San Francisco's newest Whole Foods store might be the least scruffy thing at the western terminus of Haight Street, but that's not the most remarkable thing about it. What sets the store apart from every other in Northern California ― and across the Whole Foods empire, for that matter ― is its offering of foods from small, San Francisco-based companies, some of them mobile vendors recruited as part of the NorCal region's Street Eats initiative.
The guy responsible for rounding them up: Harvindar Singh, local product forager for Whole Foods' 35-store Northern California region. For the Haight Street store alone, Singh launched nine San Francisco-based businesses, including Azalina's, Hapa SF, Wholesome Bakery, Love and Hummus, Numa Snacks, and Paulie's Pickling. And though it might not seem that way, there wasn't any plan to make the store at Haight and Stanyan a local food showplace. It's that S.F. vendors have achieved something like critical mass.
"There are a lot of food entrepreneurs coming out of San Francisco, from La Cocina to some of the street-food people," Singh tells SFoodie. In fact, the Street Eats program is unique to this region. No other cluster of Whole Foods stores is doing anything like it.
Singh's Street Eats program launched nearly a year ago. San Francisco empanada maker El Porteño was among the first vendor to pull up to the loading dock at local stores. By June of last year, Singh had spoken with several mobile food sellers, including Magic Curry Kart's Brian Kimball. In August, Kimball launched a line of shelf-stable curry pastes and chile sauces in four Whole Foods stores here in the city. Like Papalote, which floated jars of its signature roasted tomato salsa last fall, Kimball's now working with a copacker, i.e., a contract food manufacturer. "We should start to see Brian's products in a lot more stores," Singh says.
But is Singh's zeal for home-grown vendors a ploy to make Whole Foods sympathetic to San Franciscans who question the Austin, Texas-based mega-retailer's commitment to the local foods movement? Singh bristles. "If you think playing with people's livelihoods is a PR stunt ...," he says, breaking off. "Do you want to say to Hapa SF this is not a meaningful thing that we're doing? We're creating an opportunity for these businesses to expand into a retail space."
Singh says that in the last three years he's brought in products from 300 local food businesses, and that Whole Foods has loaned nearly $1 million to 15 local producers, with more in the pipeline. "Our local program is real," he says. "I have no answer for cynics, except to say that the proof is in the pudding."
No doubt that'd be Azalina's Malaysian cassava pudding, made and packaged in the kitchen at La Cocina.