Bag of Tricks

3 03 2008

By Jill Ettinger

Bam! Or should I say Grass-fed Ham! That’s right, beloved chef Emeril Lagasse is partnering with Whole Foods Market. He’ll be highlighting recipes that feature local and organic products sold in the supermarket chain, filmed on location in their Washington D.C. area stores. Airing on Discovery Channel’s spin off network, Planet Green, Emeril will attempt to teach his audience about preparing fine and fast meals with conscious considerations.

Is this the introduction to a Whole Foods Emeril private label brand of products? Well, probably. And slews of other exclusives seem to be in store for the chain. In a recent NY Times article, writer Andrew Martin traveled to Costa Rica with Whole Foods President Walter Robb and several other well-known organic industry veterans on a hike through the rainforest in a money-raising mission for land preservation.

When probed to discuss how Whole Foods responds to its vendors selling in the Krogers and Wal-Marts of the world, the reaction was blatantly disapproving, hinting at being uncooperative for many vendors who have helped build the chain into its successful standing: “We are just not going to be taken for granted,” Mr. Robb said, adding that the company may drop brands that have “migrated in not a sustainable direction.” The chain, he said, is “going to look for people who want to partner primarily with Whole Foods.”

Though the evolution of business paradigms certainly seems unavoidable, is this approach practical? A company whose entire business model is built around serving one – and only one – customer seems to be looking right through the much bigger picture of making organics more available. Perhaps the more relevant question is: Why would Whole Foods deny people access to these foods? Suggesting that organic food’s growing appeal means quality and ethics erode as volumes increase is a roundabout way of saying, “Don’t sell to our competitor.” And that might even be an understandable demand if Whole Foods had several thousand locations. Or even 500. To date there are only 294 stores in nearly forty states concentrated in affluent urban areas.

While the most ubiquitous chain for organic and healthy food, they certainly are not the only place to shop for these items. There are numerous other chains, independent retailers and community-supported cooperatives. And many supermarket retailers are responding to their customers’ interest in organics.

I frequently purchase Numi Tea’s Morning Rise Breakfast Blend. It’s a delicious full-bodied organic black tea that tastes extra good on cold winter mornings. I usually buy it at Whole Foods, but one day recently I noticed it while cruising through my local Target store (where I sometimes shop for cat litter, garbage bags, vacuum filters, etc). It made me smile to see an authentically ethical and quality product sitting in the Jersey City Target of all places, with premium shelf placement to boot. I honestly felt a duty to buy it there instead of at Whole Foods. I started to wonder how many other people are buying Numi Tea from this store. If it’s not enough movement, what happens to it? Does that affect other organic items being sold in Target? Organic totals less than 5% of all food consumed in this country. That’s so miniscule it’s like comparing the eight or so steps to my front door with Mount Everest.

Whole Foods is positioning themselves as ‘taking a stand’ for organics by shunning well-known brands they label as “cashing out” after building their businesses on Whole Foods shelves. Products with wider appeal can actually be an entry point for more people to healthier options. These companies should not be forced to have to choose whether to be sold in Wal-Mart or Whole Foods – which in most cases is two entirely different demographics – because the latter feels like they’re being “taken for granted?!” Don’t they realize that customers are more product-loyal than they are committed to location, and will follow their favorites? It’s certainly commendable to stand for something, and big thanks to Whole Foods for being instrumental in reducing ingredients like high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils and unethically raised meat and dairy products, but this “stance” is clearly different. Whole Foods can puff up their chest as they do things like discontinue plastic grocery bags (ban goes into effect 4.21.08), but it seems as though the operation has only its own sustainability in mind.

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