Last October was an unnatural month for Jimbo?s?Naturally!, a three-store natural foods chain in the San Diego area. Wildfires devastated the region, and a grocery store strike brought picket lines to supermarkets throughout Southern California.
Jimbo?s employees were put to the test, not just with the smoke and uncertainty in the air, but with an immediate increase in business as consumers searched for alternatives to crossing picket lines at their usual grocery stores. During the first few weeks, sales jumped 50 percent, and now, months later, sales are still holding at a 20 percent increase.
There was other news that month, besides disaster and labor disputes. The third and largest of the Jimbo?s?Naturally! stores opened in Carlsbad, which in its first month did 85 percent of the business of the ?bread-and-butter? store in San Diego. Even before doors opened on its first day, customers were waiting in line.
Owner Jim ?Jimbo? Someck says his business wouldn?t be as healthy as it is today—consistent double-digit growth despite the opening nearby of several national natural foods chain stores in the past decade—without the support of a strong staff. In gratitude for the extra effort of last fall, he announced at the company?s holiday party that each employee would receive a double bonus. ?It?s the people on the floor who carry on the philosophy we have in place,? he says.
Someck was first drawn to natural foods for personal reasons. ?In college, I didn?t like the way I was feeling and started slowly changing the way I ate. I became a vegetarian and then a vegan,? he says.
Someck got into the natural foods business in 1973, after migrating from his hometown of Great Neck, N.Y., to San Diego. He worked in an alternative school, where one of the kids called him ?Jimbo Bimbo,? and also put in hours at the Ocean Beach People?s Co-op. In 1984, Someck opened his first Jimbo?s, giving his nickname to the store to clue in those he?d known since the co-op days.
He learned the business hands-on. ?In the early days, I did every conceivable thing—opening and closing, buying, stocking shelves, hiring and firing.? By 1992, he had opened his second store and developed the philosophy that still serves him. ?I?ve learned that I don?t know all the answers. It?s important to hire people who are better at things than you are, who can look at the business in a different way and come up with creative ways to do things.? By 1997, Someck realized that although his first retail store still had strong sales, it was too small and had nowhere to grow, so he closed it and opened in Escondido.
Still a vegan, Someck says it?s ironic that meat is the stores? fastest growing department. He recently doubled the size of the San Diego store?s prepackaged meat section to meet demand. He attributes this growth to, among other things, concern over mad cow disease. But years before the cattle illness hit the news, Someck saw the need to stock the highest-quality meat available.
A father of four children ranging in age from 18 months to 15 years, Someck observed how with each pregnancy his wife would crave meat, but at first had to go somewhere other than the family store to obtain it. ?I said to myself, ?That?s crazy,? and made the decision to stock the highest-quality meat, poultry and seafood.?
The meats sold at Jimbo?s are grass- or grain-fed, and his meat-loving customers, including recent converts to his store, consistently comment on natural meat?s superior flavor.
A cornerstone of his business is an emphasis on the customer. Jimbo?s employees make a point of knowing customers by name or face and greet them when they walk in the door. Perks are offered to ensure a pleasant shopping experience, like an ?oops? coupon for $5 off purchases if a special order fails to arrive on time or even if a shopper is having a bad day.
Education is also part of Jimbo?s retail philosophy. His stores offer monthly workshops and seminars on supplements, cooking techniques and the benefits of organic food. He also keeps his staff up to date with training and product orientation so they can better serve the consumer.
Learning by tasting is also encouraged. Each store offers plenty of samples, in addition to regular food demonstrations and tastings.
Jimbo?s is a big presence in the community as well. ?I am a firm believer that if we are supported by those in the community, we should give back,? Someck says. Among the givebacks include an ?It?s in the Bag? program in which anyone bringing in a recycled bag is given a wooden nickel, which can be dropped in a box to benefit one of three local charities—recipients are rotated regularly. ?We donate that way to 60 organizations a year,? he says.
The business also does much to support local schools, providing teachers with a holiday luncheon and throwing a ?full-on? Earth Day event that has raised, over the years, as much as $60,000 for the San Diego schools? music program.
But for Someck, it all comes back to his employees, his greatest asset. ?I?ve got a core group of people who?ve been with me at least five years, some as long as 20,? says Someck. In addition to competitive salaries, store discounts, high-standard health benefits, 401(k)s with a 25 percent company match and the holiday bonus, employees get birthday bonuses and, if they meet criteria, finances to further education. Another reward is the ?habanero? program that awards outstanding employees for ?hot? customer service.
And Someck loves how he spends his days. ?I?m proud of the quality of our products,? he says. ?I feel fortunate to be in a business that reflects my lifestyle. It?s been an incredible ride,? turning what was first a passion into a company that continues to thrive.
Barbara Hey is a Boulder, Colo.-based free-lance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 3/p. 170