Foraging for cheese, candy, even shoofly pie

Kavita Patel, forager for Whole Foods meets new born goats that are the future of the goat cheese products locally produced by Yellow Springs Farm.

Kavita Patel is hunting shoofly pie. For months, she’s called pastry shops and farmers, searching for a baker who can make enough of the Pennsylvania Dutch dessert to sell it commercially.

Patel, whose job is to source local products for the Mid-Atlantic region of Whole Foods, hopes the molasses crumb cake will soon make its way to store shelves. But first she must find a baker who can mass-produce delicious pies, one who can handle distribution costs and preferably whose packaging is eye-catching.

“I’m looking for that hot tip,” she said.

Officially, Patel’s title is “senior director of local programs and strategic partnerships.” But in Whole Foods parlance, she’s a forager. She spends her days sampling products, interviewing vendors, and visiting far-flung businesses, like Yellow Springs Farm in Chester Springs, where she recently stopped for face time with owners Catherine and Al Renzi, as well as the goats whose milk is turned into award-winning cheese.

“It’s great to get your eyes on how they’re making things,” Patel said. “You’re always looking for what’s next, what’s new.”

Kavita Patel, forager for Whole Foods checks the goat cheese production with Al Renzi, owner of Yellow Springs Farm in Chester Springs.

Patel’s research determines which items end up in Whole Foods stores throughout Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, Kentucky, and Washington, where she lives. Local products are a subset of Whole Foods that she said is growing all the time.

Last year’s acquisition of Whole Foods by Amazon, however, sparked concern nationwide among suppliers who fear the merger could make it harder to get their products into stores. This year, some businesses were upset by the announcement of new policies for in-store demonstrations that include using a third-party company for some suppliers, and charging vendor fees of $10 to $30 for promotional in-store tastings. Some suppliers have expressed fear that shelf space for their products will be reduced in favor of national brands.

But Betsy Harden, director of corporate communications for Whole Foods, said the changes are aimed at bringing consistency to a process that had been handled differently from region to region. She said the company remains committed to local wares, and that in the last year alone, stores added products from more than 700 local suppliers.

“We’re definitely not shifting away from local in any way,” Harden said.

Patel’s job, created about a year ago, is a sign of the company’s commitment to getting local food into stores, said Rachael Dean Wilson, public relations coordinator for Whole Foods’ South and Mid-Atlantic regions.

“It was about formalizing a process that was already happening,” she said.

Patel, 42, initially studied computer science, then went to culinary school. She worked in hospitality before taking a marketing job for Whole Foods in Austin, Texas. When the forager position was created, she moved east.

Camera icon ALLISON STEELE / Staff
A South Fellini display case in the Exton Whole Foods store.

Pennsylvania has proved particularly fertile ground for sourcing, Patel said. The 50,000-square-foot store in Exton, which opened in January, sells goods from more than 200 local producers: everything from coffee from Lansdale’s Backyard Beans to “jawn” T-shirts by Philadelphia’s South Fellini. The lunch counter has corn bread made with flour from Bucks County’s Castle Valley Mill, and the bottle section is filled with Pennsylvania beer. Local items are displayed on separate shelves that offer details on their provenance and data on how many miles away each product was made.

“Local doesn’t mean anything unless you define it,” Patel said. “I always tell customers to ask.”

A display case of local items in the Exton Whole Foods store.

Getting a product into Whole Foods can lead to explosive growth. Though it’s  been commercially available for only about a year, Vör of West Chester, which makes chocolate candies with nut butter, was recently picked up by the company’s entire Mid-Atlantic region. Vör began as a hobby for founder Frank Steck; it’s now his full-time job.

Choosing a product starts with how it tastes. Then Patel looks at branding, which she considers so important she has at times worked with suppliers to change their packaging before bringing them aboard. Distribution costs are also a factor, as many small businesses aren’t prepared to think about the time and labor costs of delivering their products to stores.

“It’s not just about getting it into the store,” she said. “I’d rather something launch and be the biggest success it can be.”

Patel also believes it’s crucial to learn the stories behind products. Yellow Springs Farm, an eight-acre spread just six miles from the Exton store, produces goat cheese sold at Whole Foods as well as at farmers’ markets and restaurants.

“Hey, our stuff is perishable,” co-owner Catherine Renzi said. “We need eaters every day.”

Kavita Patel, forager for Whole Foods, meets the goats that provide milk for cheese sold at Whole Foods in Exton.

On Patel’s visit last month, she heard about the Renzis’ latest ricotta and sampled a new peach yogurt. Co-owner Al Renzi showed off the cheese laboratory, where racks of Cloud Nine cheese was drying on carts, and the stonewalled cheese cave, with its shelves of Black Diamond cheese coated in vegetable ash, and firm wheels of mushroom-tinged Fieldstone.

“This is a community of 200-year-old bacteria,” Renzi said of the cave’s cool, dank-smelling walls. “If you were to try to age this in, say, Whole Foods, it would taste a lot different.”

Four newborn baby goats wobbled on shaky legs in the nearby barns. Patel scooped one up and fed her a bottle under Catherine Renzi’s instruction.

“These are the real cheese producers,” Renzi told her. “We never forget that.”