Natural Foods Merchandiser

Down by the Shore, There's a Health Food Store

When Jeff Stallop took over Monmouth Health Foods in Manasquan, N.J., a year and a half ago, he immediately made dramatic changes. "I more than doubled the shelf space, quadrupled the inventory and brought in better-quality products," he says. Of the shelves, he says, "everything is neat but packed tight, six to 12 [products] deep."

Stallop believes in abundance, stocking as many as 175 different vendors and almost the full product line of manufacturers he believes in. In addition, he has a private label, "Nature's Best Products of New Jersey," a line of approximately 250 of what he calls pharmaceutical-grade supplements, an exclusive competitors can't sell.

Although numerous small health food stores dot the Jersey Shore region, Stallop doesn't consider them competition. In a style reminiscent of Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street, Stallop will, on occasion, refer customers to other venues. "I keep phone numbers by the register. If a customer wants something that I don't have and can't get quickly, I send her to another store," he says.

His real competition, Stallop says, would be a massive chain store, but as of yet, none have ventured into the area 60 miles south of New York City. Business is flourishing, thanks to a loyal client base built during the store's 32 years in business and onto which Stallop is adding. Since he took over in 2001, store sales have grown tremendously. Stallop won't reveal revenues, saying only, "It's high."

Monmouth Health Foods, with five aisles in the back of the store and three in front, stocks a wide array of supplements as well as packed, frozen and refrigerated foods. "The only thing we don't have is organic produce, and that's because we don't have any room," Stallop says.

On any given day, visitors notice one chilling distinction about the store: It's cold. Stallop, who wears a sweatshirt to work, keeps the temperature between 67 and 69 degrees for good reason: "It helps maintain the shelf life of the nutraceuticals and the foods, since I am dealing with natural stuff that has little or no preservatives," he says.

Stallop, 36, is a former bodybuilder, retired since 1988, who at 5 feet 7 inches and 220 pounds—3 percent body fat, he says—competed for the Mr. Universe and Mr. America titles and won the five-state title. Clients, about 10 percent of whom are recreational bodybuilders, often ask Stallop to bring out old photos he keeps in the store.

He doesn't specifically cater to bodybuilding enthusiasts, but Stallop will answer their questions about how he got where he did. "I say, No. 1 is genetics, but it also has to do with what you eat and what type of supplements you take to help you train more efficiently," he says. When asked, he shares his regimen's details. "I may tell them what multivitamin and protein powder I use." Someday, Stallop may hang photos taken during his bodybuilding days on the wall; but for now, he trains for fun and health—his current preoccupation.

Stallop's mission is to provide Manasquan, a town he compares to Mayberry because of its small-town feel, with quality supplements and whole foods. His other goal is to educate his clients on just what the products can do.

Stallop knows his stuff and takes time to pass on his expertise to anyone who enters the store. "We do not recommend, we educate," he says. When customers enter the store, he looks at them "holistically," and finds out how they live.

"If someone asks me what would be the best multivitamin for him or her, it would be unethical and immoral for me to presume that I know what would meet his or her needs," Stallop says. Instead he asks about diet, lifestyle and level of physical activity. "I ask open-ended questions to get customers to talk about themselves; then I am better able to direct them to products that might be of help."

To back up his knowledge, Stallop provides an in-store computer where customers can search for information on any given substance, say Co-Q10, and find out the basics—what it does, what it's taken for.

Stallop has definite opinions and steers people away from formulations with stimulants, which he nevertheless stocks to meet demand. Instead, he provides information to help customers learn about the benefits of other products, like vitamins in natural gels—easier, he says, to absorb—or substances he believes promote health, such as conjugated linoleic acid and milk thistle, for example.

He gets the word out by advertising in two neighborhood papers and on radio. In addition, Stallop speaks about maintaining health naturally on a local radio show sponsored by the nearby Center for Anti-Aging and Integrative Medicine.

And since clients make the business, Stallop shows his gratitude with regular "customer appreciation" sales. For up to 10 days, four times a year, he slashes store prices, offering 20 percent off foods and 35 percent off all nutraceuticals. "That means I'm really not making any money that week, but I like to be able to pass on the discounts," Stallop says.

He's got ideas for expansion and is planning to acquire other health food stores and develop a mail-order business to augment in-store sales. Even bigger plans are on the horizon. By 2005, Stallop hopes to launch an extravaganza of a store, double the size of the present location and stocked with gourmet prepared foods as well as his substantial product inventory.

Stallop is committed to his business. "I've been in the natural products industry for 18 years," he says. Two previous businesses—a restaurant and spring water company, "were not in my heart," he says. But Monmouth Health Foods is his life. "This store is part of me."

It's also a part he shares with his wife of six months, Tam, 25, who works in the store six days a week, never without a sweater. Wednesdays are the couple's day off, but Stallop says he's just a phone call away and customers know his schedule. "I'm usually always here," Stallop says. "They just wait to talk to me."

Monmouth Health Foods
181 Main St.
Manasquan, NJ 08736
Owner: Jeff Stallop
Founded: 1971; Stallop took over in 2001
Employees: seven, including Stallop and his wife, Tam
Retail Space: more than 3,000 square feet
Best sellers: Nutraceuticals make up 60 percent of sales. Remaining 40 percent is whole and organic foods and cosmeceuticals.

Barbara Hey is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 10/p. 122

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