Whole Foods Market, Inc., said quarterly profit more than doubled and raised its 2010 sales forecast, reflecting an improving economy that’s bolstering organic and specialty grocers.

Comparable-store sales are expected to increase 6% to 7% during fiscal 2010, compared with a previous forecast for 3.5% to 5.5% growth, Austin, Tex.-based Whole Foods said in a May 12 statement. Whole Foods shares today rose to a 2 ½-year high.

Whole Foods has shaken off the recession and will accelerate store openings in coming years, chief executive officer John Mackey said. By 2013, the company plans to add another 47 stores to the 295 it already operates in the U.S., Canada and UK.

“We have successfully emerged from this recession with a healthier balance sheet,” Mackey said in the May 12 statement. “Our new stores are performing very well, and we look forward to rebuilding our store development pipeline.”

For meat, dairy, fruit and vegetable producers, specialty grocers such as Whole Foods are a relatively small but rapidly expanding market in an otherwise difficult retail environment.

Large, traditional grocery chains, such as Kroger Co. and Safeway Inc. are struggling to emerge from recession and are locked in price-cutting battles for market share with Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. Little, if any, sales growth is expected for major food retailers this year.

Whole Foods, which sells grass-fed beef and other so-called natural foods, is attracting more higher-income customers, who appear to be spending more as the economy recovers, analysts say.

“Whole Foods sales momentum is due to a substantially improved value image, coupled with a relatively more upbeat demographic,” BB&T Capital Markets analyst Andrew Wolf said in a May 13 report.

“According to independent polling, upscale shoppers are more confident and likely to spend than average consumers,” Wolf said. “This has led to a return of customers.”

Whole Foods posted net income of $67.5 million, or 39 cents a share, for the 12 weeks ended April 11, the company’s fiscal 2010 second quarter. That compared to earnings of $27.3 million, or 19 cents, during the same period in 2009. Sales rose 13 percent, to $2.11 billion.

Per-share results topped analysts’ expectations by about 6 cents, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S, sending Whole Foods shares higher.

In early afternoon trading May 13, Whole Foods shares rose $2.44, or 6.1%, to $42.69, after reaching $43.18, the highest price since November 2007. The stock is up 56% this year.

Comparable store sales rose 8.7% during the second quarter, up from 3.5% growth in the first quarter and the second consecutive quarterly gain, Whole Foods said. So far this quarter, sales are up 9.5%.

During 2009, Whole Foods’ quarterly comparable store sales declined by an average of 3.1%.

Whole Foods also said it promoted Walter Robb to co-CEO. Robb previously was co-chief operating officer along with A.C. Gallo. Gallo is now the sole COO.

Earlier this month, Whole Foods said grass-fed beef is now available at all 284 U.S. stores.

Source: Bruce Blythe, Business Editor, Vance Publishing