Usually, when AnaMaria Friede goes to the Fancy Food Show — the trade show for makers of specialty foods and the stores that sell them — the first thing she does is flip over her badge so her name can’t be seen. It’s better for her to slip under the radar as she walks the 363,000 square feet of booths at New York’s Javits Center, sampling gluten-free brownies and fair-trade coconut water and vegetable chips, so many vegetable chips.
That’s because Friede is a buyer for the Mid-Atlantic region of Whole Foods Market, responsible for deciding which packaged cookies or frozen mac-and-cheese or jarred olives, among other things, you’ll pluck from the shelves of your local store.
Whole Foods, which has more than 435 stores and sold $15.4 billion worth of goods in the 2015 fiscal year, is “the barometer for if you’ve made it in your business,” said exhibitor Benjamin Frohlichstein, co-founder of Cappello’s, a sleekly designed line of gluten-free pizzas and doughs sold in some Whole Foods regions. “If we were coming to the show and we weren’t in Whole Foods yet, we would be desperate.”
In the grocery world, Friede is the equivalent of the scout who finds a kid with a good arm and sends him to the major leagues, or the agent who notices a pretty girl on the street and puts her on a runway for Paris fashion week. And because the many, many smart businesspeople at the Fancy Food Show know that about Friede, she tends to get ambushed unless she turns her tag around.
This year, the Specialty Foods Association got wise to it. For the summer show last week, names were printed on both sides of the badges, which are required for entry, so exhibitors could know every visitor’s identity. So much for that plan.
“I was in the pavilion, and someone said, ‘Oh, you are from Whole Foods,’ and I said, ‘How did you know?’ ” said Friede. “We cannot go incognito anymore.”
It was 9:30 a.m. and the doors had just opened on Day 1 of the three-day event. There were 2,670 brands present. By the end of the day, she would walk more than four miles in the convention center alone.
“I try to stop by as many booths as I can,” she said. “My priority is looking for new items. For my existing suppliers, I try to touch base on how the business is going.”
While the rest of New York was eating breakfast, Friede was on the hunt for salsa. Salsas are one of the more than 70 categories of foods she is responsible for in her territory, which includes 50 stores in the District, Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky and parts of New Jersey. Some of her other categories are narrow — kombuchas, cheese alternatives, and canned meats and seafoods — and others are broader: pasta, candy and tea.
She approached Danny and Bella Mayans, an attractive couple standing behind a table of Casa Maya avocado dill salsa, and took a taste.
“So are you selling to any retailers right now?” asked Friede.
“We’re in about 30 locations, mostly local,” said Bella Mayans.
“But we’d love to be in Whole Foods,” interjected her husband.
That became a common refrain throughout Friede’s day.
“We’re not in Whole Foods yet, which breaks my heart,” said Neal Gottlieb of Three Twins Ice Cream, referring to his sundae cones. They were depicted on the neon green ice-cream-print pants that he’d had custom-made by “a guy in Thailand that I send the fabric to.” It was one of several wacky getups Friede would see at the show. One man covered himself in single-serve beef jerky packets. Representatives of a company called Belgian Boys — they make waffles, of course — wore identical neon pink jerseys and set up their booth to look like a soccer field, with fake grass. Anything to get the buyers’ attention.
Walking the aisles of the Fancy Food Show feels, at times, like walking through the souks of Marrakesh, but instead of carpets and spices, people are aggressively hawking seaweed snacks or buckwheat noodles. Make accidental eye contact, and they might try to pull you into their booth.
“Hey, want to try the best potato chip in the world?” asked one vendor.
“No, thank you,” said Friede.
“Are you peanut butter eaters?” asked a man with a New Zealand accent.
“Not really,” said Friede.
“Excuse me, Miss? I saw that you work for Whole Foods,” said a heavily accented young Quebeçois woman in the Canadian aisle. “I work for an apple orchard, and I saw that you do not have any apple syrup.” She is so nice — so hopeful — that Friede obliges her with a taste.
Alas, “I just finished my category review for sweeteners,” Friede said, referring to her annual evaluation of which products are selling well and which ones will need to be replaced. It will be too late for Les Vergers Cataphard apple syrup to get onto Whole Foods shelves for at least another year. The woman looks a little crestfallen.
But whenever Friede found something she liked, she stopped and took her time, asking the vendors about sourcing and production. Whole Foods has stringent rules about the types of ingredients that are not permitted in the foods it carries, such as hydrogenated fats and artificial colors.
“Do you use tomatoes from a can, or fresh?” she asked several salsamakers. The type of canned tomatoes they use would matter.
And producers are more than happy to accommodate Whole Foods’ requests.
“We’ll go back a year later, and they’ll say, we did it all for you; we reduced the sugar,” said Friede.
Whole Foods “basically elevated the standards,” said Thomas May of Lotus Foods, a rice and noodle company. “They go through the packaging and tell you what should be there, what shouldn’t be there.”
Friede’s feedback wasn’t limited to ingredients.
“It tastes too much of vinegar,” she told Rick Field about his Rick’s Picks pickled corn. Field said that Friede is “tough but fair.”
“I like to be honest upfront, and I don’t like to go around and say that it is delicious when it is not,” she said. “He’s going to work on it.”
But when she really likes a brand, she’ll work with the producers to create a product that is exclusive to Whole Foods. Sometimes it’s to fill a gap she sees in the market: As an example, she pointed to some maple sweet potato chips, a snack she developed with chip company One Potato Two Potato for the holidays. She’s also an avid forecaster, anticipating trends and getting them on the shelves before anyone else. She was among the first to pick up SeaSnax, a popular brand of seaweed chips. She worked closely with Republic of Tea on a particular honey chamomile blend, which became so popular the brand took it national.
As Friede caught up with one of her suppliers — Neilly Ndjee, whose eponymous brand already supplies Mid-Atlantic Whole Foods with frozen plantains — Friede spotted some plastic containers of yellow rice.
“Okay, so you use turmeric for the color?” asked Friede. “We don’t have a yellow rice.”
Ndjee was so happy that she began to dance. Once the paperwork comes through, Friede expects it will take a month before Neilly’s yellow rice mix will be on the shelves and in customers’ homes.
But most of the people Friede talked to weren’t so lucky.
“Excuse me; I was wondering if you could take a look at our product? We’re a super-premium product,” said Peter Van Alstine, chief executive of R.e.d.d. energy bars.
“The merchandising space for bars is very tight,” said Friede.
“It’s a sea of bars out there,” said Van Alstine. “We came at the wrong time. I am aware of that.” But he continued his pitch: “Non-GMO, vegan, soy-free, gluten-free, brown rice free. It’s the most functional clean bar in your sea of bars.”
She tried a bite, politely, and continued on her way. Out of earshot of van Alstine, I asked: Does anyone selling bars have a chance with her today?
She made a sympathetic face. “No.”
Clarification: This post was updated to clarify that Neal Gottlieb of Three Twins Ice Cream was referring to his company’s sundae cones in his quote. Other Three Twins products are already sold in Whole Foods.