Gro­cery chain helps in­cu­bate startup restau­rants, food man­u­fac­tur­ers

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Cindy Sut­ter

T he Or­ange Crunch food truck got a big boost for its new busi­ness in 2014, when it part­nered with a then-new Whole Foods store in West­min­ster’s Brad­burn Vil­lage neigh­bor­hood.

“It ab­so­lutely helped us cat­a­pult our cater­ing ser­vices,” said Lesh­ner Del Rosario, who owns the Filipino-themed food truck with his wife, Sarah. “Peo­ple were call­ing us and Whole Foods, send­ing us mes­sages through our Face­book page or e-mails ask­ing if we were still there months and months down the road af­ter our short stint.”

The ex­pe­ri­ence was also ben­e­fi­cial for Whole Foods.

“That’s what got the idea sparked,” said Tom Rich, vice pres­i­dent of pur­chas­ing for the gi­ant natural foods re­tailer’s Rocky Moun­tain re­gion. The idea Rich re­ferred to is the Friends of Whole Foods pro­gram, in which the stores de­velop part­ner­ships with lo­cal chefs and other food com­pa­nies to al­low the out­siders to bring their unique busi­nesses in­side Whole Foods stores.

“We started be­com­ing a lot more aware of op­por­tu­ni­ties to part­ner be­yond just bring­ing in lo­cal in­gre­di­ents and pro­duce,” Rich said. “It was more of a com­pleted meal.”

Those op­por­tu­ni­ties in­clude Biju’s Lit­tle Curry Shop and Be­yond Burger Bar, a burger and shake space that show­cases Be­yond Meat’s ve­gan burg­ers, in the Whole Foods store on Pearl Street in Boul­der. The Whole Foods store in Long­mont, which opened last week, in­cludes a space for Pressery, a West­min­ster com­pany that spe­cial­izes in cold­pressed juices, broths and drink­ing vine­gars.

Al­to­gether, Whole Foods has about 15 part­ner­ships in the works in its Rocky Moun­tain re­gion.

Fu­ture plans in­clude a Biju’s in the Whole Foods Ta­ma­rac in Den­ver, set to open early next year, and the com­pany also is work­ing to add a Yel­low­belly Chicken to its lineup. Whole Foods also is work­ing with a not-yet-named Den­ver restau­rant to bring its ramen to a Whole Foods store in the moun­tains.

“It’s a good fit with the weather in win­ter, pro­vid­ing some­thing warm and en­rich­ing,” Rich said.

The part­ner­ships bring ben­e­fits to Whole Foods and to the in­di­vid­ual busi­nesses. For Whole Foods, the ar­range­ment can bring a unique restau­rant, per­haps even a destination spot, into a store, adding value for the shop­pers and giv­ing them a place to linger. Part­ner­ing with Whole Foods of­fers the lit­tle com­pa­nies ac­cess to ex­per­tise and a venue that brings in a steady stream of po­ten­tial cus­tomers.

Ob­sta­cles and perks

When Whole Foods agrees to part­ner with a restau­rant, it re­quires the ven­dor to meet guide­lines in­clud­ing an­tibi­otic- and hor­mone-free meat stan­dards and rules about an­i­mal wel­fare. Rich said it can be dif­fi­cult for some com­pa­nies to make it work. For ex­am­ple, Whole Foods started a con­ver­sa­tion with a sand­wich shop, but it used meats cured with ni­trites, which didn’t meet the re­tailer’s guide­lines. The sand­wich shop didn’t want to change, and so the deal didn’t work out.

“We’re just shar­ing what our qual­ity stan­dards are,” Rich said. “We’re not try­ing to push them on peo­ple.”

Some busi­nesses may be con­cerned that mak­ing the changes will be dif­fi­cult or too ex­pen­sive. To re­move some of those ob­sta­cles, Whole Foods of­fers help with sourc­ing in­gre­di­ents up to its specs.

“We ask them to sign an NDA (nondis­clo­sure agree­ment). Then we open our books and share with them in­for­ma­tion on our costs,” Rich said.

If the com­pany is able to reach an agree­ment with Whole Foods, it can use Whole Foods’ pur­vey­ors and pur­chase food at the same cost Whole Foods does.

“It’s a true part­ner­ship,” Rich said. “It doesn’t work for us if it doesn’t make the part­ner happy. They are a lot smaller and have a lot more at stake.”

Whole Foods and its part­ners share the prof­its. Although the store won’t re­lease specifics, it says the ar­range­ment is fa­vor­able in the di­rec­tion of the part­ner.

Bring­ing the curry

When Biju Thomas opened Biju’s Lit­tle Curry Shop in Den­ver’s River North neigh­bor­hood two years ago, he im­me­di­ately be­gan talk­ing to Whole Foods about get­ting some Biju-branded prod­ucts, in­clud­ing spices and flat breads, into stores. They then be­gan work­ing on a part­ner­ship that would bring the fast-ca­sual restau­rant into the store. Biju’s food was al­ready a good fit for Whole Foods, with its high qual­ity in­gre­di­ents and lighter South­ern In­dian ap­proach that doesn’t use cream or but­ter.

But it took time to get ev­ery­thing in place, Thomas said.

“The Whole Foods process takes a lit­tle time to get your prod­uct through,” he said.

Also, be­cause he was open­ing a sec­ond lo­ca­tion in Den­ver’s Berke­ley neigh­bor­hood, he made the de­ci­sion to do his food prep in his own kitchen and trans­port it to Boul­der in a re­frig­er­ated truck rather than us­ing Whole Foods’ kitchen fa­cil­i­ties.

