“I’ll eat anything … except parsley.”
Discover foods from family-run dairy farms, local bakeries and small-batch chocolatiers. Ride on an oyster boat, eat, feed a cow, eat, shop, eat, drink, eat. Sound like a brochure for a foodie vacation? Well, it’s actually part of the job description for a regional Whole Foods forager. Yes foodies, it’s a real job and 29-year-old Elly Truesdell has it.
A Whole Foods forager is responsible for scouring their designated market—Truesdell’s is the Northeast—for high-quality, locally sourced food from small suppliers and bringing it to area stores.
Truesdell works with 31 Whole Foods markets in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. She develops new buying relationships with suppliers, farmers and artisans across all product categories. Truesdell claims the beauty of this specific region, for which she is the first-ever Whole Foods forager, is an ability to be more creative than in other markets.
“In this part of the country there are more opportunities to be experimental,” she said.
There is no “typical day” in the life if a Whole Foods forager. Truesdell said she spends much of her time visiting producers, farms and production facilities. Her favorite part of the gig is tasting products with the people who make them.
Currently there are only 13 local Whole Foods foragers scouring their areas for unknown products.
Often Truesdell works with small producers who have little to no previous exposure to big corporations. “A major part of my job is demystifying the large Whole Foods company for small producers. It’s a lot of communicating,” she said.
Not all small producers are ready and willing to jump into the Whole Foods system. They have to meet strict standards including no artificial sweeteners, colors or preservatives. Additionally meat may only come from animals without antibiotics and any eggs used must be from cage-free hens.
Truesdell often helps structure “local producer loans” from Whole Foods to support the suppliers she chooses to work with.
She counts Blue Hill Yogurt as one of her greatest success stories. It partnered with her from the beginning of the yogurt venture and counts her enthusiasm among the chief encouragements to pursue it. David Barber, president and co-owner of Blue Hill Farm, says Whole Foods was his first choice because of the company’s muscle and presence—and also because of Truesdell.
“Her opinion means a lot. She’s a kind soul but also honest, which is rare in this business,” Barber said.
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Blue Hill yogurt is now available in about 182 Whole Foods stores.
They’re not all hits though. “Occasionally even New York City shoppers don’t go for the super-interesting, unusual options—some bakeries with uncommon breads have missed the mark,” Truesdell said.
Whole Foods got a lot of mileage from the cold-pressed juice craze but Truesdell says that one is slowing down. The next home run? “Paleo continues to be a big trend. Customers are looking for stripped down, clean, ready-to-eat items. They’re focused on staying away from sugar of any type,” she said.
That’s where Hu Kitchen comes in. It currently has just one storefront in Manhattan but Truesdell brought it to Whole Foods. Hu Kitchen makes products with no refined or cane sugar, dairy, gluten, soy or GMO. Its chocolate is now available in 15 Whole Foods in the Northeast and It’s opening a second Manhattan location.
When a friend connected Jordan Brown, co-founder and CEO of Hu Kitchen, with Truesdell he thought her job sounded like a dream.
“It’s so cool because she gets to see all the food trends. When companies get big they have a tendency to lose touch with artisanal suppliers and miss out on people in the business with real passion,” he said.
Brown said he had a lot of trust in Whole Foods as a company and credits Truesdell with maintaining that trust.
Another up-and-coming trend? Truesdell is keeping an eye on flavored whey as the next hot ingredient.
Other big-name retailers like Target and Wal-Mart also see value in localizing their inventory. Target announced plans this month for more curated merchandise assortments localized for each community. Wal-Mart also stocks based on local taste trends.
“We know in the Southwest tamales are a popular dish. So, we carry Cuatro Cinco tamales in about 1,100 stores in that region. Our alcohol business is also a great example of our tailored assortment. We make sure to localize our alcohol assortment to meet the tastes of individual communities,” said a Wal-Mart spokesperson.
Truesdell graduated from the University of Virginia with a bachelors in media studies. She began her food career as a volunteer at an organic vegetable farm in Sudbury, Massachusetts. At Whole Foods she started out in the marketing department. Truesdell claims culinary creativity as one of the drivers behind her success.
What does an extreme foodie focused on ingredients like to eat? “Everything! It’s a long list.” Truesdell said she is a vegetable lover with a sweet tooth. There is one thing she refuses to eat though—parsley. Why not? She has no idea.
Where does she eat out? Truesdell, who lives in Brooklyn, says she likes to keep it simple. Her neighborhood favorites are Franny’s, Roberta’s and The Islands. She confesses spending many meals explaining ingredient origins to the table.
—CNBC’s Sabrina Korber contributed to this report.