Aaron Gottlieb has high standards. During his college years, he was diagnosed with Epstein-Barr virus and was critically overweight. Instead of succumbing to another fad diet or remedy, Gottlieb challenged himself to do something different—to change for good. Inspired by a friend who took him to a vegetarian restaurant, Gottlieb became passionate about healthy eating and began working at a natural foods store in Atlanta. "Once I was exposed to it, I got so inspired. I learned the basics by reading labels—I read every food label for about a year, until I was at the point where I could point out any allergen in almost any food," Gottlieb says.
In 1997 Gottlieb applied his high standards again, this time to his career, when he opened Native Sun Natural Foods in Jacksonville, Fla. (He opened a second location in August 2006, also in Jacksonville.) His unwavering attention to detail and dedication easily translated into a business philosophy for running the store. "The cornerstone of Native Sun is uncompromising standards. The Native Sun standard goes much farther than the organic standard—just because something has organic ingredients doesn't mean it's necessarily healthy," he says.
Gottlieb began by ensuring his produce department was consistent with his criteria, stocking it with nothing but organic fruits and vegetables. Quickly, he moved on to other parts of the store. "We decided we couldn't stop there, and realized that each category of our store had to have a standard," he says.
Gottlieb soon recognized that he would need a system to maintain and monitor excellence in the products he stocks. Native Sun demands—in writing—from all of its manufacturers a promise of product purity. Before an item will be considered for inclusion on Native Sun's shelves, the producer must complete one or more forms, detailing the ingredients in the product. Gottlieb and his staff are particularly vigilant about genetically modified organisms, which can be difficult for the average consumer to spot on a product label.
Besides requiring ingredient forms, the Native Sun staff spends extensive time researching ingredients and touring factories and farms to make sure the store's suppliers' principles are as rigorous as its own. Native Sun then distributes this information to its consumers through an easy-to-decipher tagging system. Throughout the store, foods are labeled with color-coded tags depending on their ingredients. A green tag means low sodium; a red tag, no gluten added; a yellow tag, no casein added; and a brown tag, no peanuts added.
Having such a stringent doctrine in place has been both a blessing and a curse for Native Sun. A few years ago, after discovering a company had lied about sourcing GMO ingredients, Gottlieb confronted the company about it. He was told the company gives customers what it perceives they want. "That really stuck with me… Manufacturers are lying to consumers through creative packaging … and are resisting keeping products clean because they can make more money that way. Suddenly we're the bad guys because we're the watchdogs," he says.
Luckily, most of Native Sun's customers appreciate Gottlieb's passion for purity. Newer customers who are unfamiliar with the Native Sun standard, however, are sometimes confused when they can't find products on his shelves that they would normally be able to find at another natural foods store. For this reason, education is a key aspect of Native Sun's customer-relations strategy. "Customers with concerns are always directed to me so I can explain why we do things the way we do. We also hold weekly classes within our departments so employees are up-to-date on new issues," Gottlieb says.
Gottlieb's standards stretch to his prepared-foods section as well. Each food item in the deli is made from scratch every day. Customers can easily find foods that fit their diet by looking for "vegan," "vegetarian" or "no gluten added" labels. Recently, Native Sun started a new program, in which an experienced chef researches foods that are beneficial and then guides consumers to those foods. Dean Maillet was head chef at Native Sun for five years, and now runs the new department. "He's researching ingredients for the juice bar and deli and finding recipes that will help steer customers toward foods that will benefit them. We are giving people a guide of foods," Gottlieb says. Maillet is also working on a similar menu for the store's hot bar.
Respecting the environment is another important aspect of Native Sun's business philosophy. Construction of the second store was completed with the theme "art of agriculture." The new location boasts green building materials and an innovative insulation system using Styrofoam that allows the store to maintain a cool temperature and endure the summer without using air conditioning. It is also the first store in the United States to use a gravity-feed glycol refrigeration system that drastically cuts down on the use of environmentally destructive refrigerant, Gottlieb explains. "I'm also looking into the possibility of getting all the trucks that go to and from the store to run on biodiesel, and trying to convince the city to start a composting program," he says.
While it's not always easy being in Gottlieb's shoes, it's often rewarding. "People don't like to be challenged. It hurts when you're in an industry that would love to see you gone because it could make more money without you, but loves to see you in because you keep the passion alive," he says. And passion is one thing that's always in stock at Native Sun. "The tone of the industry doesn't dictate what I do," Gottlieb says. "It's the tone of my customers and their commitment to shopping here because of our standards."