Natural Foods Merchandiser

A convenient truth

Smart MartEllisa Wee doesn't always feel like fighting the crowds at a supermarket on a Friday night, especially when she only wants to grab a handful of items that can generally be found in many convenience stores. But Wee, a Portland, Ore., resident is all about the organic and natural lifestyle, wrinkling her nose at the idea of stopping in for a bag of trans fat-filled chips common at any local gas-and-go.

What is needed, Wee says, is a quick-stop shop that stocks the sort of convenience items she would find in her local naturals store. The absence of such an option inspired her to start her own naturals convenience store. Full Moon Foodies should be open before the end of the year in Portland's Pearl District, Wee says.

"We just want to make it easier for people living in urban environments, me being one of them," she says. "We're not trying to reinvent the wheel."

Conveniently absent There are more than 140,000 convenience stores in the United States, with combined 2006 sales of $569.4 billion, according to the National Association of Convenience Stores, a trade group based in Alexandria, Va.

It's no secret that organic and natural products are catching on at conventional supermarkets and big-box retailers. But the trend is much slower to develop in the convenience store market, according to Jeff Lenard, NACS spokesman.

"There's definitely more of a movement toward good-for-you products and organic products, but it has to be balanced with the recognition that we're not there yet with a critical mass," he says. An aisle dedicated to organics at a recent NACS expo had disappointing results, Lenard says. "We thought it was a bigger trend than it was."

Lenard doesn't outright dismiss the idea that organic could work in convenience stores. "How do you get the customer inside your store? You have to set up something that differentiates yourself beyond that you're a penny different than the competition," he says. "Organic is a way, but you have to find that there is an embrace of it, that the people want it."

Past and future
Monrovia, Calif.-based Trader Joe's has already proved that idea right. A naturals chain with more than 280 stores in 23 states, Trader Joe's originally started as a convenience store chain in the 1950s. But founder Joe Coulombe figured he needed a different sort of concept because he didn't believe his Pronto Markets would survive against rival 7-Eleven, according to Trader Joe's lore on its Web site. The first store called Trader Joe's opened in Pasadena, Calif., in 1966, and is still in operation today.

British grocery heavyweight Tesco will see if its brand of convenience will grow in American soil this fall when it blitzes the West with a new chain called Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market. The company is betting big, with a $400 million investment over the next five years in dozens of stores in Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas and Phoenix.

Tesco representatives say its 10,000-square-foot, eco-friendly U.S. outlets will promote healthy eating by offering fresh and nutritious food choices.

Fueled with health
A different kind of concept, brewed up in the progressive Pacific Northwest, may offer a blueprint that proves that oil and water—or, in this case, organics and convenience—do mix after all.

SeQuential Biofuels, with offices in Portland and Eugene, Ore., introduced biodiesel and bioethanol to the region in 2002. It now has 35 pumps throughout Oregon and southwest Washington. Last September, it opened its first biofuel gas station and retail convenience store in Eugene, emphasizing organic, natural and local products.

It has a larger-than-normal-sized pro?duce section for a convenience store, and includes locally produced flowers and plants. A drive-through coffee shop features java brewed from organic beans. Solar panels provide 30 percent to 50 percent of its electricity. "It's been very well received by our customers in Eugene," says Helen Neville, head of marketing for SeQuential.

Neville says the company is trying to reach a broader customer base—some of its biofuels can be used in any sort of vehicle without special adaptations—so it has made some concessions in its store's product line. A few conventional snacks are on the shelves, and a soft drink fountain features both natural beverages and a major high-fructose corn syrup brand.

Grab and go
The West is apparently the best for all sorts of concepts rolling up convenience and organics. Organic To Go, based in Seattle, is delivering healthy choices to customers with its rapidly growing chain of fast-casual organic cafés. Though not convenience stores, Organic to Go retail spots offer premade sandwiches and salads, as well as drinks, fruit and snacks.

"We're organic whenever possible," says founder and chief executive officer Jason Brown. The idea for the company took root, he explains, while organizing business lunches. "I'd have to buy mystery meat for our meetings." He believed that workers wanted more nutritional choices while on the job. Started in late 2004, the company offers catering services and has about 50 grab-and-go kiosks on college and corporate campuses, including Microsoft.

Vending goodness
One company in Rensselaer, N.Y., is proving that you don't necessarily have to own or lease real estate to sell organic convenience. Bob Wolf, co-owner of Organic Vending, is peddling his belief in the organic and natural lifestyle through machines. The year-old company has about 60 vending machines in area businesses and more than a dozen school districts.

The concept of getting a healthy treat out of a box isn't hard to sell, according to Wolf. "It's almost an oxymoron," he concedes, but says: "The food sells itself. … It's no longer old hippies from the '70s buying this food. It's your average blue-collar worker who is conscious about their health. They don't want to pay a lot of money but want to buy something that's not full of chemicals."

Wolf says his wares are competitively priced against conventional vending machine offerings, with a bag of chips selling for $1 to $1.25. He says the company vends about 200 different items, from frozen snacks to cookies, and while it does offer mixed products in machines for clients who want conventional snacks, Organic Vending's main mission is to raise awareness about health.

"You can make money by doing the right thing," he says.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 9/p. 58, 60

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