Whole Foods marks arrival with loan to yogurt maker

Whole Foods Market won’t have an Island store until the fall of 2016, but the natural and organic grocery giant is already in business here.

A day after the Texas-based grocer announced it would open a store in a new building at Uptown shopping centre, Whole Foods handed a $58,000 cheque to Royston-based Tree Island Gourmet Yogurt. The money, a low-interest loan to help the company expand its production facilities, is part of Whole Foods’ $25-million Local Producer Loan Program.

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“The whole idea of the program is it’s a win for the producer and a win for Whole Foods,” said Denise Breyley, the company’s “forager” in the Pacific Northwest, who seeks producers and vendors who align with the grocer’s goals. “We review loan requests on a project-by-project basis and interest rates and term are tailored for each project,” she said.

“What we’ve heard over and over again is not only do producers need a market for their products, but they face a number of challenges, and one of the biggest is access to capital,” said Breyley. She said banks tend to look at someone’s past performance, while Whole Foods looks at the vision for the company and where it could go. “We hopefully find and support the next generation of supermarket legends.”

Tree Island co-founder Merissa Myles makes small-batch, artisan yogurt from local ingredients. She said the loan program is a good fit for her company.

“Their values are so tightly aligned with our own. A commitment to building strong, local food systems and environmental stewardship are core to how each of our organizations operates every day,” she said. “We’re using this loan to purchase a new filling machine, a critical piece of equipment as we continue our path to growth.”

Since it started in 2006, Whole Foods has lent about $14 million to 230 businesses.

Susan Livingston, Whole Foods’ executive marketing co-ordinator for the Pacific Northwest, said it’s one way the company intends to be a big part of the Island community. Livingston said before the store is built, Whole Foods will launch a program to give the community input on how the Victoria store will be configured.

The sheer size of Whole Foods is bound to make competitors a little nervous about losing market share, but some grocers say they are buoyed by the move. “I think it changes how we look at the marketplace,” said Carmine Sparanese, general manager of natural and organic grocer Lifestyle Markets, which will be in direct competition with Whole Foods.

“When you have this very large, U.S. publicly traded company coming to Victoria, it makes a statement — it’s a sign the market is bigger than we think,” he said.

Sparanese said the addition of Whole Foods means the market will grow and Lifestyle Markets will compete and grow with it.

“Of all the cities in Canada, I believe this is most health-conscious city in Canada, and I think we have done a really good job of growing the natural food market locally and we feel we will continue to do well even with Whole Foods coming to town.”

Lifestyle has three Greater Victoria locations: a flagship store in the 2900-block of Douglas Street and smaller locations in Sidney and Cook Street Village.

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