Melinda Foley was a teen-ager in 1971 when her parents opened Food for Thought in Wichita, Kan., and, she admits, she was embarrassed. Wichita is in the center of the Midwest, a true meat-and-potatoes city. In the early '70s, natural foods were way out of the mainstream. "I didn't want anybody to know my parents had a health foods store," says Foley, now the general manager. "I was a shy 13-year-old."
It's 23 years later, and Foley is no longer shy. She has managed the store since 1979 and, with the rest of her family, has developed Food for Thought from a modest 2,000-square-foot store into one of the largest natural foods retail stores in the Midwest. Foley recognizes and praises how much Food for Thought has meant to her. "[Growing up], we would bring our tap shoes and tap in the back of the store and roller-skate," Foley says. "We all grew up [here]."
Foley, one of five siblings, grew up near the College Hill neighborhood in a house built in the 1800s. In the 1970s, the city was nicknamed a 10-minute town (it took 10 minutes to get from one side of town to the other), but Wichita has always been considered a Midwestern metropolis. Boeing has operated its largest manufacturing plant in Wichita since the 1920s. Coleman, Mentholatum, White Castle and Koch Industries also originated in Wichita. The brothers who started Pizza Hut opened their first store blocks from Foley's childhood home.
Foley's father, Dick Foley, was a petroleum geologist in the '70s, and during the economic slump, he and his wife, Sue, decided to shift careers. They had always loved natural foods, so a health foods store was the perfect choice for their new venture. After the couple opened the small store, Dick's career as a geologist picked up. So Sue and her older sister became Food for Thought's dedicated operators. "Back then, it was a small, modest store, with grains, nuts and seeds, flour, bread and a few juices," Foley says.
But Wichita is an entrepreneurial city, also nicknamed the world's air capital because more airplane manufacturers are based in Wichita than in any other location. And, while it may have taken time to build the business, Food for Thought reflects Wichita's tenacity and entrepreneurial spirit. "It took us 30 years to be an overnight success," Foley says.
Food for Thought has definitely mirrored its city's—and the natural foods industry's—growth. "[Natural foods in the '70s] were for people on the edge," Foley says. "But the selection of products now—compared with 30 years ago—is overwhelming at times." Even Wichita itself has grown; it now takes as long as 20 minutes to get across town.
Food for Thought moved into its current location in March 1994. When they first moved in, Foley didn't think they'd ever fill the space. "But [dad] had a vision," she says. And it's a good thing for Wichita that Dick had the vision he did. The store now occupies 15,000 square feet and offers an amazingly diverse product selection.
The first section customers see when they enter the store is health and beauty, and Foley makes sure the section shines. "Our staff is 85 percent women, and you can tell what they love to use," Foley says. "When you have a lot of female buyers, you're going to bring a lot of new stuff in. We have an incredible health and beauty section." The store's extensive personal care section includes a cosmetics counter, a wide range of natural care products, candles, gifts and an aromatherapy section that offers custom blends.
Michael Hoffmann, VP sales for Avalon Natural Products, Petaluma, Calif., recently visited Food for Thought for the first time and was pleasantly surprised by the store's extensive offering of health and beauty products. "I was very impressed, and it's tough to impress me," Hoffmann says. "I see 130 Whole Foods a year and a hundred Wild Oats."
But Hoffmann was pleased by much more than just the HABA section. "I've seen 1,460 stores, and I'd never been in a store [like Food for Thought, with] the people, the attitude, [and] the 'what's new' [feeling]. The store is where an independent should be."
Along with a substantial personal care department, the store offers large selections of supplements, vitamins and herbs. Food for Thought also provides take-out foods from the deli, featuring sandwiches, salads and an "awesome" veggie chili. The store only carries certified-organic produce. To further cater to its customers' needs, the store is dedicated to providing the latest products. Every month, Foley showcases the newcomers in a grocery area endcap.
With 15,000 square feet, Food for Thought is, in many ways, a natural products superstore. But product variety is only part of the reason for the store's continued success. A dedicated and devoted staff is just as important. "When we hire," Foley says, "we always look for an employee who's eager to work hard because it really is hard work."
Along with the hard work comes expertise and respect. Jennifer McVey manages the aromatherapy section and teaches a class on aromatherapy every few months. "She has quite a following," Foley says. "We have a waiting list for people to sign up."
Char Leonard, a long-time supplements department employee, is continually mistaken for a member of the family. "A lot of people think [Char] is our sister," Foley says, "which we really love because she's like our sister." Employees at Food for Thought are treated as members of the Foley family and their interests and specialties are fully supported, which helps create, as Hoffmann says, "a large store with a neighborhood attitude."
Food for Thought is as much a part of Wichita's history as the house Foley grew up in. And the store's two recent hires (Foley's nieces) officially make it a three-generation operation. After 30 years, Food for Thought remains an oasis of natural selections in a land of meat and potatoes.
Food for Thought Inc.
2929 E. Central Ave.
Wichita, KS 67214
Web site: www.fft.net
Opened: March 1971
Retail space: 15,000 square feet
Employees: 22 (plus Foley's 9-year-old daughter)
Best-selling section: supplements
Newest section: housewares
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 4/p. 70