Whole Foods looking for local producers

By Kelsey Ryan

The Wichita Eagle

(MCT) For Tricia Holmes, the journey to making salsa started when she got tired of the corporate world.

"I thought, 'What can I do?' My dad and I always made salsa, so I went back to the farmers markets and that's how it all started," said Holmes, who owns Wichita-based Holmes-Made Salsa.

That was part of Holmes' product pitch Thursday. She was one of nearly 50 local producers who met this week with representatives from Whole Foods, which expects to open at 13th and Webb in September.

As part of its opening preparations, Whole Foods is searching for local producers of products ranging from dairy to produce to body care so it can carry the items on its shelves.

At the meetings, producers provided information on the ingredients in their products, where they currently sell them and their wholesale information as part of the pitch process.

There was also another very important component: taste testing.

"I love roasted chilies," said Tom Rich, executive coordinator of purchasing for this region of Whole Foods as he tried Holmes-Made Salsa during their meeting. "That's pretty complex. It's got some awesome flavors going on in it."

The producers come from all around Kansas. Some already distribute across the country while others keep their food closer to home.

Casey Truelove is one of the owners at Fiat Farms in Nashville, about an hour west of Wichita. Fiat Farms currently distributes its produce and pork products through a Community Supported Agriculture group, in which families buy a subscription to get products directly.

Fiat Farms currently sells to about 300 families, Truelove said.

"We've been interested in Whole Foods and getting our produce into different markets, so it's a great opportunity for our farm to sell more produce," said Truelove, who brought spinach, butterhead lettuce, mixed greens, pork sausage and bacon to the meeting.

Jason Wiebe owns Jason Wiebe Dairy, a third-generation dairy farm with 103 cows in Durham, about an hour north of Wichita.

The dairy ships and distributes its cheese -- including cheddar and Colby -- to more than 15 states.

"We've been making cheese since about 2000," said Jason's wife, Sheri. "We started small in the kitchen, and we've grown to 1,800 pounds a week."

"I have been in a Whole Foods store in the Kansas City area, and I knew it was the right kind of store for our cheese," Jason Wiebe said.

By selling locally produced products, Whole Foods wants to build the connection between the community and the store, said Angela Schmidt, manager for the Wichita store.

"We're outlining the process for (producers) and learning about how their business started, the background, their product and the passion behind their product."

The pitch meetings can mean a lot for local businesses that want to grow, said Rebecca McMahon, a horticulture agent for the Sedgwick County K-State Research and Extension office. McMahon works with local producers who are trying to sell to grocery stores or restaurants.

"A lot of consumers don't have time or inclination to go to the farmers market, so this is a way for these producers to get their products before a lot more people in a traditional grocery store setting."

Making the first step into a grocery store can help producers expand into other stores, McMahon said.

"Once a producer has gotten to the point where they have the knowledge and expertise and the volume to sell to a grocery store, then it's much easier to make that jump to other similar outlets," she said.

Rich, the Whole Foods purchaser, said the first thing he likes to hear from producers is the story behind their products.

"The exciting part about being here is getting the history behind it because what ends up happening is, if you come into the store and you say to me 'Hey, I'm looking for some beans,' or I see you looking around the bean aisle, I have a connection to (those producers) because I met them and I know their story and I heard it come directly out of their mouth," he said.

"It has a deeper meaning to me because I was here experiencing that with them, so I'm probably going to point you to that product because I really want you to try something I'm excited about."

(c)2014 The Wichita Eagle