The first location of Shannon Allen's organic fast-casual concept Grown hadn't been open for more than three months before members from Walmart's development team came in asking for her. They wanted to know more about the Miami-based restaurant's mission and how Allen and her husband, two-time NBA champion Ray Allen, were able to produce certified organic meals in under five minutes. They were apparently impressed with the popularity of the restaurant, which had lines stretching out the door.
"Then they said this magic sentence: 'Can you do this in a Walmart?'" Allen says. "And for me it was really overwhelming."
Allen wasn't sure if she wanted to expand so quickly, or with such a powerhouse like Walmart. But after some time she decided that a Walmart location could be a way to get her organic food in front of everyday people. The concept, now with six locations, opened in a Walmart Supercenter in Orlando this August, and could be just the first in a series of changes Walmart will implement to boost its status in a rapidly changing industry.
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With digital behemoth Amazon plowing through every food retail space it can, from restaurant delivery to grocery stores, many retailers are scrambling to keep up or reinvent themselves. Walmart, for instance, acquired online market and grocer Jet in early August amid rumors of Amazon's impending purchase of Whole Foods. In its partnership with Grown, Walmart is trying to push the notion that it is the largest seller of organic food in the country, despite Amazon's Whole Foods takeover.
In a statement sent to Eater, a Walmart spokesperson said the retailer, which caters to consumers seeking an affordable price point, is aiming to make organic food more accessible and affordableto its shoppers. That happens to be what Allen set out to accomplish with Grown, she said — expose people (not just Whole Foods shoppers) to prepared organic meals, even if said meals are more expensive than traditional fast food. At Grown, cold pressed juices go for $9. There is also a $6 avocado toast, while sandwiches, salads, and wraps go for $11 without protein (an additional $4 to $7). Allen points out that the children's menu is sold at much lower prices ($5 to $7 per kid's meal) and that she hopes to make options more affordable with the addition of half portions.
On Walmart's end, it doesn't hurt that Allen and her husband are notable figures, says grocery marketing expert Phil Lempert. Shannon recently hosted a cooking show, The Pre-Game Meal, dedicated to healthy food cooked by celebrities and athletes. And her husband Ray, a basketball Olympic gold medalist, is known for having one of the best free-throw shots in the NBA.
"What it does is it really broadens the scope of organics," Lempert says. "It's not Gwyneth Paltrow, it's not some fussy celebrity who eats nuts and berries, who people can't relate to. People can relate to Ray and Shannon."
This would be a contrast to Whole Foods, infamously dubbed "Whole Paycheck" by critics and consumers who balk at its prices, which for years have been higher than other mainstream grocers. Amazon lowered Whole Foods' prices earlier this week and also made a promise to "make healthy and organic food affordable to everyone."
But If Whole Foods is attempting to steal Walmart's shoppers, it will be a struggle for them, Lempert says. "I don't think [Amazon and Whole Foods] want the Walmart shopper; and they shouldn't," Lempert says. "The space is big enough where to go and fight Walmart on food, neck and neck, is going to be tough, because that Walmart shopper is really focused on price."
In many other ways, the Amazon/Whole Food acquisition will change the supermarket and retail game forever. Meanwhile, stocks for traditional grocers are dropping as Amazon spikes with each new Whole Foods merger update.
This is where restaurants can possibly save the day for retailers like Walmart. Adding restaurants to retail and grocery businesses expands or promotes the larger brand, Lempert says. "What they really want is to be all food, all the time to all people," Lempert says. In Walmart's case, organic food service drives home their pitch that they are one of the largest sellers of organics, and are affordable on top of that. "So what this does is really gives them a badge," Lempert says.
Retailers have been introducing fast-casual restaurant concepts into their stores for some time now. In 2015, Target launched a push toward healthier, higher-quality eateries beyond the typical Pizza Hut or Subway counters commonly found there. Many Macy's locations have hosted food courts and full-service restaurants for years, while the owners of clothing brand Urban Outfitters purchased Pizzeria Vetri and its sister restaurants in early 2016, stationing some locations in or near the apparel stores.
Walmart has been late to the game, but is set to make up for it. In February, a Chobani's Cafe opened in a Walmart in Tomball, Texas near Houston. And depending on how well Grown does in Orlando, Walmart shoppers could see more higher-end, health-focused concepts in their stores. They won't necessarily be Grown locations, though — Walmart is testing Grown in Orlando, but no other deals have been confirmed.
"If this works, I wouldn't be surprised to see this roll out very, very quickly nationwide," Lempert says.
If not in Walmart stores, future Grown locations might be in large venues with captive audiences, Allen says. Two of them are already housed in the Miami Dolphin's Hard Rock stadium, and there is one in a university bookstore.
"I really believe captive audience spaces are the places where we should live," Allen says. "And if Walmart says there's more opportunity for us to make organic and prepared meals available to more people in this country, and it makes sense for us, and we have a team in place to do that, then our answer would be a resounding 'yes.'"
Customers probably won't have to wait long before a Walmart Grown or similar fast-casual location comes to a store near them. As grocery stores evolve, the grocerant and retailerant concept will become more prevalent. Whole Foods is already dominating the field, and with Amazon's purchase could up the ante. In this new age of retail, people who once felt detached from organic or fast-casual fare will have better access to it, Lempert says. And thanks to its reach, Walmart could be a major player in that shift.
"What's great about this," Lempert says, "is unlike putting [Grown] in Whole Foods or somewhere else, this is great food for the masses."