Maine's Portland isn't nearly as famous as Oregon's distinctively progressive city, but with the state's largest population of 65,000, it's where Mainers head for big city life. The Whole Grocer, in business since 1984, has been making Portland the place folks travel to for all their natural products needs.
Store owner Chandrika Sanyal, who started out as a Whole Grocer employee, has been with the store 11 years. "I needed a job, so I thought I'd go for one at the neighborhood health food store," she says. "Who knew it would end up becoming my whole life?"
In 1998, Sanyal moved the store from its original 2,400-square-foot location to a new, 8,000-square-foot space. "We were the only health food store in the greater Portland area, and we were bursting at the seams," she says. "It was getting to the point that our customers were getting angry with us that we weren't doing anything right. Either we needed to move, or we needed to close the doors."
Initially cautious about moving into such a large space, Sanyal moved all the old equipment, including refrigeration units, just to be safe. "But we saw right away that we were doing very good business, and we were able to quickly generate enough sales to be able to pay for all new equipment."
The bigger space brought much needed improvements such as wider aisles, a broader product selection and more registers. "The convenience of shopping was improved significantly," Sanyal says. "We also decided to have a big back room where we could hold a lot of products, which made us able to offer much better pricing."
Since moving, The Whole Grocer has sustained 25 percent annual growth, Sanyal says. "Our location is incredible—we're between two exits off the highway, very accessible and very visible," she says. "It opened up the market for us."
The opening of Hannaford's Food & Drug, a large supermarket less than a mile away, brought Whole Grocer another, unexpected, business boon. Hannaford's large natural products section would seem to compete with her store, but according to Sanyal, it's had the opposite effect. "The opening of Hannaford's so nearby absolutely helped our business," she says. Hannaford's piques people's interest in natural products, but they come to Whole Grocer to learn more. "We can provide the education and the expertise that a large supermarket like Hannaford's just can't offer," she says.
Competition of a different sort recently came to town. Whole Grocer now shares a shopping complex and a parking lot with a Wild Oats Market, but Sanyal isn't worried. "We have standards that set us apart from other stores in the industry," she says. "One of the biggest things we don't compromise on ever is carrying any products that contain refined sugar or hydrogenated oils. Even if it's the most popular product in the health food industry, we won't carry it."
Sanyal's vigilant purchasing manager Maddie Hanna "will rip apart an ingredient list" in the quest to uphold the store's mission, and if brokers push products the store no longer carries, they receive an education on banned ingredients. Yogurts and soymilks that contain sugar have been dropped, as have certain personal care products that contain sodium lauryl sulfate or a large number of synthetic ingredients.
"These were all very popular and it made us very nervous," Sanyal says. "But it didn't slow us down at all; it just enforces the trust with our customers." It's important clients aren't pressured to buy products just because they're offered by the industry, or feel the need to scrutinize ingredients lists, "because they can trust us to have already done that," she adds. "Our customers have gotten used to the high standards that we've set for ourselves, and we feel it's a very important part of our successful business."
Several other factors, including supplements discounted 15 percent to 30 percent, differentiate Whole Grocer from the competition. "We've been doing that for years, and it makes a big difference," says Sanyal. "We put a sign next to each product with the suggested retail price and our price. Seeing the discount that we provide makes people go out of their way to buy their supplements here."
Whole Grocer also boasts a 99 percent organic produce department. "Lotus root is the only thing we can't find in organic," Sanyal says. "In summer, about 80 percent to 85 percent of our produce department is made up of organic produce from Maine. Next to each of the local products, we put up a sign with the name of the farm so people know where we got it from."
Most of the breads sold at Whole Grocer are from local bakers. Although most aren't organic, all of the breads are all natural and meet the store's tough criteria. "We'd like to encourage more local bakers to make organic breads, but in the meantime, it's very important to us to support the local bakeries that meet our ingredient standards," says Sanyal. The store also carries Maine wines, including locally made blueberry wine. Although the Maine wines aren't organic, 50 percent of Whole Grocer's wine selection is.
Sanyal attributes her store's success to Portland's citizens. "Portland is the most alternative town in Maine, so you have a population where the people are very aware, very conscious of their health, natural foods and the environment," she says. "We try to treat them with respect by offering them a store that's unique in terms of our philosophy and the kind of people who work here—people who bring such dedication and commitment to the natural foods industry."
The Whole Grocer
Chandrika Sanyal, owner
127 Marginal Way Portland, ME 04101
Size: 8,000 square feet
Staff size: 35 full time, 15 part time
Best-selling department: Health and beauty
Lynn Ginsburg is coauthor with Mary Taylor of What Are You Hungry For? (St. Martin's Press, 2002) and can be reached via www.whatareyouhungryfor.net.