Executive Interview: Q&A with Sandy Gooch

Sandy Gooch, a homemaker and former grade school teacher, became interested in natural foods after suffering severe allergic reactions to antibiotics and chemical additives in food. She joined forces with Dan Volland, who operated three health food stores, to open the first Mrs. Gooch's Natural Foods Market in West Los Angeles in January 1977.

Over the next decade, new markets were launched in Hermosa Beach, Northridge, Sherman Oaks, Glendale, Beverly Hills, and Thousand Oaks. By the time Whole Foods Market acquired the Mrs. Gooch's chain in 1993, the company was the torch bearer for the highest quality standards in the industry. In a time when quality issues plague the supplements end of the industry, examining the culture that created those high standards is essential.

1) You were one of the first people I met when I entered the natural products industry in 1989, and I found your outspoken idealism so inspiring. Where does it come from? Did you come under some criticism for it as well? How did you handle that?

I was raised by two idealistic parents who believed in excellence. Mother was legally blind and surmounted many obstacles with a determined “can do” attitude. My Father was a research biologist and chemist and owned his own wholesale pharmaceutical company in Altadena, California. It was called E. L. Buckner Medical Supply Company. He sold a variety of medicines and was very familiar with the quality, function and viability of his entire inventory. (At one time, prior to his entrepreneurial endeavor, he had been a detail person for Merck.) He even had his own formulations of supplements and healing products manufactured by drug companies. Though young, I can remember the general theme of phone conversations he had with the doctors, dentists and veterinarians he served. I loved visiting him in his office and warehouse. He was very proud of his selection process and his own line of private label formulations. I saw him send questionable merchandise back to the large drug manufacturers and suppliers. Dad’s company was small, but he only wanted the highest quality products including his own private label. Professionals respected him. He was trusted. Those are the business standards by which I was raised and I never forgot them. I thought his degree of business and scientific integrity was incorporated in all businesses. (Little did I know.)

Time passed. Decades later, I was gravely ill and trying to heal myself with the help of my Father and his dedicated research. We both came to the conclusion that the food supply was compromised. For the most part, available foods in supermarkets were devoid of a full spectrum of nutrients and laced with chemicals in one form or another. The population was getting sick--and so was I. As I read about what was happening to our food I turned my anger into productivity by giving lectures about diseases that were fostered by a lack of nutrient density and an overabundance of preservatives. Folks would say, "Why don't you open a market that would sell the kinds of products you have been showing us? We can't find all the items you are educating us about in a single market or health food store." They were frustrated. So was I.

I quit my teaching job to open the first Mrs. Gooch's in West Los Angeles. At the time, it was the largest natural products market in the country. I developed criteria for product selection, with the wise aid of my scientific Father. After all, this criteria was helping to keep me alive. If it worked for me why wouldn't it benefit others?

I can remember choosing a natural food distributor to be my major supplier. The owner scowled and shared, "he felt I was a nice lady but that if I didn't broaden my standards I would fail." Eighteen months later he took me out to lunch and said, "He was never so glad to have been wrong." For me, it was a validation to stay the course and hold on to one’s convictions.

I did listen to criticism when it involved things such as store design, employee dress, accounting procedures, better striping for the parking lot and myriad of other observations people had. Over time numerous positive, updated changes were made regarding the infrastructure. But the product standards were like a beacon to the community. That platform remained.

2) Which people influenced you both in and out of the industry?

I gleaned information, and thus was influenced by, health book authors, health care professionals, industry organizations, customers, research scientists, other health food store owners, suppliers, educators, governmental leaders, chefs, environmentalists, color specialists, hand writing analysts, artists, technology and systems consultants, museum directors, designers, musicians, etc. My "holistic" knowledge base was continually being expanded and enriched. I did not want to be limited regarding the thinking and development of this new concept market. Mrs. Gooch’s evolved, in part, because of the energetic input by a full spectrum of professionals from many fields.

