If there’s one retail store that is known for bringing the best in natural food options to consumers across the country, it’s Whole Foods Market. This month we are excited to connect with Jessica Pastore, Senior Pricing Analyst for Whole Foods with a particular passion and expertise in plant-based eating. In this conversation Jessica tells her own story of finding her way to a plant-based lifestyle and how the corporate environment at Whole Foods guided her towards a healthier path. She also shares her perspective on the evolving retail landscape and emerging trends in the plant-based sector.
We are thrilled to hear more from Jessica as a speaker at the Eat For The Future Business Forum at Plant Based World Conference & Expo this June!
What is the story behind your becoming a pricing analyst for Whole Foods Market?
Jess: I’ve always had an interest in food and a natural curiosity for what people eat, but retail grocery is not what I originally pursued, professionally. I studied mechanical engineering and finance, and worked in aerospace manufacturing and Big Oil before transitioning to Whole Foods. Part of the attraction came from the mission and corporate culture, particularly the focus on all-encompassing health and wellness, and the core value of ‘team member excellence and happiness’. Outside of my day-job, I started moonlighting in the local Whole Foods on evenings and weekends with the intention of someday transitioning to corporate headquarters in Austin, Texas. In January, 2017 I was brought on full-time as a Senior Analyst in Competitive Intelligence and just recently transitioned to the Pricing Analytics team.
How has the plant-based movement and lifestyle impacted you on a personal level?
When I started working at Whole Foods I was still eating eggs, dairy and some meats in moderation. One of our best benefits is an employee discount that can increase with favorable results on standard health screenings (blood pressure, BMI, etc.) My decade-long struggle with high-cholesterol prevented me from maxing out my employee discount. I consulted a Whole Foods health coach who encouraged me to try a plant-based diet for a short period of time “just to see” what happened. When I re-tested my cholesterol 8 weeks later, it had dropped 100 points! This measurable health improvement motivated me to share my results and nutrition changes with my family. A few months later, my dad and I attended the Engine 2 Total Health Immersion program to learn more about the science behind this way of eating. This intensive program provided general education and long-term strategies for following a plant-based diet. I’m proud to report that my dad’s health changes are even more significant than my own. His cholesterol dropped 75 points during the week of the immersion. Since then he has lost 50 pounds, is off all blood pressure medications (with an average un-medicated blood pressure of 102/65) and is no longer experiencing the chronic shoulder pain he had dealt with for years. My grandmother has also taken notice of the health changes in our family and is considering doing a health immersion later this year.
How do you see the plant-based category impacting the retail market and what are the hottest trends you are looking out for?
The market as a whole is experiencing rapid growth in alternative product categories, as competitors expand their assortment to include more plant-based offerings. It’s clear that the competitive retail landscape has keyed in on heightened consumer interest in plant-based foods. Now you can find items like Califia coconut creamer and Beyond Meat burgers at traditional retailers like Kroger, Publix and even WalMart. It’s interesting and encouraging to watch these conventional grocers and mass retailers continue to add more alternative products to their shelves.
From a retail perspective, we are all benefiting from the consumer attention driving research and innovation in the plant-based space. Brands like Kite Hill, Field Roast and (Austin-born) Nadamoo are really making strides in product development – offering products that prioritize quality and taste. These products are appealing to anyone looking for unique, delicious food (not just the vegetarian and vegan demographics).
While we have seen the wave of innovation – and significant advancement – in taste and texture of plant-based products, what appears to be gaining new momentum is plant-based products made with cleaner ingredients. Our customers are inquisitive, informed and aware. We know they are paying careful attention to product labels and ingredient lists.
We are also seeing innovation in production. Plant-based food manufacturers designing modular equipment that uses less energy and is easily integrated into existing production facilities. We are excited about these advancements, in particular, because they enable our suppliers to create alternative products that not only taste great, but are also more affordable.
From my perspective as an analyst and highly-engaged customer, I anticipate continued growth in alternative meats (particularly in the development of alternative seafood products) and plant-based cheeses (specifically cleaner shreds and slices). Alternative milk is another category that keeps surprising us all. Take oat milk as an example: just when we thought the alternative milk category was at-capacity, a product like Oatly comes along… We can’t keep it on our shelves!
With convenience increasingly influencing decisions at meal-time, prepared foods is another category to watch. From young families to single seniors, customers are looking for fast, healthy food. We closely follow consumer trends in this area of the store. With demand for convenient, plant-based options showing continuous growth, creative innovation in the prepared foods area is likely to continue.
What advice can you offer to fellow food industry professionals who are seeking to better understand the emergence of the plant-based marketplace?
The advice I have for fellow professional-foodies is to look at this market as more than just an industry trend – it’s a lasting shift in consumer choice. And the thing that has surprised me most? It’s supported by a network that is so wonderfully accessible! The people who are building these brands, the health professionals and nutrition advocates who are pioneering research and promoting this outlook on nutrition – they are driven, responsive and welcoming. It’s easy to reach out, easy to connect, easy to share information and ideas. This is an intimate community that has more to offer than just business opportunities. A few short conversations can lead to real relationships, collaboration opportunities, and growth on both a professional and personal level.
Big thanks to Jessica Pastore and her team at Whole Foods for the work they do to make new, delicious and healthy food options available to consumers across the country. We look forward to seeing what products hit the shelves next. Be sure to register for the Eat For The Future Business Forum at Plant Based World Conference & Expo to hear Jessica speak live this June!