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Maverick Merchants

April 24, 2008

29 Min Read
Maverick Merchants

Linda Amidon
Owner of Harnett?s Health and Beauty in Cambridge, Mass., an alternative pharmacy that specializes in all-natural personal care products, herbs, supplements and healthy snacks. Harnett?s was founded in 1991; Amidon has been manager since 1992 and bought the store in 2001.

  • Number of years in the naturals business: 13. Her first job was as a soda jerk in a pharmacy.

  • Store?s claim to fame: Harnett?s was the first pharmacy in the nation dedicated to natural products. It was started by Anthony Harnett, founder of Bread & Circus. The store doesn?t carry prescription pharmaceuticals.

  • What motivates you to do what you do? ?For me it?s about empowering people to be responsible for their own health. I believe in natural remedies.?

  • An innovation you?re proud of: ?We have always provided lots of information so people can do research ... and we always have people in the store who can answer questions.?

  • A disaster you learned from: ?Early on, we had a small juice bar that did well. So we spent $40,000 to put in a big juice bar. But it started taking over the store. It was noisy and busy; it took away from what we were about. So we took it out.?

  • What you eat when nobody?s looking: ?I?ve been on a low-carb diet for a long time. I don?t cheat. But every once in a while, I?ll have a low-carb sweet treat.?

Rob Auerbach
Founder and president of three Rainbow Blossom Natural Food Markets in Louisville, Ky. Started in 1977.

  • Years in naturals biz: 27. ?A group of us formed a co-op and bought stuff in bulk. Then we?d get together to split it up. It didn?t work. So I started Rainbow Blossom.?

  • Store?s claim to fame: In 1977, Auerbach was called by a concert promoter and asked to cater a vegetarian meal for the rock band Yes. The band loved the food and the store became renowned for healthy catering.

  • Motivation: ?We?re making a contribution to people?s knowledge about healthy food. We contribute to the community. And now my kids are starting to come into the business.?

  • Innovation: The company aggressively seeks media attention to talk about healthy eating and nutrition issues. Auerbach and experts from the stores appear regularly on local TV.

  • Disaster: ?At first, we prepared foods at each of our stores for the caf?s and takeout. It was very expensive to keep up. So we started a commissary where we prepare food, then deliver it to the stores.?

  • What you eat when nobody?s looking: Every once in a while, McDonald?s french fries.

Dan Chapman
Owner of two Sunrise Health Foods stores in the Chicago area.

  • Years in naturals biz: Chapman?s parents started Sunrise in 1961, and he began working at the store in 1987.

  • Store?s claim to fame: Sunrise has a very educated staff, including Chapman?s mother, who is a certified clinical nutritionist; a nurse pharmacist technician; a biomedical scientist; and a biologist. Each store has an information center stocked with literature on products and diseases. Also, in 42 years, the stores have carried only organic produce, and now have certified organic produce sections.

  • Challenges: Competing with retailers who discount natural foods. ?I don?t think that?s the right approach,? Chapman says. ?You can?t discount and still pay for educated staff.?

  • Motivation: ?Helping people and making a living at the same time. It doesn?t get any better than that.?

  • Innovation: Buying new equipment and keeping up to date—no sagging wooden shelves.

  • Disaster: Eight years ago, Chapman bought a $100,000 computer system that ?didn?t do some basic things correctly,? such as balancing the cash registers from the front of the stores to the back. Chapman tossed the system and went back to manual accounting until he was able to afford a new system six months ago.

  • What you eat when nobody?s looking: ?I love a little ice cream. The caramel Stonyfield is worth dying for.?

Michael Cianciarulo
President and chief executive of Asheville, N.C.-based Earth Fare Healthy Supermarket, which has eight stores in North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia. Started in 1975.

  • Years in naturals biz: Eight years in naturals; more than 20 in the grocery business. His first job was bagging groceries at a supermarket in Orlando.

