From the Orlando Sentinel
Discerning consumers seek foods produced locally
Sentinel Staff Writer
August 29, 2007
Central Florida shoppers are demanding more than variety and good prices from their grocers. They also want local.
Frequent food recalls plus questionable farming and manufacturing processes worldwide are giving the nationwide eat-local movement a boost. This green trend promotes supporting local farmers and producers while minimizing the amount of energy and resources it takes to get food to the table.
For health-conscious consumer Bernadine Cecil of Winter Park, who prefers less-processed and additive-free foods, seeking local products is part of her regular shopping routine.
“I’m amazed that more shoppers aren’t concerned about what they put in their mouths,” she said.
Matt McLean of Uncle Matt’s Organic in Clermont welcomes this sort of scrutiny by consumers.
“Ultimately, it gets people to think, ‘Where does my food come from?’ ” said McLean, who owns citrus groves in Lake County. “They can come to my farm if they question the standards. You can’t do that with an import.
“It’s all about trust.”
On a national scale, eating local is “clearly the hot topic in the supermarket industry right now,” said Harry Balzer, vice president of The NPD Group, a market-research company.
Balzer said the trend is being fueled by three things: support for local growers, concern for the environmental impact of transporting food and consumers’ constant search for new ways to look at food whether it be for health, social consciousness or simply following the next new thing.
‘Fresh from Florida’
Supermarket chains with Central Florida locations are responding to these consumer demands.
At Albertson’s, local produce is a top priority, said spokesman Shane McEntarffer. “Fresh produce is best when it’s close to the farm and handled the least.
“Local products sell very quickly,” he added.
Publix shoppers can identify dozens of local items with stickers and labels that say, for example, “Fresh from Florida” and “Florida Sunshine.” Because Publix is based in Lakeland, its buyers have long looked nearby for suitable fruit and vegetables to stock produce departments, said Dewaine Stevens, a Publix spokesman.
In 2001, they teamed up with Uncle Matt’s Organic, a Clermont farm that uses its citrus harvest to make juices. Two years later, his fresh produce was added to Publix’s bins and other local groceries.
“The Publix buyers will take my organic fruit in season over California,” said McLean, whose family has been growing citrus in Central Florida for five generations.
To show its local orientation, Whole Foods this year launched two financial initiatives to benefit local farmers and entrepreneurs: an annual $10 million loan program for food producers and a $30 million venture capital program. In February, David Rukin of West Palm Beach was the first recipient in the nation of Whole Foods’ new low-interest, long-term-loan program. This 54-year-old beekeeper was selected because his farming philosophy is in line with the environmental and ethical standards of Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods.
Rukin is using the money to buy equipment and supplies to add spreadable, crystallized honey to his BuzzN Bee line, which debuted in Whole Foods stores in 1997.
Quality is of the essence
Whatever the item, proximity isn’t the only selling point.
“It has to measure up to store standards, be consistent in quality and flavor, and turn customers’ heads,” said citrus-grower McLean.
So far several dozen Central Florida products have cleared that hurdle, including Island Grove sauces and dressings in DeLand, and Granola Shop cereals and snacks in Orlando.
Whole Foods allows as much as 10 percent of a store’s products to be selected at the local level without going through regional or national approval, said Lauressa Nelson, a marketing specialist at Whole Foods’ Winter Park location.
That freedom benefited Orlando pastry chef Andrea Milner, founder of the American Brownie Co., who was discovered in 2006 at the Winter Park Farmer’s Market.
“When we dropped off samples at the Winter Park store the following week,” Milner recalled, “we thought that would be our local outlet.
“But as luck would have it, a regional vice-president was visiting the store that week and loved them,” she said. “So now we are in eight stores.”
Her most recent delivery totaled nearly 14,000 brownies.
“Orders fluctuate, but early on buyers will make sure you can meet company demands,” Milner said. “No one is going to sign you up if they don’t think you can deliver.”
Even items with exotic origins can have a local connection. Winter Park’s Whole Foods has beans roasted in Longwood at Volcano’s Coffee Bar and Roastery.
“Having the beans roasted here adds a local twist on a supermarket standby, and gets a company like Whole Foods directly involved in the local economy,” said Volcano’s president Joey Chase, who conducts regular “cuppings” at the store (think wine tasting with caffeine).
When Volcano’s or a local honey producer such as Goldenrod Apiaries comes into the store to stock product, “they are always surrounded by customers,” said Nelson.
“When you see that kind of interaction,” she said, “it’s clear more and more consumers care about who makes their food and where it comes from.”
Heather McPherson can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5498.