Erewhon is a high-end, high-ethics natural foods grocer with five Los Angeles County locations, and two more stores in development. Vice President Jason Widener and Produce Director Edward Palomo joined OPN for a chat about Erewhon’s sourcing standards for organic produce, how the store stays competitive in LA’s crowded marketplace, and more.
Erewhon Organic Produce Display
How did you get started working in the produce industry?
Edward Palomo: I started as a regular grocery clerk at my local Albertson’s, and during that summer, the produce department just happened to need extra help, and they gave me the opportunity to work in the produce department. After about three years at Albertson’s, I went to Whole Foods for a few years, and that’s where I learned more about organic, local produce.
How long have you worked at Erewhon? What drew you to work there?
Edward: I’ve been employed at Erewhon just under eight years now. At the time that I applied for a position, Erewhon was just a little store in the middle of LA, and what drew me there was the opportunity to be part of something special. After meeting the owners, Tony and Josephine Antoci, and learning a little bit about their background and their previous business ventures, I simply fell in love with the vision they had for Erewhon.
Jason Widener: I started with Erewhon almost 10 years ago. My first position at Erewhon was working at the tonic bar as pretty much a tonic bar barback. I was wanting to learn about herbs, Taoist tonic herbalism, and superfoods, and that’s where it all started for me. Then I created, with a team of great people, the cold-pressed juice department. Edward helped me out with the produce end. He and I were very involved in sourcing produce together, working with all our different vendors and all our different farms. For us at Erewhon, we always want to be as close to the earth as possible, and produce is the most beautiful place to be as far as being close to the earth.
Jason Widener, Vice President, Erewhon
What are Erewhon’s sourcing standards for its organic produce? And what percentage of your produce is certified organic?
Edward: Number one for us is always quality. We’re always on a never-ending search for the absolute best, the most unique, most beautiful produce we can find. We make sure that every grower we bring on is certified organic, and we make sure their certificates are up to date, and they’re actually valid.
We always like to start our sourcing with our local growers. The California and the Southern California area is primarily what we focus on. We have a list of growers, call it 20 different growers, that we’re currently dealing with directly—all located here in California. I think like 70 percent of our produce is coming from a local grower right now. And then from there, for items that are not available, we open up our portal a little bit, and we’ll deal with imports. So for example, if tomatoes are not available in California at the time, we’ll bring in some product from Mexico.
What wholesalers/distributers do you work with?
Edward: Charlie’s Produce, Heath & Lejeune, and Albert’s Organics are our primary distributors here in LA. We partnered up with Heath & Lejeune, where we lease a cooler inside their warehouse, so we are actually bringing in product on our own with all of our local growers delivering directly to the warehouse there. They receive product daily, and every Erewhon store is getting product delivered the very next morning on a truck. So we’re doing a lot of distribution by ourselves—about 70 percent.
Can you tell us about some of the growers you work with directly?
Edward: Apricot Lane Farms is one of our local growers that has the absolute best Hass avocados you’ll ever have, so that’s one of our favorite growers. There’s Harry’s Berries, the iconic strawberry grower in Oxnard, California. We get three deliveries per week from them, and we always sell out.
A couple of other growers that we work with are Coke Farm in San Juan Bautista; Creekside Organics—they have a lot of vegetables that we buy; Cuyama Orchards—the best California apples; Forbidden Fruit Orchards in Santa Barbara County—they have the absolute finest quality blueberries. Blueberries are our number-one-selling item in our produce department, so it’s very important for us to carry the best blueberries—and Forbidden Fruit Orchards never disappoints!
Another grower we work with all year long is John Givens, a very well-known farmers market grower out of Santa Barbara County. Rainbow Ranch in Ojai has the absolute best pixie tangerines. Sunrise Organic Farm is another well-known farmers market grower that we deal with all year long, and they have an assortment of products that they grow on a seasonal basis.
The list goes on, and it’s never-ending because our vendor portal is always open—we’re always looking for new growers!
Sustainable packaging display at Erewhon
How do you stay competitive in LA where there are tons of retailers with organic produce, especially considering that you don’t have the cheapest prices?
Jason: Easy! It’s the experience that you get when you come into Erewhon—the smiles on the faces, the vibe when you walk in, the standards that are set, the consistency. When you feel that love every time you walk in, and you see that the avocados and the lemons are stacked perfectly, you’re inspired by it! Edward’s team looks at their produce department as art. They don’t want to drop the ball at the last minute after all this work’s gone into sourcing all this beautiful food that’s rich and nutrient dense.
Tell us about some of your cold-pressed juices and prepared foods that incorporate organic produce. What are some customer favorites in those categories?
Jason: So for our cold-pressed juices, I think we have over 70 different shots and different drinks. We have some drinks that are made with the pulp, and it’s all crushed up inside—like celery, kale, and spinach. We have one drink that’s called the turmeric crush that contains the whole plant—it’s a smoothie. Our most popular cold-pressed juices are always going to be our green juices.
As far as prepared foods, we have tons of salads. We have pre-packed salads that we make for grab-and-go use. And then we have our whole cold case, which is filled with all kinds of seasonal salads—they’re amazing! Our garbanzo dandelion quinoa salad is incredible—it’s one of our top-selling ones. There’s also our roasted beet salad—people love that. And then, of course, our hot food has vegetables as well. Everyone loves our hot cauliflower and broccoli dishes.
Edward: Yeah, actually right now one of our hot-bar side dishes is Broccoli Di Ciccio. It’s from our grower Coke Farm. It’s an old variety of broccoli, similar to a broccolini, but it’s much sweeter. That’s a much-desired item currently.
Erewhon cold-pressed juices
Jason, in a recent article about Erewhon’s increased sales during the COVID-19 situation, you mentioned the role of produce in supporting immunity. Can you talk a bit about that?
The whole Erewhon ethos is about empowering your body and eating foods that will help you heal and keep your body in a state of homeostasis. Stress and inflammation is the root of a lot of health issues, so we try to create an environment where you have access to foods that are enzyme rich, vitamin rich, and nutrient dense—a lot of awesome plants! Your body’s going to get most of what it needs through vegetables and fruits. Eating a very heavy plant-based diet is especially important at this time right now.
Do you have any favorite produce items?
Edward: I gotta say the Apricot Lane biodynamic Hass avocado.
Jason: It’s seriously like crack butter. It’s amazing—it’s so rich! There’s just such a difference when you eat an awesome regeneratively farmed avocado. But all of our produce is amazing–Harry’s Berries strawberries, our apples (Edward finds the most amazing apples!), our blueberries. There are so many awesome produce items. It’s hard to pick one. It’s like picking a favorite child.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
Edward: We never have one day that’s ever the same, and the best part is we get to bring health to the people!
Jason: My favorite part of my job is when I walk into a store and people are smiling, and they’re high-fiving me, and you can just feel it—you feel that there’s gratitude for where we’re at and what we’re doing in the community and in-house. That’s a great feeling. You go home every day feeling fulfilled. This is a fulfilling job—and it’s not even a job! Edward and I don’t look at this like a job. This is what we do. This is our life.