  • Store?s claim to fame: ?We?re the largest and fastest-growing chain in the South ... We maintain a strong product philosophy; 95 percent of our produce is organic.?

  • Motivation: ?I love working with people, I love opening new stores. I worked in the traditional grocery business for years, but working in the natural [category] is much more rewarding.?

  • Innovation: ?In our new store in Greensboro, N.C., we?ve put in four offices that are being used for alternative health care.?

  • Disaster: ?When I worked for Goodings Supermarkets in Florida, I decided to buy six stores from Kroger. It was my ego talking. In three years, we sold five of them. It?s really made me analyze things more closely.?

  • What you eat (drink) when nobody?s looking: Diet Coke.

Bruce Cohen
Owner of five Nutrition World Markets in south Florida and one Natural Life Health Market in Thornhill, Ontario.

  • Years in naturals biz: Cohen?s first job was in 1966 working in his parents? store, Joy Health Foods, in Asbury Park, N.J. He?s had his own stores since 1972.

  • Store?s claim to fame: One of the first naturals stores in south Florida, back in the days when stores were in small houses. Now it has one of the largest selections of natural products in the region.

  • Motivation: ?Helping customers to a healthier lifestyle so they can take charge of their health and live better.?

  • Challenges: Finding and keeping employees. ?We don?t believe in just selling; we want the customer to learn and be knowledgeable. We?ve had employees trying to sell everything but the kitchen sink, and that never works,? Cohen says.

  • Innovation: Keeping up with technology, including computerization some 20 years ago, which allows each store to stock a minimum of 13,000 items on a consistent basis.

  • Disaster: ?Not doing our homework well enough and opening stores in the wrong location. We should hit ourselves—we opened two stores in the same town 15 years apart,? and they both lost money due to poor visibility and a clientele that wasn?t friendly to natural foods stores.

  • What you eat when nobody?s looking: Pizza. ?I can?t eat cheese and wheat, and if you?ve ever tried wheat-free, gluten-free pizza ? why bother??

Terry Dalton
Founded Unicorn Village natural foods market in Miami in 1979 and sold it for $4.5 million to Whole Foods in 1995. Co-owner of Sublime, a 10,000-square-foot vegan restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., that opened in June 2003.

  • Years in naturals biz: Began farming organic fruits, vegetables and honey in 1975.

  • Store?s claim to fame: ?I?m pretty modest,? Dalton says, ?but it was the best goddamn store in the country.? Unicorn was known for its prepared foods and had the largest natural food restaurant in the United States—12,000 square feet, seating 300.

  • Challenge: Making the transition from running a small, 10-employee retail specialty store to operating a supermarket with 300 employees. This entailed capital expenditures, financing, construction and developing floral, foodservice, meat, bakery and deli departments. ?All the departments were like separate businesses, and we had to learn how to hire people like bakers and meat cutters,? Dalton says.

  • Motivation: ?I had some personal health reasons, but it was really about right livelihood. I?m just an old hippie with a passion for environmental issues and world peace.?

  • Innovation: Engineering gross profit margins. ?We were known for having obscene profit margins. We really worked hard at selling things that sold at the best profit—like having [the health and beauty department] next to checkout,? Dalton says.

  • Disaster: Dealing with the difficulty and shock of working with a partner.

  • What you eat when nobody?s looking: ?I?m pretty much a raw-food vegan, but don?t ask me what I smoke.?

Dan Foley
General manager of Wedge Community Co-op in Minneapolis. Started in 1974, the co-op has a staff of 240 and more than 10,000 members who make an $80 purchase to join.

  • Years in the naturals biz: 30

  • Store?s claim to fame: The Wedge was the first Minnesota retailer to be certified organic, and the first store in the United States to get certification for its meat and seafood department and juice and coffee bar. Foley believes his co-op has the best produce department in the region and a meat and seafood department that diligently checks ?the story behind the story? of its products.

