April 21, 2014
A forager is someone who hunts for food or provisions so it makes sense that Whole Foods Market, a company that has helped hundreds of small food brands gain nationwide recognition over their nearly 35 years in business, has their own team of foragers who are charged with finding emerging small brands. I had the chance to spend the day shadowing Denise Breyley, the Pacific Northwest’s Regional Local Forager, to find out how she approaches this job that is at the core of Whole Foods Market’s mission.
Denise Breyley joined Whole Foods Market over 19 years ago, and 17 years ago she moved from one Washington to another, from Washington DC to Washington state, to help open up the first Whole Foods Market store in the area. She spent many years working in store management and later transitioned to the role as Local Forager. Her job now takes her throughout the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia not just in search of new artisan products and brands, but also cementing the relationships she already has with small Whole Foods Market providers and ensuring that they are set up to grow in a smart and strategic manner.
On this particular wet, rainy, Spring day, I joined Denise on a trip to a local family-owned farm not too far from Seattle. Willie Green’s Organic
Farm was started by Jeff Miller, a professional chef, in 1987 due to his love of cooking with farm-fresh fruits and vegetables. Originally the farm consisted solely of a quarter acre of land that he leased and thanks to lots of time spent with gardening books (as this was pre-Google he reminded me with a laugh), Miller taught himself how to farm. Today that farm consists of 85-acres and specializes in a variety of lettuces and spinach as well as radishes, cauliflower, kale, and berries.
Breyley originally met Miller 3 years ago and brought many of his products into the local Whole Foods Market stores. On this day Miller took Breyley and I on a tour of the greenhouses where we checked out the baby lettuces that were waiting for a dry day to be transplanted outside and we tasted some straight-from-the-ground, deliciously-sweet radishes that Brayley was anxious to be able to offer to Whole Foods Market’s local customers.
Miller and his team also showed us the HACCP-building for processing the fresh vegetables. The only building of its kind on a farm in Washington state, it helps ensure that ready-to-eat vegetables, such as lettuce mixes and carrots, are free of contaminants and safe to eat. The building itself, which has multiple control points to ensure that no bacteria reaches the vegetables, was funded through a Whole Foods Local Producer Loan. Brayley was an advocate for the farm to help them secure the funds for the building and as Breyley and Miller talked about business strategy and ideas to overcome short-term challenges the farm was facing, it was evident that Whole Foods Market Foragers truly view themselves in partnership with these small brands. This type of support and business mentoring not only helps these artisan companies grow, but it also serves Whole Foods Market purpose of providing exceptional products to their consumers.
So how does one get found by a Whole Foods Forager? Breyley explained that she regularly checks out area farmers’ markets and stops and local stores on her drives throughout Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. In fact, she told me about one bakery where she’s been stopping for four years and has a ‘frequent shopper’ card even though it’s hours from her house. Over the years though she’s not only tried their products, but also developed a relationship with the bakers and she’s provided them with business advice and suggestions should they want to bring their products into Whole Foods Market. They’ve taken this advice to heart and may soon be found in Pacific Northwest stores. “Sometimes these relationships take time to develop,” Breyley said, “but that gives the business time to get into the right spot to be successful in our stores.”
We ended the day at one of our local Whole Foods Market stores where Breyley took me on a tour of the store. Like a proud parent, she pointed out the brands she has relationships with and, like a true foodie, she offered up recipe recommendations and pointed out new products to try. What was interesting though was that as we walked around the store she not only talked about a specific product’s benefits, but also the story and the people behind that product or company. She, and other foragers, feel a strong connection to those people behind the brands because they believe that the path to better, healthier, eating as a whole starts with those people.
If you’d like to follow Denise Breyley on her adventures, she has a blog where she talks about some of the products she finds and shares the stories of the artisans behind the products.
Follow Up: During our meeting with Jeff Miller, one of the topics Breyley and Miller discussed was Willie Green’s loan application for the
Whole Foods Local Loan Producer Program. The company has received two previous loans through Whole Foods Market which has enabled them to expand and built a HACCP facility right on site. I recently found out that Willie Green’s loan application was approved and they will be receiving a third Local Producer Loan. You can learn more about Whole Foods Market’s Local Producer Loan Program via this previous article and here’s a short video detailing the impact the program has for food entrepreneurs.
- Whole Foods Market Offers Loans to Artisan Food Producers
- The Specialty Food Industry Is Thriving
- Sales of Specialty Food Products Soar (INFOGRAPHIC)