“Be­cause we have our own pro­duc­tion kitchen, we have a lean op­er­a­tion,” Thomas said.

He said the part­ner­ship has worked out well. The restau­rant sells about 200 bowls of curry a day in the Boul­der store, which meets Thomas’ goal. The store also car­ries Biju’s spices and will of­fer oth­ers as they come to mar­ket. He said the Boul­der lo­ca­tion means that lo­cals don’t have to drive the 30 miles to Den­ver to get Biju’s food.

The curry shop works well for Whole Foods be­cause of its au­then­tic­ity.

“There’s no­body I know of who can make (In­dian) food bet­ter than him,” Rich said. “He learned from his mother. Why should we try to du­pli­cate any In­dian food?”

Thomas said the restau­rant in­side the Ta­ma­rac store in south­east Den­ver will help him reach an even larger au­di­ence.

“Ta­ma­rac is way more cen­tral (than the Boul­der store),” he said. “Peo­ple from all over the place are visit­ing and trav­el­ing through.”

He hopes to even­tu­ally open restau­rants in Whole Foods stores in other states. Texas and Washington have ex­pressed in­ter­est.

Thomas said the part­ner­ship helps his busi­ness em­pha­size that its food is well sourced and health­ful.

“If the curry shop is in Whole Foods, it must be a qual­ity prod­uct,” he said.

Juices and vine­gars

Pressery, Whole Foods’ lat­est part­ner­ship, got its start in 2012, with an idea for a cold-pressed juice, which was then much less com­mon, founder and CEO Ian Lee said. The com­pany con­tin­ued to in­no­vate, adding drink­ing vine­gars and bone broths to its reper­toire.

Pro­bi­otic soups that in­clude a fruit gaz­pa­cho and a co­conut curry with car­rot are in the works. Pressery’s juices have been on Whole Foods’ shelves from the be­gin­ning and are now dis­trib­uted in about 20 states.

In ad­di­tion to its more fa­mil­iar prod­ucts, Lee said the Pressery in­side the Long­mont Whole Foods serves kom­bucha on tap and ni­tro cof­fee.

Lee was an early maker of drink­ing vine­gar, which some see as the next kom­bucha.

“There’s a tremen­dous amount of health with vine­gar, but ob­vi­ously it’s some­thing so dif­fi­cult to con­sume, given its po­tency and acid­ity on its own,” said Lee, whose so­lu­tion was to mix his cold­pressed juices with co­conut vine­gar.

“We we were in mar­ket­place over a year ahead of ev­ery­body,” he said.

Lee cred­its part of his in­no­va­tive ap­proach to feed­back he has re­ceived from cus­tomers at farmers mar­kets, and he is look­ing for­ward to a sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ence with shop­pers in the Whole Foods store.

He said most com­pa­nies choose be­tween having a brick-and-mor­tar store and a shelf prod­uct. With a prod­uct on the shelf al­ready, he jumped at the chance to be in the new Whole Foods store.

Ve­gan burg­ers

One com­pany with a show­case at Whole Foods that isn’t lo­cal is California-based Be­yond Meat. Its ve­gan burg­ers have re­ceived na­tional recog­ni­tion by food crit­ics for their tex­ture, juici­ness and color.

Founder and CEO Ethan Brown said one rea­son he was happy to put the Be­yond Burger Bar in Whole Foods is that the com­pany helped Be­yond Meat in­crease its sales. The burger now is sold by 11,000 re­tail­ers.

“We wouldn’t be in busi­ness with­out Whole Foods,” Brown said of the busi­ness he started in 2009. “It was un­usual. I was a very small com­pany, but they didn’t ex­ert their lever­age, they sought to help me.”

He said Rich im­me­di­ately grasped his con­cept of putting Be­yond’s ve­gan burg­ers near the meat prod­ucts.

“We said we have to put this new prod­uct … in the meat case. That’s where it be­longs. Con­sumers can pick be­tween meat and plant,” Brown said. “Tom said, ‘We’re go­ing to do this.’ ”

The burger bar was Whole Foods’ idea, Brown said. “They’re there to push the edge on eat­ing well.”

Keep on truckin’

The Or­ange Crunch food truck, which helped start Whole Foods’ pro­gram, is still go­ing strong. The com­pany is sell­ing its first truck to build a sec­ond, larger truck.

Del Rosario said the part­ner­ship helped the fam­ily busi­ness to have higher stan­dards of qual­ity and cus­tomer ser­vice. In the past year, he and his wife have stepped back from the busi­ness to wel­come their first child into the world. Del Rosario is plan­ning to at­tend culi­nary school to en­hance his skills.

For the cou­ple, who started the com­pany with their 401(k)s af­ter be­ing laid off from jobs in the fi­nan­cial ser­vices in­dus­try, the part­ner­ship with Whole Foods, how­ever short — two week­ends in De­cem­ber 2014 — proved fruit­ful.

“They’re top-notch pro­fes­sion­als,” Del Rosario said.

Pho­tos by RJ San­gosti, The Den­ver Post

Al­li­son Pan­cost works at the Pressery in Long­mont’s Whole Foods on Thurs­day.

In ad­di­tion to its more fa­mil­iar prod­ucts – in­clud­ing cold-pressed juices and drink­ing vine­gars – the Pressery serves kom­bucha on tap and ni­tro cof­fee.

The Den­ver Post

Al­li­son Pan­cost makes a drink at the Pressery in the Whole Foods store in Long­mont. The juice bar com­pany, founded by CEO Ian Lee, got its start in 2012. RJ San­gosti,

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