  • Motivation: ?I want natural products to replace conventional products as the norm in every household in the country, so organic and sustainable food isn?t a niche industry anymore.?

  • Innovation: The co-op started an educational nonprofit organization that hires a full-time teacher to go into elementary and middle school classrooms to teach about food. Presentations have been made to more than 30,000 children.

Mike Gilliland
Chief executive of Wild Oats Market from 1984 to 2001; partner in Sunflower Markets since 2003.

  • Years in naturals biz: 20.

  • Store?s claim to fame: Wild Oats is one of only two natural foods stores to expand nationwide; Sunflower is one of the few discount natural foods chains, with stores in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado.

  • Challenges: ?In the early days, it was educating the customer and professionalizing the industry—more sophisticated purchasing and marketing. Before that, everybody in the business was making it up as they went along.? Now, in the discount world, Gilliland says the challenge is simply making money. ?It?s easy to sell a lot of stuff at very low prices.? The key is offering full-service, large stores with inexpensive stock. Sunflower accomplishes this by ?building cheap, but big,? buying direct from suppliers and eliminating middle management, Gilliland says.

  • Motivation: Gilliland, who spent part of the December holiday season filling in for the manager at Sunflower?s Denver store, says, ?I just like selling food. I like retail, customer service,? something he got away from as CEO of Wild Oats.

  • Innovation: Gilliland is proud of Oats? pioneering employee benefits, including staff wellness centers, stock options and profit-sharing plans. He also cites Oats? community service, including monthly ?5 Percent Days,? where 5 percent of sales went to various community groups. In addition, employees were paid to do charity work.

  • Disaster: ?Don?t grow too fast. That?s why I?m running a new company.?

  • What you eat when nobody?s looking: ?I eat anything that?s put in front of me. I?m not discerning.?

Sandy Gooch
Started Mrs. Gooch?s Natural Food Markets in 1977 in southern California and expanded to seven stores. Acquired by Whole Foods in 1993. Gooch is now a consultant in the naturals industry and an investor in Elephant Pharmacy.

  • Years in naturals biz: 26.

  • Store?s claim to fame: Mrs. Gooch?s gained recognition for artistic merchandising and presentation. Its style was copied by stores through out the country. ?It was a theater of food,? Gooch says.

  • Motivation: ?I had been ill due to an allergic reaction to an antibiotic. So I healed myself with natural foods. I felt so much better eating whole and real foods that I decided to open a market that embodied what I was doing in my kitchen.?

  • Innovation: ?We had a screening process to decide which foods we?d carry. Customers were thrilled to know they could buy products and have a feeling of safety and trust.?

  • Disaster: ?One of the stores had an independent meat market. They carried natural meat, but the guys who ran it didn?t provide service the way we did. We decided we needed to have control of every aspect of our store, so we bought them out.?

  • What you eat when nobody?s looking: A slice of pizza with whole wheat crust.

Eric Hinkefent
President of Akin?s Natural Foods Markets, which has six stores in Oklahoma, Nebraska, Missouri and Kansas; and Chamberlin?s Natural Foods Markets, with seven stores in central Florida. The stores, founded separately in 1935, are owned by Health Food Associates of Tulsa, Okla.

  • Years in naturals biz: More than 20. He started out working in a natural foods distributor?s warehouse.

  • Store?s claim to fame: ?We?re always on the leading edge of the nutritional trends, and we have educational programs to keep our employees and customers informed.?

  • Motivation: ?It?s great to be involved in an industry where every day you help people to help themselves to better health.?

  • Innovation: ?In the 1970s and 1980s, we were the first to introduce organic produce to the markets we are in. They were not profitable, but we brought them in because we felt strongly about the organic food movement.?

  • What you eat when nobody?s looking: ?Popcorn at the movies.?

Cheryl Hughes
Owner and founder of the Whole Wheatery, a Lancaster, Calif., naturals grocery and market started in 1983.

  • Years in naturals biz: 24.

