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Business

Whole Foods a hit in the heartland

Strategy pays off for organic grocer

Sherry Hastings helped a customer at the Whole Foods Market in Boise, Idaho, whose success has surprised skeptics.

Bill Schaefer/New York Times

Sherry Hastings helped a customer at the Whole Foods Market in Boise, Idaho, whose success has surprised skeptics.

BOISE, Idaho — A local illustrator’s chalk portraits of workers hang inside the store, where the same artist’s murals decorate the wall behind the cheese case.

Meat and bakery cases feature exclusive foods made with the state fruit. Holding up a chain of sausages that include it, a worker joked: “We pick the huckleberries on our way in to work.”

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In another aisle, Mary Cogswell, the owner of the Wildflour Bakery a few miles away, visits daily to restock the table where her cookies are sold.

At this time of year, the first Whole Foods Market in Idaho, population roughly 1.6 million, sells products from some 60 local vendors, including turkeys from the A+ Ranch that are billed as organic and certified as raised under humane conditions.

Two years ago, when Whole Foods announced that it wanted to expand to 1,000 stores from a little more than 300 and open in places where it was assumed that consumers had never heard of kale and wouldn’t dream of spending $6 for a pound of humanely raised pork, some investors scoffed.

Its traditional grocery store competitors snickered at the strategy. And even those on Wall Street enamored with the chain’s success expressed doubts that its forays inland into smaller, less urban markets would succeed.

Like most grocery chains, Whole Foods does not release sales data on individual stores. But two years after disclosing its plans, it turns out that more shoppers do want, say, soda pop with no artificial coloring and flavoring and specialty meats, more than the experts had banked on.

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Cities like Boise, with its 212,000 residents, many of them college students and migrants from the cities where Whole Foods raised the bar on the grocery business, are embracing the company with an enthusiasm that has confounded the naysayers, propelled its stock price to heady highs, and surprised even its executives.

“I was so excited when I heard it was coming here I even bought the stock,” said Beth Brigham, who drives about a half-hour — a trek by Boise standards — to get to the store that opened here a year ago, combining the trip with her exercise schedule. “I really like organic, healthy stuff, and the selection in other stores here was much more limited.”

Anne Madsen had come hoping to find baby artichokes for a recipe she wanted to try. She was not disappointed.

“I do shop at regular groceries, but I like organic products and often am looking for things that are a bit unusual,” Madsen said.

The two shoppers exemplify the trends that Walter Robb, cochief executive of Whole Foods, said were driving the company’s success overall, and particularly in smaller markets where shoppers might once have rolled eyes at a store promoting the virtues of locally grown quince and fava beans.

Roughly one-third of the stores Whole Foods plans to open will be in cities like this one. This month, it opened one in Lincoln, Neb., population 260,000. (On Tuesday, it is opening its first store in Brooklyn, N.Y., population 2.6 million.)

One sign of the Boise store’s success: Trader Joe’s plans to open here next year.

“Farmers markets were nonexistent 10 years ago in most places, and no one was talking about local food,” Robb said. “There is a whole revolution going on around food now that isn’t limited to the coast. Consumers know more about food, where it comes from, what’s in it and the connection between diet and health.”

Boise is the most remote city of its size in the country, the closest metropolitan area being Salt Lake City roughly 340 miles southeast.

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