When The Green Grocer’s owner John Wood pulled Kashi and other cereals containing genetically modified organisms from his store shelves in January, little did the Portsmouth, R.I.-based retailer know that within three months he would receive nationwide attention. How can you vet the safety and quality of the products you carry so your consumers don’t have to? Wood offers this advice.
Natural Foods Merchandiser: A photo of your shelf talker went viral on Facebook, prompting Kashi to pledge to ditch GMOs in its main product lines. How did this start?
John Wood: We made the decision to pull products in January, based on The Cornucopia Institute’s Cereal Crimes report, which called out several natural brands for containing known levels of pesticide residues that were either recognized hormone disruptors or carcinogens and showed the amount of GMOs in natural cereals.
We knew we couldn’t keep [the offending cereals] on the shelves, but we also realized our customers are passionate about certain products and that name-brand following can have a strong impact on purchasing behavior. We decided we had to tell people why we no longer carried these products so they wouldn’t go somewhere else to buy them and we wouldn’t lose long-term customers.
So the signs went up in January, and then on April 20 we posted the picture to GrandyOats’ Facebook wall, because I had seen the company’s representatives at a trade show and they’d asked about it. That Sunday it exploded.
NFM: When you first posted the signs, what was consumer response like in your store?
JW: It was overall very positive. People told us that this was why they trust and shop with us—because of our integrity and because we are passionate about scrutinizing what goes on our shelves. We haven’t clearly communicated our standards to our consumers, yet they’ve picked up on them just from looking at our product mix.
NFM: Did you notice any change in business after pulling the GM-containing products (Kashi, Barbara’s Bakery, Peace Cereal and Bear Naked)?
JW: We had only a handful of GrandyOats [which is certified organic] available when we made the transition and we increased it to the entire line. We haven’t seen a negative impact on sales since pulling the products. Our cereal sales remain as strong as they had been, despite the fact that we eliminated a bulk of three brands comprising one-quarter to one-third of our cereal section.
NFM: Would you bring Kashi back?
JW: We carry three of Kashi’s organic SKUs. That was a misunderstanding somewhere along the line, that we got rid of all Kashi products. That was never true. We believe when a company makes a commitment to doing something right, like doing organic SKUs, the more those SKUs are supported by a store like ours or a consumer, the more likely [the company] is to pursue those standards and create more products along those lines. I would personally be more than happy to carry anything that Kashi produces that’s USDA Certified Organic. And I would also be willing to carefully evaluate any of the Non-GMO Verified products as well.
NFM: Have you heard from the other brands you pulled from your shelves?
JW: I have not. Unfortunately Kashi seems to be the sacrificial lamb in this particular process. I tried so hard to make it clear that this is not about one brand. This is about our food system as a whole. Even Bear Naked has barely gotten any sort of negative feedback on its Facebook page. But, Kashi is huge.
It’s not just about any one company. This is a conversation that needs to continue. Organic agriculture is really the only sustainable way to repair our planet and feed ourselves.
Regularily vetting product quality
NFM: How do you vet for product quality on a regular basis?
JW: We evaluate the ingredients lists of every product we bring into the building, even if it comes from a company we know and trust. As manufacturers change, ingredients and nutritional profiles also can change—and that can make a difference in whether a product is something we want to sell.
Organic is always our first choice—a good organic, wholesome product and not just a knockoff of a conventional item. We also source for quality organic and locally grown goods so we can support the communities in which we live. If there is no organic version available or the price point makes it unobtainable for the consumer, we’ll vet using our “natural” definition—meaning there can’t be any artificial colors or sweeteners or hydrogenated fats and it’s something we’d eat and feed to our kids.
We also do our best to vet products to be non-GMO. We like to see if a manufacturer has a non-GMO stance and then weigh that with the overall company profile. If it has one product that looks questionable but the rest are fantastic and 100 percent organic, then we usually allow some leeway.
NFM: Beyond GMOs and artificial colors and sweeteners, what do you avoid stocking in your store?
JW: Here are a few ingredients we watch for: maltitol and carboxymethyl cellulose, often found in gluten-free foods; autolyzed yeast, hydrolyzed vegetable proteins, disodium guanylate and disodium inosinate (all have been shown to contain MSG or form it in the body); synthetic vitamin E as a preservative; sulfites/sulfates; nitrite/nitrates; potassium bromate; and caramel coloring.
NFM: You’re knowledgeable about harmful substances in our food system. How do you educate your employees about these issues?
JW: Most of our staff comes to us having no experience in this industry whatsoever. But within months, there’s a noticeable change in what they eat. There are two levels of education taking place here: peer education, which can have a stronger impact; and employer education, which is equally important—especially being consistent with it.
We do twice-a-month, in-store trainings with brokers and manufacturers who talk about an aspect of a product line we carry. The focus usually surrounds buzz topics such as Dr. Oz’s latest health craze, fish oil or herbal extracts. We also talk about new products as they arrive, answering the question: “Why did we choose this?”
NFM: What advice can you give other retailers who wish to enact healthy change in our food system?
JW: Never underestimate customers—they are hungrier for knowledge than most retailers believe. Secondly, don’t be afraid to separate yourself from the crowd. Anything we sell can be found somewhere else, whether at Whole Foods, online or at Walmart, and anything we do can be done somewhere else. It’s how we do things that makes a huge difference. When we separate ourselves from our competition, big or small, by committing to certain values, quality, ingredients lists, whatever it may be—that’s what’s going to keep customers coming back. We as retailers and the organic food movement can then become a greater value than anybody else can offer.
Square feet: 3,000
SKUs: 9,000 to 10,000
Gross margin: 34 percent