  • Store?s claim to fame: ?We meet consumer needs in a changing market. When consumers ask us about something, we do the research and go out of our way to find the products.?

  • Motivation: ?The consumers who come back and tell us that we?ve helped them. We witness change and receive gratitude. People come in and say, ?You saved my life.??

  • Innovation: ?I helped start the campaign to pass the DSHEA rules. We developed a program: ?Don?t Let Dietary Supplements Go the Way of the Dinosaur.? It became a national effort in grocery stores.?

  • Disaster: Soon after opening, Hughes purchased several cases of aloe vera, which didn?t sell as she expected. ?That taught me creative merchandising. We said, ?OK, how are we going to sell this? Can we sell it in combination with something else?? If we hadn?t learned from that, we wouldn?t be around now.?

  • What you eat when nobody?s looking: ?Cookies, my biggest downfall.?

Kemper Isely
Co-president of Lakewood, Colo.-based Vitamin Cottage Natural Foods Markets, which has 19 stores in Colorado and two in New Mexico. The business was started in 1955 by Margaret and Philip Isely, who sold fresh-baked whole wheat bread and books about nutrition door-to-door.

  • Years in naturals biz: 26.

  • Store?s claim to fame: ?We sell our products at affordable prices; we hold high product standards; we educate our customers and staff about nutrition.?

  • Motivation: ?We are delivering an important message about health, and we?re providing a service to the community.?

  • Innovation: ?We won?t bring in products just because they sell well. They have to meet strict criteria to get into our stores. For example, when coral calcium came on the market we made sure it wasn?t being made from live coral.?

  • Disaster: ?We agreed to go into a shopping center before it was built. After it was built, we knew our store was not in an A location. The store doesn?t perform the way I think it should. So I?ve become much more careful about new store locations.?

  • What you eat when nobody?s looking: ?I?m a purist. Every once in a while, I?ll eat dessert.?

Bea James
Whole health manager with Lund?s/Byerly?s, a 20-store conventional grocery chain in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

  • Years in naturals biz: 20 plus. James started out developing grab-and-go natural and organic food items for a small natural foods store in Oregon, and joined Lund?s/Byerly?s four years ago.

  • Store?s claim to fame: ?We were one of the first stores [four and a half years ago] to really launch and embrace the whole concept of integrated/segregated naturals,? rather than a store within a store. During James? four-year tenure, the average number of organic and natural SKUs per store has increased from 2,500 to 14,000, or 7.3 percent of total sales. Lund?s/Byerly?s was also a pioneer among traditional groceries in establishing natural lifestyle centers?500- to 2,000-square-foot spaces dedicated to supplements, personal care and juice bars.

  • Challenge: Educating mainstream customers about natural foods. Lund?s/Byerly?s has four to six company-wide promotions a year on specialty categories such as soy, organics or raw foods. The promotions include 10 to 15 demos in each store, guest chefs, classes and seminars, and articles in the in-store magazine and on the Web site.

  • Motivation: ?I have a very strong commitment that organic foods are one of the simplest ways people can make an enjoyable contribution to future generations.?

  • Innovation: Lund?s/Byerly?s is currently working on organic certification for all its produce departments—the first conventional grocer in the Midwest to do so.

Michael Kanter
President, co-owner and founder with his wife, Elizabeth Stagl, of Cambridge Naturals, an upscale nutrition, body care and lifestyle store started in 1974 in Cambridge, Mass.

  • Years in naturals biz: 32.

  • Store?s claim to fame: ?We are committed to the concept of a community store. We didn?t set out to grow our store into a chain. We?ve always worked to be part of the community we live and work in.?

  • Motivation: ?I?m always encouraged by people who come into the store and tell us how we?ve helped them. I?m increasingly committed to natural health and to helping people heal.?

  • Innovation: ?We are really good at staying ahead of trends. I spend a lot of my time collecting information. When things become popular, we?ve always had them in our store for awhile. We started to carry yoga supplies in 1994; that was a few years before yoga became really popular.?

