Traverse City, Mich.?s first health food store began in the back of a head shop. In the early ?70s, locals started gathering in the shop to talk over coffee and natural snacks such as Lori Korb?s homemade granola.
?The seeds of Oryana Natural Foods Market were planted in the tiny caf? in the back of the head shop,? says Korb, an original co-op member and the store?s current front-end manager.
In 1973, the group formed a cooperative buying club with a handful of members who picked up their bulk food orders off the local veterinarian?s back porch. After a year, they opened Oryana Food Co-op in a 600-square-foot, second-floor space.
?Our first general manager slept on the floor of the co-op and got paid only $20 each week,? Korb says.
The days of hiding the daily cash deposits in the bulk beans and holding board meetings in a member?s sauna passed, and by 1980, Oryana had expanded into its own storefront building. And in 1997, the store moved to its current 4,500-square-foot location, a converted lumberyard with ample space to serve its 3,000-plus members who live in and around this tourist town on the Grand Traverse Bay of Lake Michigan. Early this year, the co-op began doing business as Oryana Natural Foods Market.
Throughout the years, both the customer base and sales have steadily grown as well. The biggest jump has been in the past five years, during which sales figures doubled, according to Bob Struthers, Oryana?s general manager.
?We definitely have a presence in the community,? he says, although ?we?re not in a high-visibility spot, not a place you just drive by, but more of a destination.?
But Oryana has become a fixture in the town of approximately 18,000 residents. It?s become a resource for healthy food and supplements, as well as for information on all matters related to alternative health.
?The demand is increasing for what we have to offer, as the local population becomes less and less healthy,? Struthers says. Much of Oryana?s clientele are those new to the tastes and benefits of whole, unprocessed foods. Some are proactive about their health, and others are shaken by medical crisis. ?People realize they need to do something about their diet,? Struthers says.
A large percentage of the residents are retired people, transplants from Chicago who moved permanently to vacation homes. Many of these locals, facing the health issues of aging, end up at the market asking, for the first time, questions about supplements and healthful eating.
Because of the area?s emphasis on conventional farming methods, Oryana is committed to educating consumers about organics, and its efforts have been noted statewide. In 2003, the market received the Michigan Organic Food and Farming Award for Community Service in recognition of its considerable efforts to promote local and organic products.
Among those efforts is Oryana?s annual ?Local Foods Celebration,? a harvest banquet that takes place in September. The event now attracts more than 500 diners. Last year?s celebration included a keynote address by Frances Moore Lapp?, the visionary author of Diet For a Small Planet (Ballantine Books, 1991).
Earlier this year, the store debuted a ?local foods initiative.? Shoppers are given a list of all local products sold in the store and a guide offering simple, step-by-step instructions on preparing meals with homegrown products.
To seal the deal, the store makes it easy for shoppers to taste the bounty of the area. In addition to monthly demo days, Oryana offers special samplings of local foods. And the deli offers prepared foods that highlight one local product each month.
Oryana also conducts an extensive community outreach program on organics and alternative health. ?Whenever we are asked to participate in an event or do a presentation, we do it,? Struthers says. In addition, six times a year, the staff prints 5,000 copies of a store newsletter. Each issue focuses on a theme that relates to the health of the individual and the planet.
In 2002, the store became a certified organic retailer, the only one in Northern Michigan. That seal of approval is further assurance for consumers. ?Our customers know that we understand the law and do what we need to do to protect the integrity of our products,? Struthers says.
Oryana has also made a name for itself with its soy products and, in fact, even has a three-person soy staff. The specialty of the house is homemade tofu, which the store began offering in 1981. ?We now sell about 10,000 to 15,000 pounds a year,? says Struthers. ?It?s different than ordinary tofu, quite dense and flavorful.? In 2000, the store?s tofu and tempeh was certified organic by the Organic Growers of Michigan.
The soy products are highlighted in many of the cooking classes the store offers, including one on Asian foods taught by a Japanese-born chef, and are also featured in the deli. ?We sell quite a bit of prepared tofu and tempeh dishes and also introduce our soyfoods that way,? Struthers says. The tofu in peanut sauce is a perennial favorite, and the store is famous for its tempeh Reuben. ?It?s our most popular sandwich,? he says.
The philosophy of the store is to serve customers and the community in as many ways as possible. ?We mark the products that are gluten-free, low-salt and dairy-free,? Struthers says. Anyone who brings bags from home gets a 5-cent rebate. Senior citizens get 5 percent off each Wednesday on all purchases, and anyone who walks, bikes or carpools to the store also gets a 5 percent discount. ?We call it the alternative transportation discount,? Struthers says.
Barbara Hey is a Boulder, Colo.-based free-lance writer
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 7/p. 70