Located in an 1,800-acre sanctuary in rural Northern California, Harbin Hot Springs is a healing resort with a history. Founded around 1860 by Matt Harbin, one of the survivors of the Donner Party, the hot springs was considered a sacred place by native Americans, who wouldn't carry weapons onto the property out of respect for the powers of the water.
Four miles from the nearest town, Harbin Hot Springs is now a draw for anyone needing a retreat from civilization. The resort offers solitude, spa services and renewal as well as hosting New Age conferences on topics from raw food to tantric yoga.
With plenty of room for camping and lodging in the hotel or cottages, Harbin is a self-contained universe. Anyone who wants to venture in just for the day pays $25 at the gate. The resort is replete with natural life: wild turkeys and other birds, squirrels and deer commingle with the humans, who are often in such an altered state of deep relaxation that they forgo clothes altogether.
Visitors can number from 60 in the winter to up to 500 in the warmer months. And what all these guests—naked and clothed—have in common is that they all have to eat. Aside from the restaurants, which are only open for limited hours, the Harbin Market is the sole source of nourishment for miles around.
It's an unusual setting that provides unusual advantages for the store.
"We have a captive audience," says Store Manager David Mangel, who has spent the past 30 years working at natural products stores throughout California, including the Los Angeles-based Mrs. Gooch's Natural Food Store; New Age Natural Foods in San Francisco; a small skate-in, skate-out store on the Venice Beach boardwalk; and the Wild Oats in Berkeley.
After working at Harbin Market for years, Mangel took over as manager last April and immediately instituted some big changes. "It looked like Little Beirut in here, with old wooden shelves, poor lighting, poor stocking level, no service and bad design," Mangel says. With no regrets, he said goodbye to all that. "I redid the floors, set up diagonal 3- to 4-foot mini islands. I converted all the shelving to modular. I brought in chrome and metal metro shelving, completely adjustable, allowing light on the product. Because the shelves are open, they don't collect dust, don't have to be cleaned as often."
Another welcome addition was an ATM machine. "Harbin has long had a hate-love relationship with technology," Mangel says. Until he leased the ATM machine, all guests would have to drive the 8-mile round-trip to town if they wanted cash. Now the ATM more than pays for itself, with the $2 charged per transaction going toward the rental fee for the machine and for a Health Notes computer.
But the biggest innovations were in inventory. Harbin Market now carries about 1,500 items, triple the number carried prior to Mangel assuming control. How he managed to increase the lineup is a story of nimble thinking. "We are located one hour from Highway 101, the major north-south corridor. Most major companies won't even deliver to us," Mangel says. "As our sales volume began to increase, the one food delivery date each week was leading to crisis. We couldn't keep the store stocked."
What was needed was a second weekly delivery date. One of Harbin's distributors, Veritable Vegetable, offered a second drop off in the summer, if volume was met. Another distributor, Mountain Peoples Warehouse, offered to pack up Mangel's order and leave it with Veritable for that company to deliver.
"That was an extraordinarily great favor," Mangel says. And now stock is sometimes overflowing. "We sometimes exceed capacity on delivery dates, and we have to leave some items outside until we sell through."
But it is a necessary abundance. "Without that second delivery date for dry foods and produce, we could never have been able to increase our sales volume like we have.
"I've had business relationships with these [delivery] people for years, but it's really a volume thing. If I can give them volume, they will deliver," he says.
What to stock is also a creative process for Mangel. He believes in fresh, 100 percent organic produce. "That's what draws people in," he says. Also critical is knowing what his buyers—individuals in the midst of a getaway—want. That translates in large part to snacks. "I stock 60 different kinds of chips," he says. Also, Ben & Jerry's, Amy's Frozen foods and other easy-to-prepare meals.
On the practical side, Mangel studies distributor Mountain Peoples Warehouse's best-seller list to adjust his stock. "It's a way to augment sales through utilizing a fact-based database, to find out who is buying what." He is able to knowledgeably expand his inventory, but is pragmatic. "If a product doesn't sell within 30 days it's gone," never to return, he says. But his system does create a democratic mix. "If they buy it, well, then I sell it."
Harbin Market is its own private Idaho, one that doesn't resemble a store in more populated areas. "This is not retail like I've known it. I walk up to the register and there are naked people in line," Mangel says. The good thing: With nowhere to hide items—there is no shoplifting. The bad: Sometimes the guests are so removed from reality that they forget to bring money. "I've learned to ask before ringing up a purchase, 'And how will you be paying for this?'" he says.
Mangel also sells a lot of sarongs, since, in theory, no shoes and no shirt and no pants should mean no service. "It's the 'oh, you forgot your clothes. Would you like to buy a sarong so you can shop?'" he says.
Perhaps the biggest shift for Harbin Market is the debut of a kitchen and a naturals fast-food takeout window. Mangel's menu ranges from homemade soups served with freshly baked whole-wheat rolls, sandwiches on focaccia and pizzas to baked sweet potato fries, malts, shakes, smoothies, garden burgers and roasted veggies. His dessert selections include ice cream, gelato, sorbet, organic waffle cones and snow cones topped with organic syrup in a choice of six flavors. As for the foodservice part of his business, says Mangel, "The margin is tremendous." This was one area in the resort that was underserviced. Mangel responded to the people's need to eat, and not just during prescribed meal times.
In a civilized and enlightened way, the descendants of Matt Harbin have made sure that resort guests are well fed.
18424 Harbin Springs Rd.
Middletown, Calif. 94561
Store Manager: David Mangel
Annual Sales: $600,000
Square Footage: 1,000 square feet retail space, 1,400 total
Hours: Daily 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. May through October; 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. otherwise.
Sales breakdown: grocery 26 percent, gifts 15 percent, prepared foods 15 percent, produce 14 percent, perishables 12 percent, HABA 6 percent, frozen 5 percent, bulk 4 percent, supplements 3 percent
Web site: www.harbin.org
Barbara Hey is a freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 11/p. 54