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'Local forager' for Whole Foods Market fell for WNY fare

Chris Manca misses the beer, cheese and pickles he discovered in Western New York – and he's been gone only a few weeks.

"There's definitely an up-and-coming food and beverage scene," said Manca, who lives in the New York City suburbs and hadn't set foot in the region until early this year. "That's starting to translate into more entrepreneurship going on in terms of people striving to supply restaurants and bars and supermarkets."

Let's just say life is good for a guy who works as Northeast Region "local forager" for Whole Foods Market – and who looks to make sure the first store in the chain to touch down in Western New York puts a new, and familiar, stamp on the supermarket landscape.

Manca, 39, started with the grocery chain as a baker while in college, and has worked in management in the metro New York regional headquarters the last decade.

He has spent the last six months visiting Western New York regularly, helping to stock the region's first Whole Foods store with dozens of products made in greater Buffalo.

Many of the local food and beverage makers will be on hand for product demos when the 50,000-square-foot store opens at 8 a.m. Sept. 15, at 3139 Sheridan Drive in Amherst. The store will hold a 5 percent Community Giving Day that day to benefit the Massachusetts Avenue Project, an urban farm on the West Side.

The Buffalo store will become the 40th in the Northeast region, regional spokesman Ted Kwong said. Whole Foods has 470 stores total in the U.S., Canada and Great Britain.

Q. What’s the job description of a local forager?

The Western New York food and beer scene wowed Chris Manca, Northeast region 'local forager' for Whole Foods Markets.

It's multifunctional. We're out in the world looking for new brands that are making products in the New York, New Jersey, Connecticut area, within the scope of where we have stores. … It's more than buying.

We find brands in all different stages of development. Some products are tailor made and ready to go, and we launch them.

At times, we find brands and we think the product is really interesting. The branding might be interesting but maybe the packaging needs a little bit of tweaking, or the flavor profiles need a little bit of tweaking.

We'll work with brands and coach them through our years of retail experience. We try to make sure when we launch a brand we've helped them get to the point where we're fairly certain it's going to be successful for us and for them.

Q. Does this mean that potentially, some of the products from Western New York might find their way into other Whole Foods markets?

It's pretty routine for us to launch brands in a handful of stores and expand them slowly as they're ready to expand. I think we would follow that same model.

Even if the brands are strictly Western New York-based, if the sales dictate and they turn out to be really great partners, it's entirely possible.

Q. You used to be the cheese, beer, coffee and tea, olive and chocolate buyer for the Northeast region? So is forager a promotion?

It's different. When you're the specialty buyer, you're buying for specialty. When you're the meat buyer, you're buying for meat. When you're a local forager, you're buying products across all categories.

For somebody who really likes food like I do, it seemed like a natural progression. Beer is one of the things I miss most about specialty buying but I still get to play in that world with the local brands.

Q. How have you helped stock the store?

We went up and explored the city and surrounding area and started meeting with people. As you get to meet people, you taste products and start to evaluate. The ones we thought were the best of the best, and which we thought clicked best with our store. Then we act as a liaison with other product-buying teams ... to get the orders placed and get the products on the shelf.

Q. Have you ever been in the Buffalo region before?

I had not been to the Buffalo area prior to this project, which made it really exciting. Part of my role was to get up there multiple times leading to the opening and explore the food scene as much as possible. I didn't know what to expect though we do have some brands and suppliers who work in that area. (They include Southern Tier Brewing Company in Lakewood and Bogavia Beauty skincare in Williamsville.)

Q. You’ll include about 30 new suppliers from Western New York. What will they provide?

Barrel + Brine fermented food products, including those displayed by owners RJ and Lindsey Marvin, will be among the regional mainstays at Whole Food Market Buffalo, in Amherst. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News file photo)

That number is just brands. They each have multiple products within their portfolio. The local team is not always looking for a specific product. We're out there looking for really interesting local products. A lot depends on what people are making in that area and what's really good.

In the Buffalo-Western New York area, there's a really thriving craft beer scene. Close to a dozen of the new brands coming on board in the new store are craft breweries that we'll feature in our packaged beer set and our taproom.

We found coffee, pickles, two brands of kombucha that we're really excited about, different types of sauces, chocolate, crackers. It's a mixed bag, but a lot of interesting stuff.

Q. Of the nutritional products, which ones really, really knocked your socks off?

Barrel + Brine is one of the ones we're really excited to be working with. They do a lot of different types of fermented products. There's a health aspect to what they do but they're also super delicious products, from pickles, to kimchi, sauerkraut. They make some of the best kombucha I've had in Western New York or otherwise.

Bootleg Bucha is another kombucha brand. They're really good. We hadn't bought from them previously. I had a chance to visit their facility. Kombucha is such a hot trend like now. I think having two hyper-locals is going to be great.

Another one I'm real excited about is Top Seedz snacks (in Clarence Center). They end up looking like crackers but they're made from different types of seeds. We're going to position them kind of like a cracker over by our cheese department but the reality is that they're a healthy alternative to a cracker.

Q. What do you want to tell me about the beer?

It seems like a food scene on the rise that is building out. The beer scene is already there. I suppose that's happening in a lot of places around the country but I was really impressed not only with how many breweries there are but with the quality of beer that they're producing and the products they're cranking out.

I'm really excited about Big Ditch. They've been a really great partner throughout this whole opening process. Community Beer Works is a great one, Resurgence, 12 Gates. I had a chance to meet a lot of these folks. It seeks like a close-knit scene.

Q. What features of the store have you helped develop?

Buffalo's Lockhouse Distillery spirits will be among regional brands featured at the new Whole Foods Market in Buffalo. (John Hickey/Buffalo News file photo)

My team has been pretty heavily involved in the development of the menus of the bar, Bar 1818. We worked closely with our culinary team to source as many local ingredients as possible both for the food and the beverages. All the burgers on our menu are going to come with a Barrel + Brine pickle. We worked with some local cheesemakers to feature their cheeses on the burgers and on the salads.

In the beer and spirits areas, in particular, the entire craft beer list for the opening will be Western New York-based breweries. We'll have 12 beers on tap at any given time. There's a really thriving distillery scene up there, too. We're doing a limited spirits menu but it will feature Lockhouse and Tommyrotter and some of the really great Buffalo-area distilleries.

At the bar: Lockhouse Distillery & Bar

Q. How will this job continue to impact the Amherst location going forward? 

The work doesn't stop when a store opens. In terms of finding new brands, we're always on the hunt. For the existing brands, the work doesn't stop. I always tell those companies getting on the shelf is step one. A lot of the work comes afterward.

We work with these brands to help them succeed long-term, helping them with their pricing, how to manage their social media, how to get in the store and do demos and make them really successful.

A sour twist on nutrition with fermented foods


Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon






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