Claire Sullivan tells how it works.

How the Texas-based grocery chain gets local

Q&A / Sitting on a bench outside Kahala Whole Foods, I blurt out a confession to Claire Sullivan: “I usually only eat food like Oreo Cakesters.” Sullivan, the coordinator of purchasing and public affairs for Hawaii’s Whole Foods stores, lets out an easygoing laugh.

A graduate of Punahou, the London School of Economics and with a master’s degree in nature, society and environmental policy from Oxford University, she has played an instrumental role in connecting with the 250 local vendors whose products can be found in the Kahala and Kahului Whole Foods. A third store is slated to open in Spring 2012 in Kailua.

It smells really amazing.

We’re roasting coffee right now.

What kind?

We roast only Hawaii coffee, because all of the other beans that come in need to be fumigated, and they [use] Methylbromide, an ozone depleter.

Has there been community input, things people want to see in the stores?

The Okinawan sweet potato mash [at the Kahala store] is an example–and that’s something that no other Whole Foods would have in the country. At the Maui store, they actually make their own coconut milk for the raw program, so it’s entirely local. The more Asian influence to the menu is something that really reflects Hawaii and what people here like to eat.

Can you tell us how it was decided to bring Whole Foods to Kailua?

I actually don’t know who initiated the conversation–whether it was the [Kaneohe] Ranch, or Whole Foods Market. But in looking for sites, there are obviously demographic indicators that suggest whether this would be a good home for Whole Foods, and the number one indicator is the concentration of educated people in any one place. –more than income–and Kailua does have a really high density of well-educated folks. And also, lifestyle-wise, Kailua really fits–people are healthy and sporty, and are aware of nutrition and why it’s important.

Are there going to be any kind of educational events?

Yeah, there are really basic things like a value tour of the store, which is how to shop at Whole Foods on a budget. I think there’s this perception that it’s accessible only to those with a discretionary income, which is not the case.

So there is a way…

Yes, you don’t have to go for the fancy stuff. We’ve also done tours for elementary school kids who are learning how to read nutrition labels for the first time. Coming up, there’s a demo by Shawn Steiman who wrote The Hawaii Coffee Book .

What is the process for hiring?

Similar to what we did in Kahala, [in Kailua] we’ll have an invitation-only job fair. All applications are submitted online; whenever there’s a position available, the store will post it there. So that’s where folks need to go to see what’s available. They submit an application and [if they’re selected for] the job fair, they’ll get a call back, and then several layers of interviewing until we make a final decision.

Target experienced a strong backlash from Kailua residents… Has Whole Foods received any kind of opposition?

It was really interesting, we’ve been so gratified that it’s been a nearly universal positive response for Whole Foods opening in Kailua. One [reason], I think, is that it really resonates with the community and focuses on healthy eating and a good selection of product that resonates with what folks want. Also, I think they’ve seen from the Kahala store that the Whole Foods Market develops really good community partnerships, and there’s an opportunity for that to happen on the Windward side too. There are already relationships established with Windward groups: the people of Samuel M. Kamakau Charter School and ‘AINA in schools, which is the Kokua Hawaii Foundation’s project that focuses on actively integrating nutrition and agriculture in schools.

I didn’t realize it was already so rooted in the community.

A lot of the Five Percent Days, community support days in which five percent of the proceeds are donated to a non-profit organization, have [helped Whole Foods] go beyond [just Kahala]. This past Wednesday was Hawaii Public Radio, so that’s one that’s actually statewide.

I think one of the really exciting things about opening up a new store is that it gives us an opportunity to have a bigger positive impact on local supplies. Though we haven’t reached saturation for local produce as a whole, there are some categories where we’ve had to turn people down and say we have enough tomatoes or we have enough leaf greens. To be able to sort of start absorbing more and offering more to customers is really exciting.

It sounds like you were deeply immersed in that from the beginning…

Yeah, that was my motivation for joining Whole Foods Market. First and foremost to have the company values resonate with my own personal values. Secondly, I really felt there was a chance to support agricultural production in Hawaii, which I think is still going through a relatively challenging transition from a monocultural plantation-based system to a truly diversified production system–it seemed like a great way to be supportive of that transition.