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Whole Foods Talks Turkey About Boise Branch

Natural foods grocer courts local vendors before November opening

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Envision an undercover figure slinking into Bittercreek Ale House and gingerly navigating the surroundings in search of a table. The patron is an out-of-towner, a veritable foodie agent provocateur--and he's eyeing a plate of local polenta fries.

Before Austin, Texas, natural foods grocery chain Whole Foods opens a new location, it sends these "food foragers" on secret missions into the local market.

"They come here and--kind of incognito--just kind of explore the food scene," said Bruce Green, store team leader for Boise's forthcoming Whole Foods Market. "They go to restaurants, go to farmers markets, go to the competition, and just ask, 'What are people into here?'"

Earlier this year, Green and these food foragers visited the Boise area to research the prospective market and get a feel for the population's collective stomach.

"One of the first pictures I got back from that trip, which was last January, were the polenta fries at Bittercreek Ale House," said Green. "So I've had those about once a week since I got here."

In addition to the company's own prowling, the Idaho State Department of Agriculture helped roll out the red carpet.

"They are very committed to having as much local product in their stores as possible," said Idaho Preferred's Leah Clark. "They've been very aggressive very early on with meetings with prospective vendors, in letting people know what they need to do to sell products in their stores."

Clark helped facilitate meetings to put members of the Idaho Preferred program in touch with Whole Foods buyers. Representatives from Zeppole Baking Company, 3 Horse Ranch Vineyards, Owyhee Produce, Ward's Greenhouse, Crooked Fence Brewing, Payette Brewing Company, 3 Girls Catering, Brick 29 Bistro, Rollingstone Chevre and Ballard Family Dairy Cheese gave presentations.

"She connected us with like 60 local farms or producers, and then we came back [in] late January and just invited anybody that wanted to come from that group," said Green. "They just kind of showed up and gave presentations."

According to Whole Foods, it isn't common for a state agency to help wheel out the welcome wagon in a new market. But that doesn't mean they weren't pleasantly surprised.

"When we walk into the stores, we want to see local signage, we want to see the local people demo-ing," said Jessica Moore, Whole Foods regional grocery buyer. "We're competing in a chain-driven market, and we feel like this sets us apart."

The Boise store, which is slated to open in November, will be larger than Green's previous post at a store in Denver. The company's vision calls for minimally processed products, many of them local.

"We were thrilled to see Boise as a unique city, in the sense that Boise has a local focus as well," said Moore.

Idaho-grown poinsettias, locally brewed beers, certified-organic squash and more may grace the shelves when Whole Foods' doors officially open. Local wineries, farms, cheese-makers and more have already met with the company.

"We're working with a hummus company there, a salsa company, there's a frozen wrap company, Fit Wrapz. Also garbanzo beans from a farm up in Northern Idaho, I believe," Moore said.

The idea is to see how Whole Foods can cater its store to the market. Green said the company doesn't have cookie-cutter stores. Each is tailor-made, and that includes tapping local producers, farms and breweries.

"The Tap Room will be upstairs," said Green. "We'll have a pub menu up there with chicken wings and pizza and things like that. My office is right next to the Tap Room, so I've asked that they just put a tap through the wall."

Green said that Payette Brewing's Outlaw IPA will be on tap. He also identified products like the aforementioned polenta fries, Basque food offerings and green, raw garbanzo beans as unique to the area.

Pat Rice of Rice Family Farms said Whole Foods sent out a representative to survey his operation.

"They sent out their regional crop manager guy out of Colorado. He was just looking at the farm, different things we were growing, and giving us some idea of what would sell well in their stores," said Rice. "They were interested in the head lettuce and kale and chard, leafy greens and carrots. Pretty much everything that we grow."

Whole Foods favors organic products. They require producers to carry insurance and ban a lengthy list of ingredients with multi-syllabic names, including high-fructose corn syrup.

"It's not something that we hadn't already been doing for the other grocery stores," said Rice. "We sell to several Albertsons stores, the Boise Co-op and the Saturday farmer's market."

However, not every organic farm in Idaho can handle selling to Whole Foods. According to Bart Rayne of Next Generation Organics, it's not in the farm's future at the moment.

"It's not easy, and it can be expensive," said Rayne, standing next to his booth at the Capital City Public Market. "We're too small to really consider it."

Helping a market-goer pick out fresh carrots on a recent Saturday, Peaceful Belly's Josie Erskine said she hadn't yet made up her mind about working with Whole Foods.

"I'd like to," she said. "I'm going to wait until it opens and see what that looks like."

Local company 3 Girls Catering hopes to provide some of its products to the store's deli department, including sandwiches, soups, quinoa and hummus.

"We submitted 10 items and they said they would carry them all," said Gretchen Talbert, one of the three girls.

Green said the deli is a department that changes throughout the year, shifting between local products, seasonal vegetable-based salads and other prepared foods.

"You'll see kind of a seasonal expansion and contraction of local foods in the deli," he said. "There'll be some things you'll see year round, and demand will also be seasonal. Nobody wants soup right now. It's kind of an ever-changing organic process for what the demand for local products is, too."

Some of these producers will need to expand production to meet demand for Whole Foods. Moore said they try to work with local producers to make that experience a positive one. Producers like Rice Family Farms said they're just happy to have another outlet to sell their products locally.

"I'm hoping they'll increase the customer base that wants to shop and buy more of those types of things," said Rice.

The company also offers the Whole Foods Local Producer Loan Program, which identifies companies with goals for expansion and provides them with capital. Green said he'll help announce an Idaho recipient at the Boise store's grand opening.

"There's a company in Boulder, [Colo.] called Justin's Nut Butter," said Green. "He was in a tiny little warehouse spot making this awesome peanut butter, and he sold it to one store in Boulder, and that was all he could supply."

That is, until the Whole Foods loan program helped him expand his operation to supply the entire Whole Foods network. According to Moore, the Boise store could serve as a launchpad for regional distribution if the products are popular.

"Once they're on strong ground [in Boise], they can present regionally and I can put them in the plan. ... Colorado and New Mexico are really strong markets, as well," she said.

Moore said Utah would also be an easy transition for Boise companies, with its four Whole Foods locations.

As for the "Whole Paycheck" nickname bestowed on the upscale grocer, Green said it's best to "compare apples to apples" on price.

"We feel like our value stands up to anyone around," he said.

Green said that for a $100 purchase of top items at a competitor's store, the Whole Foods price stays within 5 percent--between $97 to $103--for the same items. Competitor's prices are updated in a weekly database, a tool Whole Foods calls Bandwidth.

"Brand X has avocados for 79 cents each, and at Whole Foods, they're $1.29 each," said Green. "So these are big, meaty avocados. You're not getting these little ones that are 70 percent seed."

When Whole Foods set its sights on Boise before the 2008 recession, Green hoped he would eventually relocate to help run the store. Years later, with the economy looking up, he's now busy assembling the store's staff, which will number approximately 150. He's shooting to hire 60 to 70 percent of the store's employees from the Boise area.

"As soon as I got the job--and I hadn't yet posted any positions internally for Whole Foods--I got emails from 80 employees saying, 'I want to go to that store,'" said Green. "It's a desirable place to live."

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Whole Foods doesn't carry genetically modified organisms. See comments below for a correction.

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