3) In those early years, what critical lessons did you learn and how tough were they? What would you do differently?

I was a very trusting person. Today I would scrutinize key people in an organization, check out the validity of their statements and personal integrity more extensively. This is key whether you are hiring employees or investigating a manufacturer, supplier, broker, consultant or farmer. Business benefits by having a strong foundation of systems, products, service, and marketing to name but a few. One of the strongest components of the foundation is reciprocal trust)

4) How were the quality standards developed at your stores?

The initial quality standards were in place from day one. As time went by, and new manufacturing processes and ingredients were incorporated in products, we would have discussions with staff in every department. We conducted inventory audits led by an attorney who specialized in FDA matters. Loren Israelsen was ever diligent as he reviewed product labeling, safety, ingredients used and manufacturing processes as it related to government regulations. When questionable products were observed they were categorized. Loren’s categories ranged from “definitely get rid of this” to “talk to the manufacturer to see if a specific desired change could be made.” Sometimes manufacturers were very co-operative, sometimes they weren’t. We didn’t waiver once the products were discovered to have a problem, either with government-approved labeling or ingredients.

Additionally, staff conducted research to back up their recommendations about adding a new standard or criteria for product or category selection. An example of this would be irradiation of food, which, when we started the business, was nonexistent. Over time the process was incorporated by some manufacturers. After conducting research, we decided to screen against irradiated products. The new food standard was added to our printed form for suppliers and informational hand outs to the consumer. This review process happened quite a few times as new food technology and growing procedures came to the fore. Eventually, our standards and product audits became known as “Goochable.” Companies, nationwide, knew we had done our homework.

5) So often business decisions are made that sacrifice quality for short-term profit. How did you overcome that common business quandary and what advice do you have for companies wrestling with that now?

I was never in business to just "make money." That is very lineal. Money was the energy by-product of Mrs. Gooch’s doing a great job. This did not preclude using prudence and fiscal responsibility in the business strategy. Too often, managers change direction ONLY because they can have greater profit by incorporating the new idea. “What are the hottest selling products that we don’t carry? Let’s add them now.” This is short-term thinking, not long-term strategy.

6) In what ways has your vision been maintained by your successors within the industry?

Some stores, throughout the country, have maintained a similar vision of high quality standards. Others have included some standards in their product selection process. Whatever the case, I believe consumers have greater opportunity to purchase exceptional foods and supplements from many of the natural products markets today than they did from most stores ten years ago. At least consumers have choices and are not forced to purchase inferior food or supplements because they have no place to turn. Additionally, many manufacturers have maintained the Goochable standards we demanded, and they installed, over a decade ago. This is a good thing.

7) How has the industry itself changed for the better?

The industry has grown. There are more stores with larger square footage offering a greater selection in more communities. One very important positive aspect for consumers and our planet, is that there are additional organic growers. As well, because consumers are being educated, they are also requesting items such as: wild caught fish, humanely raised animal products, bio dynamic growing methods, fair trade items, scientifically tested supplements and foods, free range poultry, body care and shampoos with organically grown ingredients, no genetically engineered foods using recombinant DNA technology. These aspects were not as important for a large percentage of the population two decades ago. Society has generally made strides in its knowledge base regarding food and supplement issues.

8) How has it changed for worse? Is there anything that angers, or frustrates you? Who do you think is accountable?

I see some markets not knowing who they are. They are selling product just to sell. There is no idealism or integrity involved in their store merchandising, advertising and selection. They are all over the map regarding standards, what they offer, the look(s) of their private label, the employee training (or lack there of), the design and architectural implementation. It is a sorry sight. I believe that people who are CEO's because they are turn-around-specialists, or just want the money or the thrill of “the game” and don't know much about the reasons to buy natural products, and don't even use this knowledge as part of their life style, are partially responsible. Why, they might as well sell used cars.

