Natural Foods Merchandiser

Old school gets an A in profit

Dianne Bottoms was working at a pharmacy in the small town of Reedley, just outside Fresno, Calif., when her 62-year-old mother died of a stroke. That was 27 years ago, and Bottoms' mother wasn't the only one. She came from a brood of full-blooded Germans who, one by one, were passing away from strokes. Bottoms began thinking about her own health and the health of her family. She spoke to her pharmacist boss, and he said something that surprised her: "You know, for every medicine in here, there is a natural form."

The pharmacist would soon have to post a "help wanted" sign in the window. At age 42, Bottoms returned to college to study nutrition. Then, when a little storefront at 11th and G Street in downtown Reedley became available, Bottoms and her husband put their house up for collateral and bought the place.

Today, Dianne's Health Foods is still at 11th and G. And although Bottoms and her husband have moved on, the original location is owned and operated by their daughter, Terrie Wood. It is much the same as it has always been—the windows often show homey, community-based displays, such as photos of local moms who are also business owners. Around the holidays, a Winnie the Pooh window display helped sell 350 jars of locally made honey.

Dianne's doesn't have a website, and most of the store's advertising is done in the community newspaper—The Reedley Exponet—at the opera house, street fairs, festivals and in the menu of a nearby café. The store's centerpiece is an old-timey wall of apothecary jars that contain 250 different bulk herbs and spices. The 120-year-old wooden floor squeaks and creaks. Dianne's staff, family and, most important, customers, wouldn't have it any other way. "We are everything but high tech, and we love it," Wood says. "We try to greet every person who walks in here by name. We all love being here."

Throughout the years, the staff has included Bottoms' grandsons and Wood's daughter-in-law. One employee has been with the store for 15 years and another just retired at age 82. Keeping them happy is especially important to Wood, who three years ago fell victim to the fate of so many of her relatives—she had a stroke. It happened during an abdominal surgery that was supposed to keep her out of work for three weeks. Instead, she was out of commission for two years. "My employees kept the store going when I wasn't able to help," Wood says. "Those are the kind of amazing people who work here."

Like many natural products stores, Dianne's prides itself on customer service. Its staff makes and sells 30 pounds of peanut butter and upwards of 40 pounds of store-bagged psyllium husk a week. They scoop dried ginger and other fruits and nuts into snack-size bags, which are snatched up by busy moms who come in every Wednesday to pick up fresh, organic produce from a community-supported-agriculture program.

In today's landscape, in which every store—from the corner bodega to the megamart—seems to be promoting a natural and organic food selection, Dianne's Health Foods is not only holding its own, but is also boasting impressive growth. "All last year we had a 25 percent to 27 percent increase each month," Wood says. "Last month, we had a 30 percent increase. We are just doing phenomenally well."

What's the secret? For one thing, Wood buys locally and, whenever possible, exclusively. Granted, Dianne's has the advantage of a pretty awesome selection of local producers—Bari Olive Oil, for example. "Since Bari is local, I don't have to pay shipping. Everyone else sells it for $16; I sell it for $11.99," Wood says. "We're Bari's No. 2 seller."

The nearest competition—including Whole Foods and Trader Joe's—is a relatively nonthreatening 25 miles away. But Wood doesn't take any chances, employing old-fashioned price-war tactics to keep her customers from making the long drive. "I find out what they are getting from those other stores, and I sell it for less," she says.

Even though it's a small operation, Dianne's is experiencing many of the same trends as bigger stores. Bulk sales are up. The clientele includes a lot of educated young families. And more and more customers are looking for vitamins and supplements to treat and prevent health problems. "That's where a lot of our increase is. People just don't want to get sick," Wood says. "Before, they would come in for bladder infections. Now they are coming in for cranberry and acidophilus [to prevent bladder infections]."

And that is all the reason Wood needs to show up for work every day. "For me, as someone who has experienced health challenges, to help someone—to have them come back and say, ‘I feel so much better; thank you'—that's it," she says. "My mom used to tell us every night to say thank you for all the people we helped that day. There's no better feeling than helping someone with their health."

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