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As Whole Foods Opens, Boise Co-op Ready To Take On The Competition

Idaho’s first Whole Foods Market is now open. The much-anticipated new store features an array of organic foods, and an upstairs bar with only local beers on tap.

Jillian Vaughan works in the bakery. She is handing out bread samples.

“Organic whole wheat flour and organic seed mix,” says Vaughan. “So pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, organic poppy seeds, and it’s sweetened with honey and it has sea salt and yeast.”  

Vaughan is a Boise State student. And she’s one of the 175 Whole Foods employees from the Treasure Valley.

“I am really stoked, because everyone is so happy to be here,” Vaughan says. “And the product is amazing, so you really feel good about what you’re selling and what we’re doing here.”

Whole Foods was considering a Boise store six years ago. Those plans were put on hold because of the recession, says Ben Friedland. He handles marketing for the Rocky Mountain region. Once the decision was made to build the store, one of the first moves was to connect with local farmers. Friedland says Whole Foods has already partnered with 50 local vendors.

“By bringing producers in who grow their products locally [and] produce their products locally, it’s an opportunity for them to grow their business,” Friedland says. “They win for that reason, we win because we’re able to offer more interesting and unique products, and the customer wins because the customer has more choice. So local is something we’re really passionate about.”

One of those local vendors is Toni Hodge, who owns Divine Lotus Tea Company. She and her husband, Bob, are handing out samples.

“It’s bringing revenue into this valley, by allowing us to expand our revenue and hire more people, put more product out there,” says Hodge.   

If her teas sell well, Hodge is hopeful Whole Foods may put them in other locations.

Just a mile and a half away from the shiny new store, Hodge’s teas are already being sold at the Boise Co-op. Located in Boise’s community-oriented North End, the co-op has long been Boise’s main source for local and organic foods. The arrival of Whole Foods means the co-op faces its first direct competition in its nearly 40 years of existence.

As a result, the store has made major renovations. They include a dining area, an expanded deli, and new displays that make it easier to shop.

“This is going to be kind of our first real test, to see how we come out of it,” says general manager Ben Kuzma. “And nobody really knows – I mean we have our guesses of how it’s going to impact us and we’ve budgeted for that. So you want to continue to attract people for your good customer service, the high quality of the products that you have, and the knowledgeable staff.” 

The Co-op’s business model relies on members paying fees, or equity, that funds the store’s operations. Bill Foxcroft is one of 21,000 members. He shopped at the store last weekend.

“We’re just coming in to get some ingredients for spaghetti,” Foxcroft says. “So, pasta sauce and pasta and hopefully some meatballs and mushrooms and zucchini.”

Foxcroft has been a member of the Co-op for 18 years, and he knows about the arrival of Whole Foods. He thinks he might do some shopping at the new store, but plans to remain a loyal co-op shopper. He says the staff there know him, and they treat him well.   

“I’m just wanting the Co-op to be successful. We don’t shop for price as much as we shop for quality.”

That’s just the kind of loyalty co-ops need in order to succeed in the competitive natural foods sector, according to Courtney Berner. Berner is with the Center for Cooperatives at the University of Wisconsin. She says that when other natural foods stores move in, co-op’s can expect to take a hit. But Berner says the stability of being member-owned means that these stores are more likely to be in it for the long haul.

“Urban places have really seen this where some of the mainline groceries have pulled out either because they weren’t making enough money or it wasn’t the demographic they want to be serving,” Berner says. “But in a co-op, the owners are the people in that community; that really anchors that business to that place.”

So can Boise support both Whole Foods and the Co-op? Berner says it can. She points to Madison, Wisc., as an example. There, Whole Foods coexists with another national chain – Trader Joe’s – and the longstanding co-op.

Whole Foods marketer Ben Friedland thinks the big winners in the new competitive market are Boise shoppers.

“The Co-op has been serving this community for a really long time, and that’s what we want to do – we want to serve the community,” he says. “And yes, we’re competition, but I think ultimately at the end of the day it provides more customers in this community choice.”

Treasure Valley shoppers have several more choices than they used to. Besides the addition of Whole Foods, two other stores that sell natural foods have moved into the valley this year.  

Copyright 2012 Boise State Public Radio

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