I am also disappointed that the government lowered the standards of “organically grown” due to the pressures of big business. The term "organically grown" doesn't mean the same things anymore. I can appreciate that the "public at large" i.e. a Wal-Mart shopper or Target customer has added purchasing opportunities. But, at what cost to the ultimate originally defined quality standards of “organically grown” and the optimum health potential to society?

9) What do you think the industry should be doing differently?

The industry should be looking for the mark of difference to separate itself from the mass markets. It should continually try to define itself by offering unique, state-of-the-art quality presentations. One example of a golden opportunity would be to encourage more bio dynamic farming. If more bio dynamic products were offered you could have a captive audience. Mass market couldn't compete. What a concept.

The industry should be doing everything it can to be known as THE place for accurate information and integrity. Consumers should be able to turn to the natural products industry for education, knowledge and trusted products to help them obtain and maintain optimum health and quality of life. Our excellence in execution should dissuade consumers from considering the general mass market as a reliable source of information, goods and services.

Another consumer-purchasing trend to consider is: the future success of our industry may be to sell less of more.

10) What are you doing now?

My company, Sandy Gooch Enterprises, is involved in a variety of activities and has created a number of vehicles, from investment opportunities and property management, to consulting within the industry. I am one of the original founders and investors in Elephant Pharmacy. I continue to donate my time to many national and international women’s-issues organizations.

11) As you view the industry right now, what does the concept of quality currently mean? What should it mean?

It is obvious that the concept of quality means different things to various manufacturers, suppliers, markets--and even the government. I have had a difficult time understanding what quality is today. Some companies have superb standards. Others are questionable at best. I wish there were a uniform agreement regarding the definitions of quality and standards in each category. It would assist our industry in garnering market share and share of mind. The following is what I believe quality and standards could be:



The natural products industry represents a matrix of many interlocking groups. These include, but are not limited to, growers, manufacturers and packagers of organically grown foods, producers of animal protein and dairy products, packaged foods, dietary supplements, health and beauty aids, probiotics, ayurvedic products, essential oils, herbal products, sports nutrition products, weight loss products, soy foods, garlic supplements, homeopathics, edible oils, green foods, beverages, pet care products and household products as well as brokers, distributors, retailers and even consumers. Each of these categories has its own specific criteria and applicable approach to the issues of quality and standards.


The natural products industry can help to insure quality and standards by encouraging various trade groups within the industry to further the development and implementation of standards and procedures to assure safety, accuracy of information and integrity of natural products. As well, individual companies within these trade groups can be a best practices model(s) for others to follow. This goal codifies the spirit of the industry, which has historically been dedicated to improving the health of individuals, populations, and even the planet itself. A basic theme that binds the industry together, regardless of the products or services offered, is the commitment to excellence in quality and safety.


When these various entities within the natural products industry are not focused on individual gain, but rather in the common good, they will promote self-regulation of the highest quality and incorporate safety assurance standards.


A product can be considered to be of the highest quality and safety because, at every stage along the line -- from growing or manufacturing the ingredients, to the packaging and labeling of the product, its storage, distribution, product information and final point of sale -- each item will have been examined and evaluated for quality and safety.


The success and implementation of a program of quality for products and information is dependent upon rigid self-policing, verification of all procedures according to best practices models and ongoing proof of adherence to all applicable government regulations.


All companies should have on file proof and documentation of standards and ingredients used throughout the entire process. Documentation, laboratory records and complete data derived from all specified tests should be provided to insure that ongoing testing has been done to verify label claims.


Because the distributor and retailer, to include the owners and buyers, represent the final level(s) of quality assurance for the consumer, as well as a powerful incentive for high standards of manufacturing, they can play a role of "gatekeeper" of quality assurance in their business operations and the products they choose to sell.


In summation, quality of product(s) depends upon ongoing implementation of a variety of standards and procedures from growing, to manufacturing, to selling that incorporates such activities as laboratory proof of label claims, appropriate advertising, promulgation of truth regarding information and validation of safety and effectiveness.

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