  • Disaster: Through 1997, Cambridge Naturals was a full-service grocery store. In the mid-?90s, the inner-city store became increasingly difficult to run because of labor shortages and tough competition. The founders decided to quit the grocery business and become a specialty store. ?It was a huge transition; we were worried. But it worked,? Kanter says.

  • What you eat when nobody?s looking: An organic fair-trade chocolate bar.

Matt Martincich
Co-owner of two Montana Harvest Natural Foods in Billings and Bozeman, Mont.

  • Years in naturals biz: Martincich bought the 15-year-old Billings store four years ago. ?I went cold turkey right into the health food business,? he said. Prior to that, he was a FedEx contractor, a carpenter and a ranch hand.

  • Store?s claim to fame: Montana Harvest has an old-fashioned, walk-in cold room where customers can shop for grains, nuts and seeds. The stores are also located in a state where there are no large natural foods store chains.

  • Challenges: Martincich took over a financially struggling, 5,500-square-foot store and increased sales by an average of 10 percent to 12 percent each year. He accomplished this by adding 1,000 SKUs to the 30,000-SKU inventory, resetting the store to include more grocery, and highlighting the store?s 60 feet of supplements aisles.

  • Motivation: ?I like the people I meet. There are some people who are just nuts, but there are a lot who are health conscious and environmentally conscious.?

  • Innovation: Computerizing the store?s point of sale, inventory, ordering, accounting and payroll systems. Previously, they were all done manually. This allowed Martincich to add an additional 100 vendors, increasing the total to 400. He was also one of OrderDog?s first customers, serving as a guinea pig to help the company develop its automated store-management system.

  • Disaster: Martincich bought a $30,000 DOS computer system only a year before Windows was available. He can?t update the operating system and has had to figure out how to import DOS files into OrderDog and other programs.

  • What you eat when nobody?s looking: ?Somebody gave me some really good bakery cookies yesterday.?

Debbi Montgomery
Store director of the Issaquah, Wash., PCC Natural Market. PCC, which has seven stores in the Seattle area, started in 1953 as Puget?s Consumer Co-op. It now has 38,000 members who pay a $60 lifetime membership fee.

  • Years in naturals biz: 30 years in the grocery business. ?I started out as a cashier right out of high school at a traditional grocery store.? Five years at PCC.

  • Store?s claim to fame: PCC is the largest co-op grocery operation in the United States.

  • Motivation: ?I?ve become passionate about organic food, and PCC has made me so aware of healthy food. PCC cares about the staff more than any other company I?ve worked for.?

  • Innovation: PCC had no holiday promotions until Montgomery arrived. Now the stores decorate for major holidays and hold a variety of events for children.

  • Disaster: When Montgomery worked for a grocery store in West Seattle, the store burned. She helped her employees find jobs at competing stores. The company used its van to drive elderly customers to other groceries to shop. ?I learned how important it was to take care of your people,? Montgomery said.

  • What you eat when nobody?s looking: ?I sneak chocolate cookies from the deli.?

Philip Nabors
President of Mustard Seed Market & Caf? in Solon, Ohio. He co-founded the two full-service grocery and naturals markets, restaurants and catering operations in 1981 with his wife, Margaret.

  • Years in naturals biz: 24. He and his wife started a vegetarian catering company in 1979.

  • Store?s claim to fame: Beside groceries, Mustard Seed offers catering, full-service restaurants and bars (both juice and alcohol), cooking schools and educational programs. ?We offer a big bundle to customers,? Nabors says.

  • Motivation: ?It?s an honor to be able to have a business that enables us to do some good in the world.?

  • Innovation: The stores continually offer new products and services. Examples include full-service bars, and cooking classes, lectures, live music, fashion shows and banquet facilities in the stores? mezzanines.

