Bonny Shuptrine, Rachelle Haddock and Alan Shuptrine rolled into their pitch at a Hixson Bi-Lo on Wednesday wearing matching red "Team Twisted" aprons and pushing a cart full of gourmet relish and sauces.
They quickly set about passing out samples - spicy relish on a cracker, meatballs soaked in marinade - in hopes that the panel of Bi-Lo associates would be convinced to put Shuptrine's Twisted Products on the shelves in Bi-Lo's 30 regional stores.
"We love this kind of stuff," owner Bonny Shuptrine told the panel of six. "We're thinking about going on Shark Tank."
"Well, this will be good practice," someone on the panel shot back.
Bonny Shuptrine is one of 25 entrepreneurs who are meeting with Bi-Lo executives this week as part of Bi-Lo's new local buying initiative. The grocery chain wants to put local products on its shelves, and is vetting would-be vendors through 20-minute pitches. Dubbed "Bi-Local," the program started in January in Charleston, S.C., Bi-Lo local business manager Nicole Hatfield said.
"We did something very similar in Charleston market for local products when we bought about 23 Piggly Wiggly stores," she said. "We knew Piggly Wiggly offered a lot of local products and we wanted to make sure we maintained the offerings they had, and we wanted to establish Bi-Lo as supporter of all local products."
Pitched products ranged from air filters to dish scrubbers to reusable snack bags on Wednesday. Christina Knox is the woman behind the latter. She started her company, The Green Life, to create an alternative to disposable plastic sandwich bags. The result was a reusable, dishwasher-safe and machine-washable canvas bag with a food-safe lining inside.
Knox currently sells in Knoxville stores and at the Chattanooga Market, but said a deal with Chattanooga's Bi-Los would bump her business to the next level.
"It would really be what we've been looking for," she said. "This is what I've been working toward. I'm a single mom, so this would be pretty life changing for me and my kids. The ultimate goal is to get into big retail stores and help people become more ecofriendly."
Of course, working with small startups is challenge for Bi-Lo on several levels, Hatfield said. The most critical problem is distribution - many of the entrepreneurs who pitched do not have established distribution networks.
"We're trying to partner with a local distributor that will deliver a number of these products," Hatfield said. "So we only have to deal with one distributor instead of 30."
Bi-Lo also offers extra guidance and counseling to local vendors selected for the program, Hatfield added, and usually gives products between six months and a year on the shelves to gauge success. How much space is given to local products varies by store and by market, but some stores have as much as 25 feet set aside for local goods.
"It's a win-win for everyone," Hatfield said. "The money is staying in the community."
After the team for Shuptrine's Twisted Products wrapped up their pitch, Alan Shuptrine reflected on the opportunity.
"We're all about local and sharing with our community, so getting into 29 local stores would really anchor our mantra," he said. "And as we take this company national, I think it'd be really cool to say, 'And it all started in Chattanooga.'"
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