Smaller Natural Food Chains Could Step Into Whole Foods Market’s Shoes

Smaller Natural Food Chains Could Step Into Whole Foods Market's Shoes

Smaller natural food chains like California-based Erewhon, which just opened its 4th location earlier this month, might be taking Whole Foods Market’s place in the hearts and pantries of American natural food shoppers, according to Forbes.

CEO Tony Antoci purchased the country’s only remaining Erewhon in Los Angeles in 2011; he has since expanded to four stores, which were seeing 10 to 15 percent growth until this summer’s $13 billion acquisition of Whole Foods Market by Amazon. At this point, Antoci tells Forbes, stores saw an additional 10 percent jump in sales.

“People like the fact of a local grocer, not corporate America,” he tells the outlet. “And Amazon taking over Whole Foods took it up to a whole different level.”

While the New York Times recently reported that small grocers, already undergoing a “tremendous shakeout” in recent years, were experiencing increased urgency following Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods, other experts, including Phil Lempert, Food Trends Editor for NBC’s Today show since 1991 and contributor to Forbes, believe that smaller chains like the four-store Erewhon “might well be on the cusp of a new trend that aims to take Whole Foods’ place as Amazon makes the chain into a more mainstream version of its former self.”

“Independent grocers have to be innovative in order to survive.”

CBC food columnist Gail Johnson explains that there are some advantages to being a smaller grocer, including flexibility that allows them to innovate quickly and effectively.

“Independent grocers have to be innovative in order to survive, but it’s actually because of their independence that a lot of innovation happens in the first place,” Johnson tells On The Coast.

Whole Foods Market was once known for its innovation and attention to smaller, local producers, but recent reports have shown that Amazon is attempting to streamline sourcing for the chain, crowding out smaller suppliers and paving the way for speculation that natural versions of big brands like Doritos could find their way onto Whole Foods shelves. Recent in merchandising protocols have made it more difficult and more expensive for smaller vendors to feature their products as they have in the past. The natural foods chain even held a vendors’ meeting last month to address these and other concerns.

Erewhon stores, which were first opened in the 1960s, operate according to the strict Erewhon Standard: “We strive only to sell the purest, ethically and sustainably produced foods, wellness and beauty products and household items.”

The store’s website also lists 14 prohibitive ingredients, including non-organic soybean and canola oils and refined sugar.

“Those standards are probably the toughest of any U.S. grocery retailer,” reports Forbes.

Prepared foods sold by the store are at least 95 percent certified organic; according to a recent report from Food Dive, this may be its most important advantage over chains like Whole Foods.

“As small retailers look for ways to outmaneuver deep-pocketed national chains, many are turning up the heat on their prepared foods selections,” reports Food Dive. “This plays to their culinary expertise, their deep roots in the communities they serve and their ability to quickly roll out inventive new dishes that cater to local tastes.”

Antoci hopes to increase to 10 Erewhon stores over the next five to seven years, with the possibility of 20 or 30 stores in the future.

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Emily Monaco is a food and culture writer based in Paris. Her work has been featured in the Wall... More about Emily Monaco