At 10:30 on a drizzly October morning, after only a few days open, the parking lot at Whole Foods Market’s new Markham store is full and I have to circle around a few rows until I find a spot. Inside, the busy store full of people of all sorts. It’s bright, high-ceilinged and much bigger than the one I’m used to downtown. It’s decorated differently, too, with barn board and hand painted signs that project a distinctly rural tone. And, extending down the side of the produce section over the displays of vegetables, there is a big sign that reads “BUY LOCAL. Support Ontario Farmers.”
This is not what I expected. I had come up to check out the selection of Asian products at the new store catering to the large Chinese immigrant population in Markham and nearby Richmond Hill, just as Whole Foods’ Mississauga store carries a large selection of South Asian foods for the corresponding communities there and in nearby Brampton. Because Whole Foods Markets adheres to their strict all natural procurement process, it’s interesting to see which “ethnic products” they source. Even among the shelves of Japanese, Chinese and other East Asian products, the emphasis on local producers is apparent and I spot Pristine Gourmet’s Tamari soy sauce, made in Waterford, Ontario.
Janice Chan, Whole Foods’ Ontario Marketing Team Leader, explained to me that the focus on local food at the new store is very much on purpose and the company sourced about 20 new local vendors for the Markham location alone, and continues to seek new ones. Chan led me through the store, past a display which showed the actual feed given to animals at the butcher stand, the sustainability rating system they use at the fish counter, the “smart fridges” they use that cut down energy consumption by 70% by switching their lights on by motion detectors among other forward thinking features of the store. (My favourite of all the innovations the Markham Whole Foods team is working on, though, is the liquor license for the wine bar next to the pizza oven. Local Chardonnay and shopping sounds about right to me, I hope they succeed in the application.)
The Markham store is part of a larger Ontario Whole Foods expansion, with new stores coming on line in Leaside, at Yonge and Shephard and in Ottawa, to compliment the existing locations in Yorkville, Oakville and Square One. Chan explained that ten years after the company opened its first store in Toronto, not only are Ontario consumers more interested in local foods, but the pool of producers who are able to adhere to Whole Foods’ strict all natural, no additives rules while being able to scale up to Whole Foods’ volume has increased to the point where they can, and are, stocking much more local foods. Chan also pointed out a poster near the front of the store advertising the company’s Local Producer Loan program, which is seeking small Ontario producers who fit the Whole Foods supplier criteria but require capital investment to scale up to the required volume of sales.
Chan sees Whole Foods Market’s new emphasis on Ontario producers as part of the company’s over all philosophy, and explained to me, “We want our customers to be interested in where their food comes,” confident that an increasingly educated consumer base can only be good for business.
Malcolm Jolley is a founding editor of Good Food Revolution and Executive Director of Good Food Media, the not-for-profit corporation which publishes it. Follow him at twitter.com/malcolmjolley