  • Disaster: ?As we grew from one employee to over 300, we?ve had to change. Our nature is to be trusting, so we were pretty loose for awhile. Just in the last five years our systems have been greatly improved. I wish I had learned some of these lessons a little earlier.?

  • What you eat when nobody?s looking: ?I describe myself as a recovering vegetarian. I?ll eat sushi and game meat. With my kids, I?ll go to any restaurant they want as long as it?s locally owned.?

Mark Ordan
CEO of The Sutton Place Group in Bethesda, Md., which owns Sutton Place Gourmet, Balducci?s and Hay Day Markets. Ordan also founded Fresh Fields natural foods store in 1991 and sold it to Whole Foods in 1996.

  • Years in naturals biz: 13.

  • Store?s claim to fame: Fresh Fields was among the pioneers that combined natural foods with supermarket-style retailing, and Ordan says he passed on many of those principles to the naturals retailing industry. With the November 2003 purchase of Sutton Place, Hay Day and Balducci?s, he plans to bring natural foods to the high-end specialty grocery arena.

  • Challenge: ?Getting great products, great employees, great locations, leading to great customers.?

  • Motivation: ?Some defective chromosome, probably.?

  • Innovation: ?I think the last innovator in the business was Sam Walton.?

  • Disaster: ?I?ve certainly picked bad locations. You get arrogant and think you?re so good that even if it?s a B location, people will find you. I found out people have better things to do.?

  • What you eat when nobody?s looking: Pizza.

Barry Perzow
Founder and CEO of Pharmaca Integrative Pharmacy. Started in 2000, the eight-store Boulder, Colo.-based chain carries natural products, supplements and prescription medicine. Perzow also founded Capers natural grocery in 1984 in British Columbia. Capers merged with Alfalfa?s, which grew to 12 stores before being sold to Wild Oats Markets in 1995.

  • Years in naturals biz: 25. His first job was in a high-end gourmet shop in Montreal that carried natural foods.

  • Store?s claim to fame: Pharmaca employs nutritionists, homeopaths, naturopathic doctors, estheticians and traditional pharmacists who work together as a team.

  • Motivation: ?We make a difference in people?s lives by helping them become healthier.?

  • Innovation: Pharmaca buys independent pharmacies in urban neighborhoods and converts them. Most of the stores had been in danger of closing due to big-box competition—thus the company?s motto: ?Saving the family pharm.?

  • Disaster: For a Thanksgiving promotion at Caper?s, Perzow baked pumpkin pies with crusts made with butter. The crusts tasted good right out of the oven, but they turned rock hard after a couple of days. Perzow published an apology in a newspaper ad and offered full credit for returned pies. ?People appreciated that. I think we gained a lot of new customers because we did that,? he says.

  • What you eat when nobody?s looking: ?I can put away a couple of liters of H?agen-Dazs ice cream.?

Mark Retzloff
Retzloff founded Eden Foods in Ann Arbor, Mich., with two roommates when he was a student at the University of Michigan in 1969. In 1971, he became manager of Erehwon natural foods store in Seattle. In 1974, he moved to Denver to manage Rainbow Grocery, a division of the Divine Light Mission, and bought it in 1976. In 1979, he and Hass Hassan founded Pearl Street Market in Boulder, Colo., which was later sold to Wild Oats Markets. He and Hassan founded Alfalfa?s Market in Boulder in 1983, which expanded to 12 stores and was sold to Wild Oats. In 1989, Retzloff left Alfalfa?s and worked as chairman of the Organic Alliance in Washington, D.C., lobbying for the Organic Food Production Act. He returned to the Boulder area in 1991 and founded Horizon Organic Dairy with Paul Repetto, leaving in 2001 to become CEO of Rudi?s Organic Bakery. He left Rudi?s in late 2003 and launched Aurora Organic Dairy in Longmont, Colo.

