When Judy and Irving Chasser started Jandi?s Nature Way in Oceanside, N.Y., in 1976, they weren?t typical health food store entrepreneurs. They didn?t come from a grocery background: Judy worked as an executive secretary, and Irving was a salesman for a women?s sleepwear company. They weren?t even that dedicated to natural and organic foods. ?We didn?t really eat healthfully at home,? their son, Howard, recalls.
All Judy knew was that she wanted to own a store. She looked at dessert food franchises, but none really appealed to her. Then, says Howard, one of Judy?s friends pointed out that many of the stores Judy was looking at had a ?healthy twist. She asked my mom, ?Why don?t you start one of those stores—you know, one of those health food stores???
So Judy and Irving leased a 900-square-foot space in a strip mall and opened one of Long Island?s first natural foods stores. Howard was 9 at the time, and his brother Myles was 7. Howard remembers that from the beginning, Jandi?s—an abbreviation of Judy and Irving?s names—didn?t make money.
?My mom and dad weren?t business people, but my mom has a huge heart and is amazing with people, so that?s how they brought customers in,? he says. ?Still, I don?t know how she made ends meet exactly. On a weekly basis she would be crying, saying she didn?t know how the store would stay open the following week.?
In 1984, Irving died, and Judy was left to carry on at Jandi?s alone. She decided to expand the store, moving down the block to a 1,700-square-foot location and adding a deli. But from a profit standpoint, ?The deli turned out to be more of a curse than a blessing,? Howard says.
When Howard started working at Jandi?s in 1992, the deli was losing an average of 12 cents on the dollar, and the rest of the store wasn?t doing much better. So Howard put his accounting degree and minor in business administration to work to try to make Jandi?s profitable. He began by getting rid of staff members who didn?t want to change their usual way of doing things. He shopped for better and cheaper insurance coverage, and instituted a self-insurance health plan to retain workers who had never had benefits before. He wrote up job descriptions for each employee so that everyone understood what a task like ?clean the kitchen? really entailed. He negotiated discounts with suppliers.
And he took classes in retailing, where he realized the flaws in his father?s store merchandising philosophy. ?My dad always said to push everything to the back of a shelf so you could see how much you have to order. And if an item was on discount, buy as much as you can afford and store it somewhere for two years if you have to.?
After learning the concept of just-in-time retailing, ?We started to date-code everything,? Howard says. ?We ended up having to throw out 10 percent to 15 percent of our inventory.? He also swapped the store?s 24-inch-deep shelving for 12-inch and moved the product to the front of the shelves.
Based on a theory he had heard that people would fill up any size shopping container you give them, he decided to supplement the store?s shopping baskets with a few carts. ?I couldn?t understand why people would buy more than what they came in the store planning to buy, just because they had a bigger cart,? he says. ?For the first few days after we got the carts, I would follow people around the store—trying to be as inconspicuous as possible—watching them fill their carts. I was so amazed.?
Howard then tackled the deli. ?I calculated labor and overhead, and decided, ?Here?s what my margin needs to be to break even.?? It sounded simple, but it was difficult to implement. He lost a chef who didn?t want to price out her recipes by ingredient. And he had to raise prices on deli items between 50 percent and 300 percent. ?When I saw that, I was in shock,? he says. ?I thought, ?Our customers are going to freak.? I really considered just closing our foodservice.?
Instead, he decided to implement the price increases and let the customers decide if the food was worth it. Some grumbled, but most paid up. Now, Jandi?s deli contributes about 20 percent to the store?s profit margin.
In 1998, Howard, his brother, Myles, and their mother decided to expand the store again. It took five years and $600,000 to design their 6,000-square-foot dream space. They planned aisles that were wide enough for two shopping carts. They decided on vinyl laminate floors with the look of wood but without the maintenance headaches. They chose a warm peach paint. They opted for black shelving because it doesn?t detract from the product. They took a light meter to other stores to determine exactly how much illumination they wanted in various areas of their store. They put in a state-of-the-art kitchen and installed their own point-of-sale hardware and store security system. Myles, who has a construction background, served as general contractor.
When the new store—dubbed Jandi?s Natural Market & Organic Caf?—opened on Oct. 15, 2003, ?the customers just poured in,? Howard says. ?Some of them who had been with us 20 years were literally crying.?
Today, Jandi?s has the largest organic produce section on the south shore of Long Island, along with the largest gluten-free food section—24 feet of shelving and two freezer doors. There are also 6 feet of shelves dedicated exclusively to raw foods and another 3 feet in the refrigerator case. The deli is a natural food aficionado?s dream—all offerings are vegan, except for the few that contain soy cheese, and are also wheat-free, dairy-free and refined-sugar-free. In addition, about 97 percent of the foodservice ingredients are organic.
Even more importantly, says Howard, is that Jandi?s remains true to the ideal his family cultivated over the past 29 years. ?We all wanted to have a business that really supports and encourages each individual on a path of being healthy.?
Vicky Uhland is a Denver freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 8/p. 54