It’s Friday morning. You’ve just discovered that it’s your turn to host the book club party tonight. A quick jaunt to the pantry and fridge reveals little else other than your recent addiction to canned cheese, saltine crackers and root beer – hardly the gourmet catered spread your book club buddies are expecting. But with house-cleaning chores, a full-time job to hold down and all the time it will take to beautify yourself for the get- together, you’re panicked about how you’ll find the time to get to the store to pick up delicious nibbles that will dazzle your guests. Not to mention that you’ll have to track down all those serving platters buried in the back of the 15-foot-tall cupboard.
It’s a hopeless scenario. What ever is a girl to do?
Never fear, Sharon Gerhardt is here. The Southwest regional concierge supervisor for Whole Foods Market, Gerhardt and her team of personal shoppers are essentially culinary lifesavers.
The Whole Foods concierge program, designed and implemented by Gerhardt a little more than three years ago, has become wildly popular with individuals and corporate businesses alike. Gerhardt has grown the program from its beginnings at the Lamar Boulevard anchor store to nine Whole Foods Market stores across Texas and Louisiana. And it’s only becoming more sought after.
“Whatever your culinary needs are we can help. We can provide pre-marinated meats for a barbecue, or just some simple appetizers, sides and salads to compliment the meal you’re cooking. Or we can provide an entire meal,” Gerhardt suggests. “We’ll bring along the paper products you’ll need, and we can make suggestions for beer, wine and floral arrangements. We try to think for you and make the whole process carefree. And we can work last minute. Call today and get it today.”
Though other stores and organizations offer personal-shopping services, none have access to the amazing variety of fresh, pantry and organic foods available at Whole Foods. And through the concierge program there, Gerhardt says her teams work diligently to ensure they meet all their guests’ needs.
“When the guest contacts us, we ask a lot of questions to determine what their needs are. We ask if they have any food allergies and can shop accordingly,” she says. “We also have a great gluten-free pantry with a 12- page shopping list of gluten-free products, so if you need it, we probably have it in the store.”
One of the beauties of the Whole Foods Market concierge program is that each participating store is unique to its neighborhood. Gerhardt says the market in Plano somewhat mirrors the store in Baton Rouge, La., yet guests’ requests are completely different. For instance, a Louisiana native may order fresh Gulf shrimp for their jambalaya while a Plano shopper may opt for a naturally raised top sirloin steak for a grilling party.
“Each store is a living, breathing organism that reflects what the neighborhood wants,” Gerhardt contends. “That’s the beauty of not having a cookie-cutter program, and I think our guests really appreciate that.”
The Lamar Boulevard Whole Foods Market has the most extensive concierge program, with six dedicated employees staffing the concierge desk and providing services to about 60 guests a week. Other participating stores generally have two dedicated concierge employees and average about 30 guests a week. One of the benefits of having so many team members in the concierge program from different locations is that they are all researching and learning what works best every day, and are able to share that information – the intent being to further better the program.
Concierge customers range from busy families unable to get to the store for a weekly shop, to professional couples with gourmet culinary tastes but little time to peruse the market, to businesses choosing to provide their employees with healthier workday food options – a huge part of Whole Foods’ concierge business.
“In Austin, we work with a lot of gaming companies and law firms. We have one gaming company that we shop for every day,” Gerhardt says, adding that she and her staff go to great lengths to learn about employees’ tastes and preferences. “We provide them with just about anything that you can’t get out of a vending machine: fresh fruits, salads, fresh lunch meats, snacks and nuts, cherries and dark chocolates. Sometimes, once we’ve gotten to know their tastes, we add in another item we think they might enjoy, and that really wows them.”
Wowing guests is what Whole Foods Market’s concierge program is all about. After all, their slogan is “just ask.” The store will even have a courier service deliver directly to customers’ homes or businesses for a nom inal additional fee. Or, should you be out running errands and just want to drop by the store to pick up your order, the Whole Foods concierge service team will be ready and waiting in the grocery valet area, and will even load everything into your car.
The concierge team can work with just about any budget and they can also plan a weekly shopping list based on guests’ preferences.
“With the gay community, food and wine often bring us together, so, for those guests I know that love wine, I’ll ask them how many cases of their favorite wine they’d like once it goes on sale, and that makes them feel really like they’re being cared for,” Gerhardt conveys. “One of my favorite lines is ‘I’ve got a $20 bottle of wine that tastes like a $70 bottle.’ And people love that!”
For those shoppers who might not know what they need, Gerhardt’s team can draw from several pantry packages that include all the basics needed for creating an at-home meal. Some customers are opting to use the pantry-stocking packages as new home gifts, and many parents of university students send concierge care packages to ensure their kids have access to other food options besides cafeteria gruel and greasy fast food.
While food is the most popular request from guests, Gerhardt says more are choosing to include Whole Body brand products like organic cotton robes, natural cosmetics, and soaps and shower gels. The concierge team can even provide guests with a package that includes all green household products.
Though costs differ per store, in Austin, concierge fees run a scant $30 per hour for the service, and most shopping can be completed in about 30 minutes.
“It’s a pretty affordable way to make your life easier,” says Gerhardt, who knows a thing or two about serving the public. Having worked for years in marketing and promotions, she made the leap to the restaurant world when she realized how happy it made her to make others happy with food. Her position at Whole Foods has only strengthened that drive.
Since developing the concierge program there, Gerhardt has continued to work on improving it and travels regularly between the nine participating stores, troubleshooting problems, gathering information and working to better the concierge services. But it’s hardly a burden for her.
“I just absolutely love doing what I do,” Gerhardt beams. “I like helping people, and that’s exactly what we’re here for. I have the best job in the company.”