Stocking organic, local fruits and vegetables in Bare Essentials Natural Market hasn’t been easy. Local farmers initially wanted to charge the store retail for their produce. A short growing season, similar to New England’s, makes it challenging to keep local, organic goods stocked year-round, and after a larger natural chain moved in, there’s now increasing competition for one-stop shopping. “We’ve just been too stubborn to give up,” store owner Ben Henderson says. Stubbornness may have something to do with it, along with ingenuity and hard work.
NFM: What challenges do you face around organic?
Ben Henderson: We’ve been preaching organic for 25 years. When we started out, our little 1,000-square-foot hippie store was the only place people could get organic food. We made a commitment to stocking organic then, and we’ve maintained it to this day. All of our produce is organic, and roughly 75 percent of our grocery items are organic.
The good news is that the general public is finally becoming more accepting. The bad news is, organic is everywhere. You can go into just about any grocery store in town and find organic tortilla chips. Conversely, in our store, with a lot of longtime natural shoppers, organic has lost a lot of its shine. There are seeds of doubt.
NFM: What are those seeds of doubt?
BH: People who are truly committed to only buying organic are also aware of the controversy surrounding organic standards. There are feedlot issues, and a lot of bigger companies seem to just be following the letter of the law but not necessarily the spirit of organic. I believe a lot of those organic purists have started to look more at local. We’ve seen an explosion of interest in local products at our store.
NFM: Do you have a lot of local producers in Boone?
BH: There’s very small-scale farming; there’s not a whole lot of large-scale farming in this area because we’re in the mountains and we have a shorter growing season, similar to New England’s. We carry the basics and we only carry organic, local when possible. To make it easier for our local producers, produce doesn’t have to be USDA certified, but we do visit the farms and require growers to sign an affidavit saying that they’ve grown their products in accordance with organic standards.
NFM: Do your shoppers gravitate more to organic, local or non-genetically modified labels?
BH: Local is huge. With non-GMO, I think awareness is growing, but the vast majority of our customers are still pretty clueless about that issue. I’m always excited to see the Non-GMO Project label because it adds legitimacy. I think organic should also be non-GMO, but we know that’s not always the case. Certified organic food is supposed to come from non-genetically modified seeds. If I’m a little confused, I can see how consumers are confused as well.
NFM: Have you had any trouble communicating why price points are higher for these products?
BH: People who hear the message—no matter their income level—will make the effort to purchase better-quality food. It doesn’t have anything to do with whether they’re college students, on food stamps or the head of a Fortune 500 company. We have all kinds of people who buy good, healthy, wholesome food.
Consumers can get organic in just about any store, but they can’t get somebody who knows about the product. We try to tell those product stories. People will respond if they know what they’re consuming. We partner with some of our major vendors to get the word out.