Garden Cove Produce in Huntsville, Ala., isn?t all about produce. Sure, owners Artis and Edna Sidney grow fruits and vegetables on their 70-acre partially organic farm in nearby Taft, Tenn.
But along with running one of the few outlets for organic produce and whole foods within 100 miles, the Sidneys also focus on spreading the word about responsible nutrition and eating better in an increasingly busy world. ?People are in this mode of working with not enough time to prepare meals, and a lot of younger people don?t know how to cook,? Artis says, citing a survey showing a 10 percent decline in home-cooking habits in the United States between 1998 and 2000. ?Deep down in their hearts, they want to do right, but they often have two jobs and a family. They?d rather buy food premade.?
Sidney encourages cooking at home by offering healthy cooking classes and providing cookbooks and nutrition books near food displays ?so customers can have the ingredients right there as they read.? Edna sometimes cooks recipes from the more popular cookbooks and samples the dish.
Artis also creates displays that teach customers about eating right. For back-to-school, he?s planning a display on how to pack a healthy lunch and will promote this in a flier.
?We want to educate young people [about] cooking and eating healthier,? Sidney says. ?They hear news reports about people in their 30s getting high blood pressure and diabetes, so they come in looking for diet and lifestyle changes. They are beginning to realize that eating fast food is really bad and that they can either pay at the store or pay at the doctor.?
As vegans in northern Alabama, the Sidneys wanted to fill the void they found when trying to shop for their dietary needs. ?It?s still hard to find restaurants, though it?s getting better,? he says. When they decided to open a health food store, the reaction was ? ?Why would you want to do that?? But we?ve had steady growth,? he says.
Artis and Edna started Garden Cove in 1985 as a produce outlet, with ?an employee or two.? Over the next few years, they gradually began adding a selection of bulk foods and vitamins. Some of these items, ?especially good breads,? were almost impossible to find in town, Artis says. Then five years ago, the Sidneys bought ?part of an old poorhouse farm where people used to live and work on in the 1920s instead of being on welfare.?
The Sidneys understand that as small business owners they are in a position of influence in the community. ?We?re a minority-owned business,? Sidney says. ?When we started, not a lot of African-Americans were getting into [natural health]. But a lot of African-American Southerners do use herbs, although younger generations have gotten away from that.?
The Sidneys? sense of responsibility is a big part of their success and their marketing strategy. They strive to build that integrity into even the smallest of decisions. ?Words like good or sweet—we don?t use those words lightly, so people know a cantaloupe really is sweet if the sign says so,? Sidney says.
Customers also trust the information in Garden Cove?s lectures on healthy eating, including the most recent subject: ?Raw Eating and Food Preparation.? When local nutritionists or universities give courses on related topics, Sidney invites the class to tour the store, maintaining relationships with like-minded organizations and providing a resource for participants. This informal affiliation with institutions such as Alabama A&M University allows Garden Cove to provide the level of credibility the community demands.
Huntsville is home to NASA and Boeing Co., so the Sidneys are interacting with a highly educated population from all over the world. ?One fellow bought some water from our machine,? Sidney says. ?He took it to his lab and tested it to make sure it was what we said it was, to test it for purity.? The once-skeptical customer is now a store regular.
Garden Cove reaches its customer base through advertising on the local public radio station, in a nearby union hall, in the city?s college newspapers and during cultural events.
Sidney also appeals to the budget-minded customer with First Sundays and Third Thursdays sales each month. ?To help people stretch that last dollar,? Sidney says, he offers 10 percent off all purchases throughout the store.
But one of the best advertisements is the building itself, which is set on a busy street corner near downtown. On one side, drivers see a colorful countryside mural and a flower garden. On the other side, an old-fashioned produce stand suggests what?s inside the store.
Supermarkets and mass merchandisers in Huntsville have tried to carry more health food and specialty items to compete with Garden Cove, but have been unable to sustain the quality, availability and service. ?It?s the difference between buying a plant at Wal-Mart and buying one from the nursery,? Sidney says. ?Wal-Mart can sell it to you, but they can?t tell you anything about it or how to take care of it.?
Suzanne Estes is an Atlanta-based free-lance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 9/p. 74