regionally or nationally distributed," she said. "We're excited that Georgia Grinders cashew-pecan and almond butters are now available nationally, and that our stores all carry Doux South pickles in five different varieties."

Badger doesn’t just research these products; she enjoys them almost every day.

A visit to a Vintage Market Days event connected her with Statesboro-based Franklin's Healthy Honey, and now their creamed honey is one of her favorites. "Another favorite is Georgia Sourdough crackers," Badger said. "I love their Everything crackers, especially with colby jack cheese and salami. That's often my lunch."


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