(Feb. 6) A natural foods retailer that boasts up to 800 fresh produce stock-keeping units per store plans to open 16 new stores by the end of 2009.

Boulder, Colo.-based Sunflower Farmers Markets, a lower-cost alternative to natural-foods giant Whole Foods Market Inc., Austin, Texas, plans to expand its footprint in Colorado as well as open stores in two new states, Utah and Texas, said Colein Whicher, marketing director.

“A month ago we received funding, and we’ve been signing locations like crazy ever since,” she said on Jan. 29.

If everything goes as planned, by mid-2009, the company will have doubled its lineup of 13 stores in Colorado, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico, Whicher said.

The expansion is being made possible by an infusion of $30 million in venture capital cash in late 2007, she said.

Sunflower plans to open new Colorado stores in Boulder, Littleton, Aurora, Arvada and Greeley this year.

The retailer will open its first Utah stores in Orem and Murray, also this year, Whicher said. The date and location of the Texas openings have not been determined.

The new stores will be between 26,000 and 28,000 square feet.

The chain’s most recent store, in Albuquerque, N.M., opened just before Christmas, Whicher said.

Whicher said Sunflower fills a niche in the marketplace that distinguishes it both from conventional retailers and from high-end natural foods stores like Whole Foods.

“We tend to attract the crossover shopper versus the hard-core natural-foods shopper,” she said. “We pull more from conventional-retail shoppers, folks who are looking to make lifestyle changes.”

At the center of the Sunflower experience, Whicher said, is fresh produce, which makes up at least a quarter of all sales.

Sunflower produce departments are often twice as big as those in conventional stores, she said. And instead of being on one side of the store, they’re in the center. Also, stores are designed with low walls, so the produce department is visible throughout the store.

Look at the front of a Sunflower sales flier, Whicher said, and most of what you see will be fresh fruits and vegetables.

“Produce is our main driver,” she said. “It’s what brings people in.”

The company cuts costs by sourcing well over half of its fruits and vegetables directly from growers, she said. Most commodities are sourced domestically, and from as close to the company’s Phoenix, Ariz., distribution center as possible, Whicher said.

About 20% of the company’s fresh produce sales are in organic, a category that is constantly growing, she said.

Sunflower was founded in 2002 by Mike Gilliland, founder and former chief executive officer of Boulder-based Wild Oats Market.