Thirty years ago, Carolyn Behrman only dreamed of opening a natural products store. She researched natural health topics in her spare time, while she earned a living in telecommunication and computing. Fast forward to 2008, and Behrman's dream has come true. She owns a 5,300-square-foot naturals store in Columbus, Ind., and is involved with industry groups. But while her story may be one part follow-your-dream, it's also at least one part roll-up-your-sleeves.
"I've been in business now for 11 years, and I was researching for 20 years before that," Behrman says. "After our children were old enough that they had things going on in the evening, I spent several hours each night reading and researching [natural products]. This is before the Internet, so I'd have to find the books."
Those evening research sessions were the genesis of Natural Choices, which now offers supplements, health and beauty aids, books, and packaged and frozen foods. "There comes a time in each person's life when they get to decide what they're really going to do with the rest of it," Behrman says. "When an opportunity came, I decided it was time."
But even though Behrman had exhaustively studied minerals and supplements, when it came to opening a retail operation, she jumped in headfirst. "I didn't do much research into how you start it," she recalls. "I just got in there and rolled my shirtsleeves up." She did all of the store's painting herself, with her husband, father-in-law and son building the juice bar. She picked out wooden shelving and used antiques in her displays. It was that DIY attitude that helped her dream become a reality.
In 1996, her 700-square-foot location on Columbus' busy Central Avenue opened. For Behrman, the leap from her telecommunications job—"life after industry," as she puts it—was exciting, but the store was not an overnight success. "It got pretty lonely when we initially opened, but I used all of that time for research."
Those early years amounted to a crash course in retail management. "I didn't realize that I'd have to do so many things that were not taking care of the customer, but supporting the business," Behrman says. "Even things such as making the shelves look fuller by double-, triple- and quadruple-facing things. You never see an empty spot on a grocery store shelf." Today, Natural Choices inhabits a building four doors down from its initial location—and more than seven times larger. The walls are painted forest green, representing health and nature, and the shelves are packed full.
As her store grew, Behrman was able to staff Natural Choices with employees who shared her dedication and philosophy. One woman, whom Behrman first got to know as a customer, has been with the store for eight years, while another employee is a middle-school teacher who moonlights at the store during summer breaks.
Behrman credits word of mouth with helping Natural Choices expand over the years. "People who want to do things from a lifestyle point of view naturally tend to find other people, and as more people find out about it, you start to increase customers," she says.
What those shoppers found was an owner with a broad knowledge of the field and a helpful disposition, rather than a hard-sell for the latest health fad. Behrman offers insights and suggestions, not easy answers. "Do I tell them that this is going to take care of their problem? No. What I do is tell them about the product, what the properties are. I also refer to research, and actually show the articles or study that's been done, and they can make up their own mind. Our mission is really to give people choices."
Watching people take advantage of those choices and improve their health brings Behrman a deeper satisfaction than she found at her old job. "I really feel like I'm contributing to other people," she says. "I can see the connection. I can see people who've been diagnosed with things get better, or people who've been told they have five weeks to live live another two years. I had no idea when I went into it that I would see some of these things."
Those connections have become even more personal since Behrman's mother developed stage IV ovarian cancer. She was given one to three months to live three years ago, but today is still practicing alternative therapies. "She did chemo, but we had to preserve her immune system, and that's what we concentrated on," Behrman said. "I'm happy to say that her oncologist said, ?You keep doing whatever you're doing.' "
Behrman's desire to make a difference extends beyond the walls of her store and the lives of her local customers. She serves as vice president of the Mid-American Health Organization and sits on the board of the Natural Products Association, working to ensure the quality and safety of natural foods and supplements. She also lobbies for bills she feels are important. "Let's pass a bill that lets people who are on food stamps buy supplements with their food stamps," she says. "They can buy Twinkies and potato chips, so let's at least get something healthy into them. I want to make sure my congressmen are aware, and let them know how I'd like them to vote." Using food stamps for supplements is part of the proposed Farm Bill that, at press time, was pending in the U.S. Senate.
It's been a decades-long journey from after-hours study sessions to managing Natural Choices and working for change at the national level, but Behrman says it's been worth the trip. "The only thing I would say is, reach for your dreams," she says. "Especially if you're younger. Usually when you're younger you don't have the assets to allow you to do some things, but you can start small. I started small."
Doug O'Donnell is a Wilmington, Del.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 1/p. 50