Whole Foods Local Forager Elly Truesdell Is a Grocery Tastemaker
The dairy cows smell. All farm animals do, of course, but these particularly pungent Holsteins have just come in from the rain. They’re huddled in open stalls inside a white wooden barn at Cella Brothers in Wallingford, Conn., swishing their tails, chewing on bales of hay, and remarking on the terrible weather with a series of disappointed moos.
Cella Brothers is a small operation, and its 75 cows are mostly free to go where they please. They’re hand-milked twice a day—a process that requires two people and takes as long as two hours each time. Since 1980, Cella has been selling its milk to Marcus Dairy, an organic dairy producer a few miles away in Danbury. Today, Elly Truesdell, the local forager for Whole Foods Market’s Northeast region, is here to decide if any of her stores should stock it. Truesdell chats with the farmhands, inspects the milk storage tank, and laughs when a curious cow follows her around the barn.
Cheerful, slender, and blonde, 28-year-old Truesdell isn’t the type of person you’d expect to find trudging through rain-soaked cow pies. She grew up in Greenwich, Conn., went to the University of Virginia, and, after a short stint at two produce stores in Massachusetts, jumped to Whole Foods’ marketing department. “I’m what we call an ‘experientalist’ at Whole Foods, which is basically the company’s term for a foodie,” Truesdell says. “I just really love to eat.”
So last year, when the company announced it was going to hire a forager for her region—someone to scour the land for fresh produce, happy free-range beef, and organic slushies—yes, they may come to a Whole Foods near you soon—Truesdell went for it. “Foragers usually have a lot more buying experience than I do,” she says, “but I pushed for it. I knew this was the job I wanted.” She’s now one of 12 foragers employed by Whole Foods across the company’s 350 stores. Every week she visits food halls, pop-up stores, farms, and candy shops and taste-tests everything from barbecue sauce to kale. “I was in our Tribeca store before Hurricane Sandy,” she says. “They were out of kale. Apparently kale was as essential as batteries.”
Whole Foods started its local forager program in 2007 partially in response to Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Pollan criticized the company’s support of what he called “big organic” farms that, aside from their lack of pesticides, weren’t much different from the industrial factory farms the supermarket and its ideological customer base typically shunned. Whole Foods still buys from large organic companies (WhiteWave Foods, maker of Horizon milk, is a good example), which make up a large percentage of its sales, but over the years it’s gradually emphasized regional producers. Errol Schweizer, Whole Foods’ senior global grocery coordinator, estimates that 15 percent to 30 percent of the goods in any one store are local.
But what is local? Is it a town? A state? Even Whole Foods doesn’t know; its definition varies from region to region. “Each of our 11 regions has its own firm guidelines for using the term ‘local’ in our stores,” says its website. In the Northeast, something’s local if it’s made either in-state or in a contiguous one. Larger U.S. states are divided into zones within a 200-square-mile area of a store—except Texas. “Texas has such Texas pride that anything made in that state is considered local,” explains Truesdell. Apparently people in Dallas prefer to buy salsa from San Antonio even though they might be closer to an Oklahoma producer.
From Cella Brothers, Truesdell drives an hour to Norwalk, Conn., to Norm Bloom & Son, a third-generation oyster farm with 50 employees. Its workers fish for clams and oysters using 15 wooden boats, one of which dates to 1911. (“I could retire it,” Norm Bloom says, “but why bother? It still works.”) Bloom’s specialty is big Bluepoint oysters stocked by Whole Foods. He doesn’t shell or can them. “Maybe just seasonally for the holidays?” Truesdell urges. “People will want oysters for stuffing.” Bloom says he’ll think about it.
If he changes his mind, Bloom will have to build a separate facility and have a costly inspection by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which not every small operation can afford. Whole Foods offers low-interest loans to vendors who want to expand; since 2007 it’s lent out $8 million to 130 farms and shops. Truesdell uses her marketing expertise to help people with packaging, branding, labeling, and in-store product demonstrations to boost sales. Whole Foods won’t carry products made with artificial ingredients or even with standard eggs; she connects local bakers with a cage-free egg supplier so they can start buying store-approved ingredients at cost. “The big fear that people have is volume,” Truesdell says. “They’re always like, ‘OK, how much food are we talking here?’ I explain to them that we usually start people out selling in one store and then let them expand after that.”
For vendors accustomed to selling to friends or farmers’ markets, supplying an entire grocery store can be daunting. “It was like an avalanche,” says Siggi Hilmarsson, who’d been making skyr, a thick yogurt popular in his native Iceland, out of his New York apartment for three years before Whole Foods came calling in 2008. “They gave us some guidelines, but the numbers were higher than I dared to believe. We had to ramp up pretty fast.” He now has a factory in upstate New York and sells Siggi’s yogurt in every Whole Foods region and at other stores, too.
“For many small shops, selling to bigger places is hard and confusing. There usually isn’t someone like Elly to work with you,” says Fritz Knipschildt, the Danish chef and owner of Knipschildt Chocolatiers, a few miles up the road from Bloom’s oyster farm. Truesdell stops by Knipschildt’s place to discuss which chocolates Whole Foods should sell this season, a visit that requires extensive sampling. “These would do better in the Bowery store, because its customers are a bit more sophisticated,” she says, indicating a set of chocolates painted to look like quail eggs and packaged in a cardboard egg carton. “While these,” she gestures to a simple, small box of assorted chocolates, “are better for the suburban stores, where parents buy things for their kids.”
“Check this one out,” says Knipschildt, pointing to a green-and-brown, frog-shaped chocolate with a mint filling. “It’s green inside, so when you squeeze it, it’s as if you squeezed a frog.”
Truesdell gives him a look. “Who squeezes a frog?”
In November, Whole Foods will open its first Brooklyn outpost, including a 20,000-square-foot rooftop greenhouse where produce will be grown for sale downstairs. Truesdell hopes to also offer locally baked goods and raw juices there. “Brooklyn is really the epicenter of food entrepreneurs. We see stuff happening that even San Francisco doesn’t have,” she says.
Her last stop of the day is Wave Hill Breads, a small bakery and bread shop owned by Margaret Sapir and Mitch Rapoport, a retired couple in their sixties—if you consider baking bread commercially to be retirement. Wave Hill serves about 25 retail and specialty stores and is looking to expand. For now, Whole Foods carries their food only in Connecticut. When Truesdell arrives, Sapir shows off a new industrial-size oven. “We can bake 300 loaves at once now,” she exclaims. “Put us in the Danbury store! In the Brooklyn store! We can do whatever you like!” Truesdell eats a piece of their soft, almost cake-like Irish soda bread but tells Sapir the coveted New York spots are unlikely. “We already have good bread in the city that’s made in the city,” she explains. “Why bother with something from 50 miles away?”