NEW YORK CITY — While developing the Little Duck Organics brand and products in 2010, Zak Normandin, 30, of Fort Greene, spent hours in Whole Foods stores getting an idea of what the grocery chain stocked, how the products looked and what they contained.
Whole Foods wasn't the only store where Normandin wanted his organic fruit snacks sold, but he knew the chain's approving nod would give clout to his brand when approaching other companies.
"At the end of the day, Whole Foods has set the standard for what other grocery stores want to have on their shelves," said Normandin, who sold Little Duck Organics in April. Its products are now stocked in almost every Whole Foods location in the country.
With its 300-plus stores nationwide and its reputation for quality — if pricey — products, Whole Foods is considered by many young brands as the holy grail of product positioning.
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The Whole Foods moment for some brands comes via a lucky break — being approached by the grocery store chain unprompted. Other small business owners approach individual store managers or enlist the help of consultants and brokers to give their product the best chance of getting in.
"A lot of other retailers don't want to take risks, so they will wait for someone else [to stock a product] before they are willing to try it themselves," said Normandin on why Whole Foods can be a good fit for an up-and-coming brand.
Little Duck Organics first secured space in an assortment of small grocery stores and in Khim's Millennium Market, which has several locations in Brooklyn.
Getting into Whole Foods seemed like a stretch in June 2010 when Normandin had a serendipitous meeting with a food broker who had connections to Whole Foods' North Atlantic region, which includes Boston and about 30 stores.
"Six months later we were in," Normandin said.
Nationally, Whole Foods is made up of 12 regions, according to Mark Sinatra, a spokesman for the Northeast Region of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Products can be taken on by a store or a region, and on a rare occasion they can be stocked nationwide.
He said each region has what is called a "Local Forager" who searches areas surrounding a Whole Foods location for local products, which take up about 10 percent of shelf space at each store. Elly Truesdell, the local forager for the Northeast Region, is also constantly flooded with samples from brands who want to get into the store, according to Sinatra.
Having a store within three blocks of the Whole Foods in Gowanus became a huge plus for Twig Terrariums when a Whole Foods local forager walked in off the street, according to co-owner Katy Maslow.
The company already has a successful storefront and online businesses and was contracted to create a display inside the Whole Foods at Gowanus. Twig Terrariums also stock DIY kits for the glass-enclosed gardens at a Whole Foods in New Jersey with a chance of more stores stocking them in the future, Maslow said.
"Lots of folks would see our work in the Brooklyn [Whole Foods] and they would come because we are so close," she said.
Messi Gerami, 27, the owner of the NoHo-based Heart of Tea, took a route into Whole Foods that is also an option for local brands. He simply walked into his nearest store at Union Square armed with samples and convinced all the managers in the store to give his iced tea a try.
He used the same process with all the 25 Whole Foods stores where Heart of Tea is now sold. The brand's products are also stocked at other chains such as Duane Reade and hundreds of bodegas around the city.
"If you have a good relationship with the manager, you can get better shelf space. If you want to do a deal, put it on special or build a display," said Messi, whose staff regularly drops in to see managers and check on the product in each Whole Foods.
"It's a lot more of a hands-on account," he said.
Each employee within Whole Foods, from top to bottom, can advocate for a product's acceptance, according to Sinatra. He advised brand owners to speak with the head of the department where their product would likely be placed.
"Local buying is done at the store level," Sinatra said.
Once a brand gets into Whole Foods, that's where the real work begins, according to Bill Sipper from Cascadia Managing Brands. The brand management firm consults with clients on every aspect their product, from ingredients to packaging and then uses its industry connections to place it in top grocery stores like Whole Foods.
"Whole Foods is very approachable and tangible," Sipper said.
Brand owners can hold in-store demonstrations, request price promotions or even give Whole Foods employees a T-shirt to wear rather than an apron — since staffers can often don their own clothes.
While a spot in a Whole Foods might be an aspiration for many small and young brands, Normandin said businesses that have tried again and again to get their product in should consider moving on or tweaking what they have.
"If your product is good enough, Whole Foods will come to you," he said. "You won't need to sell it."