When Gene Clark bought a failing health food store 25 years ago in Owensboro, Ky., he had no retail experience and didn't know the store had been losing money. His 30 years' experience in the steel industry could not have prepared him for the challenges the store would bring, but the store would also provide soul satisfaction that the steel mill never could for Clark and his wife, Nancy.
Twenty-five years and a lot of learning later, Clark and his store, Gene's Health Food, have become beacons for healthy living in Owensboro, which is not surprising considering the atypically positive outlook the 76-year-old great-grandfather adheres to. "I've had the most wonderful life," he says. "I just don't want to waste any time being unhappy about life."
Part of Clark's "wonderful life" is having his family involved in the store with him. His wife and two grandchildren work as co-managers, and his 4-year-old great-grandson, Eestan, also "helps out" in the store. Eestan has been known to ask customers, "Can I help you?" But unfortunately, Clark says, Eestan is not quite tall enough to help at the register yet.
Clark figures that part of his store's success comes from the fact that people see how healthy and happy he and his wife are, and think, "Maybe something they're doing will work for me." And considering the store's sales have increased tenfold since Clark took over the store, something must be working.
Because of Clark's initial lack of knowledge and experience, the road to success wasn't always easy for Gene's Health Food. "I bought something I really didn't know how to operate," he says of the store. But he asserts that one of the most important lessons retailers can learn is simply to ask questions and not be embarrassed to accept help. In the early days, Clark went to the local chamber of commerce and asked for help building a business plan. He also teamed up with a local chiropractor to promote the store and practice. Clark provides the mailing list to the chiropractor, who sends out a monthly e-mail health newsletter.
"Most people say we can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, but we can get up a lot faster if we let others help us," he says.
Over time, Clark has learned that valuing customers has led to better sales. The store hosts customer-appreciation days on the first Tuesday of each month, giving a 20 percent discount throughout the store. Customers buy so much more on those days, Clark says, that overall profitability is not hurt. Clark says personal attention to customers is also a high priority. "That's our goalâto know every person personally," he says. In regard to customers, he says, "How can we increase your opportunity for happiness?"
One of the biggest challenges Clark has faced over the years is learning how to include other employees in his positive philosophy of life. He has learned that to keep the ideals of Gene's Health Food going, his employees must truly believe in serving and helping people. Trusting employees to make important decisions without micromanagement has been a learning process, he says. And his philosophy on quality of life means Clark pays his employees well above the minimum wage.
Owensboro is a small enough town to have avoided the corporate glance of giants such as Whole Food, but Gene's still markets as if it had such a competitor in the neighborhood. Clark has teamed up with other area business owners to pay for a local television slot called Ask The Experts, which allows Clark to give voice to the health community and plug his store. Also, he and his staff host a television show, hosted in-store, called It's Your Health that features guest speakers and information on the store and its products. Clark also takes advantage of the opportunity to appear regularly on a public-service announcement show. "It has really been effective in increasing our visibility in the community, as well as our acceptability," Clark says.
The added familiarity from the television shows helps potential customers feel more comfortable about coming in the doors for the first time, he says. After seeing what the store looks like inside and getting a little preview of the employees, customers can recognize them when they come in and feel more relaxed on a first visit. And for many of Owensboro's residents that can be a big plus. "They see it's not just alfalfa sprouts, sunflower seeds and Birkenstocks," he says. The store also makes maximum use of free literature. Copies of Delicious Living magazine (published by The Natural Food Merchandiser's parent company, New Hope Natural Media) and promotional fliers go into almost every bag that leaves the store, Clark says.
Through the last 25 years, Clark has built up the image and philosophy of Gene's Health Food by being a personal example of a healthy lifestyle. "We get people to believe that your health is your wealth," he says. He draws inspiration from his grandfather, who owned a general store and held a reputation as a very beloved man in the community. Clark has used his positive outlook on life and health to become a figure not unlike his grandfather in Gene's Health Food.
"When people think of me, they think of health," he says.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 11/p. 50