?If you?re going to do something, do it yourself.? Though this might sound like a chapter title in any number of self-help books, it is also the philosophy and favorite catchphrase of Rich Samar, owner of Garden Gate Natural Foods in Allentown, Pa. Indeed, Rich Samar could be a motivational speaker, so filled with perseverance and dedication are his stories of buying, renovating and maintaining his 788-square-foot shop, which, along with being the smallest, also happens to be the oldest health food store in Allentown.
The original Garden Gate building was constructed in the early 1900s and housed a dress shop until the late 1940s, when it became a health food store. Sally Harris, Samar?s girlfriend, has worked in Allentown since the ?60s and can remember buying ?whole-wheat flour to make our own bread and a natural facial hydrating spray? from the store in that decade. ?It carried basically the same types of things that we carry now, but in a lot less quantity and variety,? Harris says.
When Samar bought the shop in February 1988, he soon realized Garden Gate would not be a typical fixer-upper. This point was driven home when the city condemned the building a week after Samar purchased it and gave him an ultimatum: Make the repairs or lose the building.
?The back wall was so deteriorated that when you closed the door, it shook. The floor was rotting away from water damage, so you could step somewhere and your foot would fall right through. There were extension cords all over the ductwork ? the electricity wasn?t adequate. We had to replace almost everything,? Samar says. Lucky for Samar, he had experience with construction (he and his father built Samar?s house) and wasn?t afraid to take on the huge store renovations. ?I don?t contract anything out because my father said to me a long time ago, ?If you?re going to do something, do it yourself.? I grew up with that philosophy and am fortunate because I had friends that would help me with all of it.?
An unexpected benefit of what turned into a 10-year renovation project was that it became a form of advertising. ?The construction drew attention from the other stores in the area,? Samar says. ?You?d think that something like that would be negative, that people would stay away, but it was the exact opposite, really. Business actually increased during construction.?
During the renovation, Samar came up with ways to use improvement projects as promotions for his store. For instance, when a new air conditioning system was being installed at Garden Gate, Samar held what he called the ?G.G. Cool Contest? and gave away Garden Gate T-shirts, sweatshirts and other gifts. ?We had fun with it,? he says.
Construction also provided Samar and his staff with numerous opportunities to combat the biggest challenge they saw facing the store: its undersized stature. ?Every weekend, I came up with a new idea to add a shelf or a little cubbyhole or some space-saving carpentry. This went on for years. My girlfriend, Sally, came up with a design for separate U-shaped sections for body care, teas, groceries, bulk, cereals, etc., to display all products most efficiently,? Samar says.
Another space-creating breakthrough came when Samar and his crew decided to take out the old ceiling rafters and expose the original roof of the building. Besides adding 6 feet of overhead space to the store, this move also ?projected that sloped feeling, and made that small store bigger,? Samar says. ?Then, from brainstorming after we did the roof, we got the idea to cut four skylights in, strategically placed so the light would shine into the cubbyholes below. Now there?s constant light because of the eastern and western exposure.?
During the 10 years of renovations, Samar saw his hard work and dedication pay off: His store sales doubled.
Today, with most of the construction done and even an award under its belt—Garden Gate earned a Restoration Award from the city of Allentown in 1992—the store is still drawing in customers. Much of the store?s appeal comes from its novel appearance and size, combined with its ability to deliver a wide range of products. On Garden Gate?s efficiently stocked shelves, customers are able to find anything they would at a regular-sized natural foods grocery store—vitamins, supplements, organic produce and a variety of food items, as well as beauty products.
?When people walk into my store, their first reaction is to be stunned. They?re shocked—they say, ?Wow, how could you get all this stuff in this store??? Samar says. But despite its size, Garden Gate delivers on selection. ?I had a girl come from Jersey who was looking all over for this certain product, and we had it. She said she went to two other places and they didn?t have it.?
Even Samar will admit that, looking back, buying Garden Gate was a bit of a gamble. ?I must?ve been on drugs when I bought the place,? he says with a laugh, ?but I had a sixth sense that it was good. I could just feel it. So I ran with it.? With creativity, a huge amount of resolve and a few helpful friends, Samar turned many negatives into positives and a tiny mess into a tiny miracle.
Christine Spehar is a Boulder, Colo., free-lance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 6/p. 94