By Maya Gurarie
John Wood can always tell when customers walk into The Green Grocer for the first time. They open the doors and stop, transfixed by the 18-foot ceilings in the converted barn that houses the 3,200-square-foot store. Clapboard shingles hug the exterior of this natural foods oasis in the Aquidneck Island community of Portsmouth, R.I., where many of the 17,000 residents are passionate about locally grown food and appreciate a store that stocks natural products. "Our goal is not to be Whole Foods, but to provide a full shopping experience," says Wood, who owns The Green Grocer with his wife, Aly Marks-Wood.
Wood first noticed the benefits of natural and organic products after he developed Gulf War syndrome in 1991. A tour of duty with the U.S. Army in the Middle East exposed him to environmental hazards such as chemicals released from ammunition combustion. A doctor at the Northampton Veteran's Administration in Massachusetts recommended that Wood overhaul his lifestyle to try to rebuild his compromised immune system. Cutting out potetial toxins and adding in nutritious foods, they hoped, would help his body cope.
During the next seven years, Wood eliminated his contact with harsh cleaning agents, pillows with formaldehyde and products containing perfume. He also stuck to a regimen of vitamins and minerals and wore organic cotton clothing. Eventually, Wood says, he reached an "aha" moment, "when I stopped getting the dizzy spells and I stopped getting tired all the time," and connected the relief with the new lifestyle.
Wood worked in the restaurant industry for 11 years before deciding the natural products industry better reflected his commitment to organic living. Marks-Wood already had experience working in produce, stocking goods and serving as a manager of supplements and body care in New Hampshire stores.
It took two years to find investors and the right location for The Green Grocer. Before the store opened, residents of Portsmouth, R.I., had to drive 20 minutes to reach a natural foods store, even though many considered any drive more than five minutes a commute on the small island, Marks-Wood says. Now Portsmouth has one other natural products store and a grocery store. "We don't think of each other as competitors," Marks-Wood says. "If we can't provide something, we'll send them to the other store."
When The Green Grocer opened one year ago, Wood joked that he was going to call it "Go Ask Aly." He says, "She understands the big picture about what people are experiencing and uses that information to make suggestions about improving their health." The pair work in the store together six days a week. "I think she's brilliant, but I'm a bit biased," Wood says.
Marks-Wood has been known to call customers who haven't visited the store in awhile, especially seniors, and send them free gift baskets. Drawing from a decade of experience in the natural foods industry, she also teaches a leafy-green vegetables class, informing shoppers about the plants' nutrients and how to properly store and prepare them.
A popular feature at The Green Grocer is the gluten-free store tour, which emphasizes how customers can expand their diet with rice noodles, buckwheat, amaranth, quinoa and a wide range of other gluten-free foods. One shopper brought her whole family in so they could learn together, says Casey Cagney, a sales associate who leads the gluten-free tours. "There are whole carts [worth of food in the] aisles that she wouldn't have noticed," Cagney says.
Wood and Marks-Wood also review their food stock to screen out artificial or genetically modified products. In order to keep prices down, The Green Grocer stocks nonorganic milk, but the product is from a farm in nearby Tiverton that guarantees no hormones or antibiotics are used. "There is a sacrifice that needs to be made with that bottom line or profit, but that can't be the sole reason behind a business," Wood says. "We believe that in providing those options, we keep a farm that's been in the family for 80 years in business, we provide our customers something that doesn't require a huge amount of gas to transport and customers are much more satisfied with something that is locally [produced]."
In the supplements section, too, The Green Grocer applies a thoughtful approach to sales, instead of vying ruthlessly for the bottom line. "What's amazing to me is that Aly will discourage me from buying certain supplements," says fitness trainer Aggie Perkins, who shops at The Green Grocer for supplements for menopause. "Instead of selling me more, she'll tell me to pare down and educate myself about what I need."
The Green Grocer's support of local foods and causes is an integral part of the community on
Aquidneck Island. The store partners with local schools to teach middle schoolers about nutritious foods, and invites shoppers to get involved in the local-food movement, even encouraging shoppers to look into local farmers' markets and growers' events.
As a survivor of Gulf War syndrome, Wood remains upbeat about using natural and organic products to overcome pain and illness, and making that lifestyle available to others. "Our focus is trying to be that place where you can do one-stop shopping," he says. "You can get everything you need in one environment."