Whole Foods Up Close: Breaking Into the Chain (Part 3 of 3)

My recent tour of Whole Foods has got me thinking about how true the company has stayed to its core values despite its size. Sure, there are problems. The buying decisions are made centrally, bakery items are shipped to local stores par-baked, there are only 5 local vegetables this month in the Minneapolis location, and - most troubling - a friend recently let me know that Whole Foods has been accused of union-busting. But all things considered, Whole Foods does an excellent job of walking the talk, and helping customers find the good stuff. This post highlights the extensive process Whole Foods uses to vet potential new partners.

Renee Howard, my tour guide (mentioned in an earlier post), was kind enough to provide me with a "New Location Product Basic Application," a form that asks potential partners 2-and-a-half pages of questions to see if it's a good fit for a single, local Whole Foods location. It's a great form to review because it says so much about Whole Foods' approach. There are, of course, many logistical questions: where are you located, what category will your goods fit into, what is your brand name, etc. And then there are the more in-depth questions, like what ingredients do you use, where do you get them, and are they organic. (According to Renee, Whole Foods will not sell any product containing even one ingredient that doesn't meet its standards. For example, if there are eggs in your homemade pizza crust, they'd better come from cage-free, free range chickens.) But my favorite questions, by far, are the ones that ask about the potential partners core values. To paraphrase: what do you do for the community? How do you address environmental issues? Have you received any "green" awards? What's special about your story?whole-foods-6-local

It's a terrific thing for a national chain to treat its business relationships like personal relationships, to actively do business with companies that share their philosophy regarding food, business, and the world at large. As I pointed out in yesterday's post, this process has its flaws - companies are selected not only for their quality and taste, but for a variety of other reasons as well, including relationships held in regional, not local offices. But Whole Food's partner vetting process is a way for the grocery chain to get to know smaller businesses in the communities it serves.

Related posts: Whole Foods up Close: Local Values (Part 1 of 3)

Whole Foods Up Close: Where's The (Local) Beef? (Part 2 of 3)