While the the introduction of Whole Foods might seem perilous to small food and beverage entrepreneurs, the upscale grocer's plans to open a store in Harlem didn't worry Evans-Hendricks when she first heard in 2012. In fact, she saw it as an exciting opportunity.
"The reality is you can't stop big box store development," she says. So the question became, "If it is coming, how do I ensure that Harlem small business and Harlem small entrepreneurs benefit from it?"
She called up Whole Foods' corporate office and proposed the company get involved in the area through Harlem Park to Park's Harlem Harvest Festival, an outdoor event coordinated by the non-profit where local businesses gather to sell food and products.
"They were really open to that idea," she says. Whole Foods began to partner with Harlem Park to Park on the fair six years ago, and has continued each year since, according to a representative from the grocer.
Through that partnership, Evans-Hendricks and her Whole Foods colleagues took notice of increasing numbers of small vendors turning up to sell handcrafted foods and beverages, opting to sell online or from their homes instead of renting space.
That spurred an idea: What if Whole Foods sold some of these local products in their store when it opened? To help the small operations scale to the standards of big retail, resources were pooled with other community organizations like Harlem Community Development Corporation and Hot Bread Kitchen Incubates and the Local Vendor Program was created in 2015.
Entrepreneurs in the program's initial cohort, like Miguel Martinez, creator of That's Smoooth shaving products, and Annabelle Santos, creator of Spadét lotions and soaps, now have their products on shelves at Whole Foods — an opportunity that may have been impossible for these upstarts before, Evans-Hendricks says.
Higginsen applied to the program in the spring of 2016, and by September she was one over of 20 local business enrolled and later selected by Whole Foods to be carried in the store. During the six-month program, Higginsen was guided by Whole Foods' team on design and production, and she met with staff at Columbia Business School to learn about how to run her business. The expertise was invaluable, she says.
"Understanding how the numbers work, and what to include in costing out your product, and what kind of return you can expect to have on your product — those aspects were really enlightening and illuminating, and also inspiring," she says. "It was really an eye opening experience and I am so grateful to have had it, because it put us on solid footing."
The local vendor program doesn't provide funding for the small businesses, so Higginsen and her two partners invested a total of $20,000.
"That doesn't include the sweat labor," she laughs. "We all had a little savings. We invested in our idea, we invested in ourselves."
Higginsen found a co-packer to manufacture her sauce in bottles in upstate New York, and on July 21, when Whole Foods' Harlem store opened, her product — which sells for $6.99 — was ready for purchase.