As the sirens blared and the sky turned black outside Organic Harvest Market and Café in Birmingham, Ala., on April 27, Ken and Kenny Camp couldn’t help but wonder: What now?
Since opening the store in 2005, the father-and-son proprietors had endured a catastrophic fire, a historic recession, the encroachment of three big-box competitors and—on that fateful April morning earlier this year—a fierce windstorm that knocked out the store’s power, destroying thousands of dollars worth of frozen goods. As they rushed to pack dry ice into their rapidly thawing walk-in cooler, the Camps got word that a 1.5-mile-wide tornado was barreling through the state, crushing everything in its path.
They crouched in the store basement as the twister ducked south, sparing the family business but leveling the college town of Tuscaloosa, 58 miles down the road, and killing 70.
“We have a lot to be thankful for,” says Ken Camp, as he restocked the store shelves one week after the storm.
Rocky start, rapid growth
Six years ago, Kenny Camp was studying education at the University of Alabama and working part-time in a small health foods store when he came to his dad, Ken, a landscaper turned firefighter, with a plan.
“The market was changing rapidly, and I knew there was a demand that wasn’t being met,” Kenny says. He envisioned opening a large, family-owned market that could rival the Whole Foods Market, which was set to open in Birmingham 18 months later, by emphasizing organic offerings, the city’s first organic café and a “personal touch.”
With shoestring financing from Ken and plenty of sweat equity, the duo started small, opening a modest, industrial-looking, 2,500-square-foot market in Birmingham’s bustling Hoover Village Mall on July 15, 2005. Things were rocky at first—the store opening was delayed due to problems with a cheap refrigeration system—but six months later, when two stores next door became vacant, the Camps didn’t hesitate to expand.
The expansion more than doubled Organic Harvest’s original size. The Camps invested $10,000 in a bulk food section and boosted their dairy and meat offerings to meet customer demand. They stayed open throughout the renovations, collecting a vast database of customer addresses through a loyalty program that rewards shoppers with coupons in the mail. And when the time came for the store’s “Grand Re-Opening,” a mass mailing drew hordes, boosting sales 20 percent in one month.
But their glory was short lived. Whole Foods opened in February 2007, knocking Organic Harvest’s sales down 30 percent within a month. The Camps toyed with various strategies—including volume discounts, 10 percent to 15 percent price cuts and customer appreciation events—to try to gain back their shoppers.
In 2008, Publix—a market known for its wide selection of natural and organic offerings—moved in next door, exacerbating the stiff competition. Then Vitamin Shoppe came to the neighborhood. And so did the recession.
Then, as if it couldn’t get any worse, on Jan. 22, 2009, “I got a call from one of my employees telling me the store was on fire,” Kenny recalls. “I thought she was messing with me.”
Rising from the wreckage
The blaze, started by a space heater in the back room, destroyed the back office, burned up a freezer and knocked out the power, spoiling every perishable item. It also left a hazy black film and smoke odor throughout the store. As Ken battled with insurance companies, Kenny and his staff donned masks and scrubbed down the products they could save, placing them in carts that they rolled down the sidewalk to a small, vacant store that would serve as a temporary location.
But rather than mourn their losses or close up shop, the Camps rebuilt—bigger and better. They replaced the store’s concrete floors and metal shelving with welcoming tile, custom cabinetry, track lighting and local artwork, and they created a stand-alone organic produce section with center islands, bringing the store’s total square footage to 9,100.
Today, after $1.5 million in remodels and renovations, Organic Harvest is the largest family-owned natural foods store in Alabama, grossing $10,000 per day on average (compared to $2,000 in its early days), Ken says.
At last, the Camps say, their resilience has paid off. Business is booming. And they know what to do if something goes terribly wrong again: “Don’t panic. Try to make good business decisions and, most importantly, keep moving forward,” Ken says.
Organic Harvest Market and Café
1580 Montgomery Highway, #12
Birmingham, AL 35218
- ">Employees: 20
- SKUs: 17,000
- History: Opened in July 2005 by father and son Ken and Kenny Camp
Lisa Marshall is an Estes Park, Colo.-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to NFM.