For several months, I found myself strongly attached to a specific chicken curry wrap in the prepared section of Whole Foods. Sadly, after a period of time, the wrap appeared less frequently and was replaced by new and equally intriguing options. This rotation of new prepared items is no accident. Rather, it is a thoughtful, calculated move toward emerging food trends and consumer preferences, made by the staff at Whole Foods.
Whole Foods works hard to cater to customer requests (as long as they meet the store’s high quality standards), which come in via email or calls to their regional offices, or in-store. These requests often center on specific ingredients and dietary restrictions, and help Whole Foods teams keep a finger on the pulse of trends. In the past year alone, Whole Foods has tapped into the rising prominence of ingredients from ramen to Sriracha, and created a host of relevant dishes.
“We’re always trying to reinvent ourselves and develop signature items that you can only find at Whole Foods,” says prepared foods executive coordinator for the Midwest region, Jason Handelman.
In addition to watching for popular new ingredients, Whole Foods makes a conscious effort to listen to customer requests, watch habits, and provide options that align with trending dietary restrictions, such as paleo or gluten-free regimens.
“We’re known for our special diets and healthy options,” Handelman says. “We keep a close eye on health trends.”
Bringing a customer request to reality is an ongoing process. Handelman and his team will take note of the hot ingredients or dishes of the season and chart out quarterly goals of recipes they’re going to implement and introduce to the community. Some dishes rise into popularity quickly and stay there for a long time. Handelman remembers in particular a recipe for Sriracha-glazed Brussels sprouts.
“Those took on a life of their own! Stores continue to carry those because they were so popular and the flavor was so good,” he says.
The same happened with a kale dish, which started as a summer kale salad but required a name change as demand didn’t wane with the season change.
The requests and dishes are implemented regionally, making the prepared foods section at Whole Foods stores relatively unique across the nation. Sometimes the team throws in a northern flair for their Midwestern locations, like a maple syrup theme implemented a few years back.
“We’re inspired by our local ingredients, but we don’t stay limited to them,” Handleman says.
Looking forward, Handelman is excited about building on the diner concept that some locations have implemented.
“We’ve opened little pubs in some of our stores, and have been working on the relationship between our diner and pub menus. This spring, the pub menus are likely going to be expanded to include burgers, loaded baked potato tater tots, and more,” he says.
Whole Foods team members focus on offering as many high-quality and innovative items as they can. With this attention to customer satisfaction and careful insight into the hottest items in the food market, it’s not surprising that they continue to hit the mark.
So, the next time you’re in a Whole Foods, stop by the prepared foods section. You might just witness the forefront of the next big trend.