It was 1973, and while most college juniors were worrying about term papers and spring break plans, Rick Montieth was planning his future. Montieth was just 20 years old and already in the thick of opening Georgetown Market, which even today is the only independently owned natural foods store on Indianapolis' west side.
The natural-food bug ran in Montieth's family. He began working at his aunt and uncle's health food store the summer before college. When he returned the following summer, he picked up more responsibility. He enjoyed the business of running a business, especially one that focused on nutrition and serving people. "I was very drawn to it," he says.
With his parents' help, Montieth took a break from classes at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., to get Georgetown off the ground.
"My dad had to borrow money from the bank—he took the financial risk," says Montieth, who had zero expectations and no five-year plan. There was a point early on when his father thought he had lost his shirt, but Montieth says, "The fear of failing never entered my mind."
Georgetown's first tiny location began to thrive. Within 18 months Montieth's father had paid back the bank loan. Four years later, Georgetown moved to a larger location, where it stayed for 20 years. Finally in 1997, Montieth built a new store from the ground up. In the face of impending competition from big-name health food stores, Montieth decided to be aggressive. "I knew that Whole Foods would come to town one day," he says.
"I wanted to establish a presence so they wouldn't end up on the west side." And the natural foods giant didn't. The nearest Whole Foods, which opened in 2001, is a 20-minute drive toward the north side of town. Montieth says he still draws north-side customers who have come to rely on Georgetown's personal service.
Over the last 26 years, Georgetown's sales have increased nearly every year. Decades and three locations later, Montieth has expanded the business from a modest supplements store to a full-service grocery, with 100 percent–organic produce, a create-your-own juice bar and a reputation for the best health care advice around.
"We focus on getting the customers to be responsible for their own health, which entails us providing the best nutrition information we have access to," says Montieth. Georgetown emphasizes prevention, but finds that many customers wait until they have a problem. Whatever the case, Georgetown's Natural Living department is a huge customer draw. When Georgetown first opened, Montieth's recently retired father, who was trained in homeopathy, dove into a new role at the store.
"My father became pretty well known for consulting on different health conditions," says Montieth. "He helped a lot of cancer patients." Montieth now coordinates with suppliers to provide continuing education for new employees, and updates the store's vast library of information on health conditions and protocols. The result is a staff that's serious about helping customers feel better.
Preserving cash and customer safety
Although Georgetown offers competitive pricing on many items, it doesn't rely on heavy discounts and sales.
"We're not price-driven by any means," says Montieth. But the store does offer a "loyalty genius" program, which gives its several thousand members a $10 return for every $250 spent in the store. Montieth says customers are willing to pay a higher premium because of Georgetown's commitment to all-organic produce and high-quality customer service. Part of that service includes email communication and a monthly newsletter, especially important when there are national food-safety issues. During the recent peanut-based salmonella scare, for example, Montieth sent out a specific email about the problem and established extensive in-store signage to inform customers.
Serving up taste— and convenience
Perhaps Georgetown's best-known feature is The Eatery, the sit-down area where customers snack on fresh food from the deli. In addition to soups, salads and sandwiches, Georgetown's hot bar includes rotating entrées with a variety of vegan and vegetarian options such as cabbage and tofurkey. Montieth sees the biggest customer influx at lunchtime from nearby offices. Loyal customers also keep coming back for the organic juice and smoothie bar and the store's great selection of vegan bakery items.
Georgetown is also a pick-up site for a local community-supported agriculture program. It may draw from his produce sales, but "it gets people into the store," he says. Though Montieth hopes that customers will pick up other products while they're there, he really sees it as a service to customers and something that will initiate new customers to Georgetown. "I think it's pretty unusual for a retail store to do that."