Natural Foods Merchandiser

Industry Innovator Award: Brian Rohter of New Seasons Market

Opening a market in a neighborhood lacking a true grocery store wasn’t easy for Rohter, CEO of New Seasons Market in Portland, Ore. But he is quick to point out that he didn’t do it alone. About 1,700 New Seasons employees and supporters made it happen through private fundraising when banks wouldn’t touch it. Now the store in northeast Portland is the flagship of his nine stores, demonstrating that profit can be found in the most unlikely places.

What we found is if we built the store large enough with a product mix that represents the interest of the culturally diverse people who live around the store, and we made a concerted effort to hire from the community, we could attract all those groups to come into our store.

The financing was impossible [for the northeast store], and we had to finance most of it privately. That particular store remains our most successful store.

Innovation is the ability to suspend disbelief or, I guess, the willingness to suspend disbelief.

In our last four stores, we’ve built storm swales, which is the fancy term for a ditch, so we can manage our stormwater on-site and keep it out of the river. We were one of the first to do that.

In the industry there is too much greenwashing going on.

People tend to think of the natural products industry as a way to build an alternate food system, and I’d like to think of it as about how we make what we do the mainstream food system. We don’t want to be a niche. We want to be it.

I really like Columbia Gorge fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice. I also really like Chocolove chocolate-ginger bars.

I’d like to invent earbud wires that didn’t get all tangled up when you took them out of your pocket.

Farmed salmon is doing damage to our environment and to the livelihood of the people who fish in our coastal communities. It’s not a desirable product for our world.

Clearly Michelle Obama’s orientation toward natural foods and gardening is promising, and I think the rest remains to be seen. But I certainly have a lot of very high hopes.

I’d like to see legislation that gives access to health care for all members of our society, regardless of citizenship status.

We should have faith in the intelligence of our customers.

You want to display something grown close to home and super-fresh.

I’m really impressed with David Axelrod and David Plouffe, the guys who put together Barack’s campaign.

Business leads the way to social change.

–Interview by Angela Cortez

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