As Whole Foods steps back from local natural foods brands to focus on efficiency and increasing sales, Boulder County grocers are stepping up, doubling down on small business with new hires, programs and ambitious quotas.
Alfalfa's Market, under new ownership, has set aside room in its Boulder offices for fledgling companies, an incubator of sorts that will provide a home base and access to mentors. The company also set a goal of carrying 5,000 local products in its stores, even as it plans to expand throughout the Front Range.
"Whether we have two stores or two dozen, we're not going to change our conviction to support local," said marketing head Chris Epp. "Alfalfa's is the only local, independent grocer left in Boulder County, and we feel that it's not only our duty but our path forward to differentiate ourselves by providing products you can't find somewhere else."
The grocer already stocks some 3,800 local products and employs a purchasing hierarchy that gives preference to brands that are manufactured and grown in, first, the Front Range, then Colorado, and then within a 500-mile radius of Boulder. Alfalfa's long has been accessible to the newest of natural food companies.
"If you start talking to folks around town, a lot of them are going to say we were their first account," Epp said. "With us, you can walk in the front door or call the store and, chances are, talk to a buyer."
Whole Foods used to employ a similar open door policy, but has since centralized purchasing to its Austin, Texas, headquarters. Fewer opportunities are available to get in front of buyers, and local products have in some cases been scrapped in favor of national ones, leaving Boulder-area startups to turn to other retailers.
"It's a wide-open opportunity," said Tim Overlie, newly appointed director of local foods for Lucky's Market. The position was created to help the Niwot-based grocer retain its neighborhood store feel as it expands rapidly throughout the U.S.
"The original north Boulder store is really the framework for what we're trying to do elsewhere with Lucky's," Overlie said. "It used to be that, if someone was making salsa, we tried it, liked it and we could have it on the shelf the same day."
Given the current size of Lucky's — when the Wheat Ridge location opens this summer, it will be the chain's 29th store — a same-day turnaround for local goods is no longer realistic. But a couple of weeks is doable, Overlie said, and the business will help brands that aren't quite ready for stores.
The ease of getting onto shelves is a huge draw for overwhelmed entrepreneurs just starting out.
Alfalfa's and Lucky's were the No. 1 and No. 2 stores, respectively, to carry Boulder-based Beyond Broth, said founder Grace Ventura. The longtime wellness worker and mom of six continued her strategy of selling to independents and co-ops across northern California, New Mexico and Colorado.
"It took me two minutes" to secure a spot in the small venues, Ventura said. "Here I am waiting for Whole Foods, they're like taking forever. This was so easy."