The City of Ate Interview: Whole Foods "Forager" Natasha Calvert on Buying Local for a Living

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Natasha Calvert is originally from Denver, and began working at Whole Foods in 2006. She recently moved to Texas, where she's a "forager" for local products, traveling around meeting purveyors, producers, growers, ranchers and the occasional chicken. Then she helps bring those products to the store's shelves. Here's how she does it, and how she got there.

When you think of your childhood in a culinary sense, what comes to mind? I grew up in a large family where cooking was a strong tradition. Every Sunday we'd have a large dinner, and my mother would make homemade cinnamon rolls. I have over 20 cousins on each side, and we'd have very large dinners together. So, from a very early age, I was exposed to from-scratch cooking. I learned you can really make anything from scratch.

In college I continued to explore cooking concepts and ideas. I've always taken a lot of cooking classes. Then a Whole Foods opened in Boulder and I fell in love with the store.

What was your first job in the food industry? I graduated with a marketing degree and took a few jobs in that role, but never felt like I found my true calling. So I sought out a position with Whole Foods Market mainly because I loved the company and their vision. I got a job at one of their stores in Denver. It started as a comprehensive marketing role but grew into other things.

Your official title is "Texas Local Buyer," but this position is also labeled as a "forager." What does a buyer/forager do? "Foraging" sounds romantic, but it's really just a small part of our partnerships. What I do is really more of an overall support position for the local producers.

When I started, this position wasn't very established; it's sort of developed over time. I think part of the reason this position has come into play is because as we've grown larger as a company it's become harder and harder to stay connected with our local producers. And, so in each of markets we wanted to have a person dedicated to face-to-face time with our vendors.

Aside from purchasing products, what do you do for your vendors? We try to offer ways for them to better market themselves or package their product, which helps them grown in our company. A lot of times we try to do so by connecting them with the resources they have in their own communities. I think Texas has a lot of really fantastic small business programs. And a lot of small producers are very willing and open to helping each other.

What do potential vendors need to know about entering the market, specifically with Whole Foods? That's kind of a tough question, just because there's so much to know. Obviously starting a small business is very daunting and I think what strikes me the most about local producers is that they're so brave, dedicated and willing to do something that is in reality somewhat risky.

What do you mean by brave? I think many of our local producers have had secure, Monday through Friday jobs, where the income was steady. But, becoming a small business owner there's a risk of inconsistency and no guarantee it will be a success. What else do they need to understand before pitching their product to Whole Foods? With each category there are so many different elements they need to understand, but the first thing they really need to understand is their own product and what they want that to be and where they see that fitting in the market. Becoming experts in their own field is first and foremost. What makes it different? What else is out there? How are they going to execute it?

Then there are so many other layers to successfully launching the business like marketing, packaging and promotion, distribution. We try to offer support for any of those categories.

In your experience, what are some of the biggest hurdles? I think distribution and packaging are the most daunting for a small artisan. But, there are resources out there for them.

Under what basis should they go for it? Oh, I don't know if I can answer that! Each product is so different. We don't ever want to discourage anyone from following their dreams, whether they're a good fit for our company or not. But, every product is so different and the characteristics are so unique. We don't try to discourage anyone, but try to help them understand what makes a good partnership with us.

Can you give us some examples of local products that have been successful? Cooper Farms from Fairfield, Texas, grows peaches and tomatoes along with a few other items. They have really grown and their quality is amazing.

Another one we really love and hope to have more of a relationship going forward is Texas Daily Harvest out of Yantis, Texas. They have amazing milk products.

We're also just starting a relationship Eagle Mountain Farmhouse Cheese out of Granbury. Their cheese is just incredible.

There's been a couple other specialty products in Dallas, including a facial care system called Hard Night, Good Morning. It's a fantastic product. Do you contact potential purveyors or do they always contact you? It works both ways. We try to get back to everyone that contacts us to start a conversation.

What's the first part of that conversation? The first step is to determine if their product fits within our quality standards. We have very specific and strict standards. That's really the very first layer or conversation: what are their ingredients and how are they producing their products? We want to make sure they are a good fit for us. And a majority of the time they are.

What's the next step after quality standards? The really need to be ready for market in the sense that they need to have appropriate packaging, shipping methods - for example, with a local farm we want to make sure they're keeping their product cold and fresh in transport.

Then how do they get started? A lot of our producers start by selling through one, maybe two or possibly four stores at a time to get started. There's not an exact formula, it really depends on how ready they are for the initial sales. They need to be prepared to take additional orders. We also have conversations about the reality of their production and are they ready to scale larger? Are they prepared for the influx? Most of the time they are.

How has the local food market change in the past few years? Our shoppers have communicated to us that it's important to support their local communities. We have seen more and more growers in the agriculture field and more food producers in a lot of different markets. Dallas is seeing a lot of new businesses in the food sector, which is answering the call of the community.

What's driving the movement? People are more aware of where their food is coming from and how it's being produced. They've started asking those questions as they're shopping and in doing so have realized that not only is supporting local food suppliers great for their community, you get a better tasting product by doing so. It doesn't only speak to the environmental and community support, but also speaks to quality and flavor.

Is Dallas on par with other cities? Dallas is definitely on par. The chef support for events like Chefs for Farmers is really impressive. I think that restaurant scene in Dallas is doing a great job in highlighting the farm-to-table community.

How do events like the upcoming Chef for Farmers help the local movement? Events like this are exciting and fun, but beyond that give a large number of the community an educational opportunity in terms of what's available and who's using what. It's awesome expose to the Dallas market how many amazing local producers there are.

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