Greenest Grocer

How two companies stormed the walls of Whole Foods

For many green entrepreneurs, the holy grail of retailing is Whole Foods Market. Whole Foods Market Inc. But the Austin (Tex.) chain is known for being picky. So how to get into its 183 stores? Persistence, says Joshua Scott Onysko, founder of Pangea Organics: "It took us two years."

Starting in 2003, Onysko pitched each of Whole Food's eight regional buyers. Eventually, he got a handful of soaps and body washes into stores in Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado. Sales of those products were strong enough to attract interest from the chain's other buyers, and Pangea's 58-product line is now available in most stores. "You have to prove your sales there, and one region talks to the others," says Onysko.

Jason and Kimberly Graham-Nye, founders of gDiapers, tried a different tack, first pitching their environmentally friendly diapers to a small chain of natural product stores near their Portland (Ore.) office. The product's track record in the smaller stores strengthened Jason's pitch to Whole Foods four months later. By the end of this year, gDiapers will be available in Whole Foods stores across the country.

Jim Speirs, Whole Foods' national vice-president of procurement, nonperishables, says that while shelf space is limited, the company is eager for new products. The store's guidelines stipulate that its products contain no artificial colors, sweeteners, or hydrogenated fats. They also take into consideration green packaging, recyclable elements, and animal testing. While the ingredients' component is nonnegotiable, failing the other green tests won't necessarily knock you out of the running.

Speirs says the company works with entrepreneurs, particularly small business owners, to make their products acceptable. "If your product is packaged in nonrecyclable plastic, we would encourage you to find another container," he says. What's on the buy list now? Nonfood items, says Speirs, as the stores aim to become more of a one-stop shopping experience for customers--and potentially a route to success for green entrepreneurs.

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