  • Store?s claim to fame: Retzloff believes Alfalfa?s was his ?crowning achievement? in retail, combining conventional supermarket conveniences with natural foods. Alfalfa?s was among the first stores to introduce natural meats, juice bars and flower sections. Retzloff is also proud of Alfalfa?s involvement in the community, citing the store?s dog washes and canned food drives and its selection by a local newspaper as ?Best Place to Find Your Soulmate in Boulder.?

  • Challenges: ?The challenge of retail is executing—satisfying the customers? needs,? he says. Also, because Alfalfa?s was founded in a college town, many staff members were students who only worked at the store a year or two. Retzloff devoted much time to motivating Alfalfa?s transient staff.

  • Innovation: Any paper that left the Alfalfa?s store—from shopping bags to newsletters to recipe pads—contained messages ?continuously reminding people and giving them information [about Alfalfa?s],? Retzloff says. ?It was very effective—kind of like building our own brand and educating people at the same time.?

  • Disaster: Alfalfa?s once lost power for most of a day, resulting in employees leading customers around with candles and flashlights, locked refrigerator cases and checkout with hand-held calculators and boxes of money. Retzloff learned to always have backup generators and to build stores with plenty of windows.

  • What you eat when nobody?s looking: ?Good organic dark chocolate.? Retzloff also patronizes Good Times, a Colorado fast-food hamburger chain that uses Coleman natural beef.

Scott Roseman
Founder and president of New Leaf Community Markets, five grocery and natural products stores located in Santa Cruz County, Calif., started in 1985. Two of its stores became the first to become certified organic.

  • Years in naturals biz: 20.

  • Store?s claim to fame: ?Since the day we opened, we?ve had a commitment to support the local community. We donate at least 10 percent of net profits to nonprofit organizations. In 2002, we donated $100,000 to the community.?

  • Motivation: ?I have always been environmentally aware, so I believe natural and organic foods are very important. I?m very supportive of this way of life.?

  • Innovation: The business offers a profit-sharing plan to all employees. Paid quarterly, bonuses are based on an employee?s position, length of service and store goals. ?It makes people feel that they can share in the success,? Roseman says. Also, New Leaf has always offered health insurance to its employees.

  • Disaster: ?We?ve never really made any big mistakes. We?ve made lots of little mistakes—hiring the wrong people, promoting someone to the wrong position. But we learn from our mistakes.?

  • What you eat when nobody?s looking: ?Milk chocolate; I?m not a dark chocolate snob.?

Debra Stark
Owner, Debra?s Natural Gourmet and Stark Sisters Granola Co., both in West Concord, Mass.

  • Years in naturals biz: ?I was brought up in natural foods and medicine—the whole family converted before I was born, so I?ve never known any different,? Stark says. She opened Debra?s Natural Gourmet in October 1989.

  • Store?s claim to fame: One of the most successful small stores in the country. The 2,200-square-foot store did $3 million in sales in 2003. ?Even some of the Whole Foods staff shop in our store because of the variety,? Stark says. She?s also proud of the store?s sense of community, which draws shoppers from as far away as Maine, Rhode Island and New Hampshire.

  • Challenge: Getting the uninitiated to come through the door. Stark assures publicity by sending out three to four ?surprise gift baskets? each quarter to media members, featuring unusual products such as macadamia nut oil.

  • Motivation: ?I?m passionate about natural foods and natural medicine. If I can make them user friendly, we could change things in this country.?

  • Innovation: Stark and her kitchen staff make natural products they can?t find, such as whole-grain cookies and cakes baked with unrefined sweeteners.

  • Disaster: Stark has a trifecta: She says when she first opened the store, ?I thought SRPs were a bunch of hooey, so I underpriced everything.? Then all the shelving fell down, and she ended up ?mixing echinacea with honey with peanut butter.? Also, her plans to become the olive capital of Massachusetts resulted in a purchase of 12,000 pounds of olives for a 1,200-square-foot store. It took her four years to sell the stock.

  • What you eat when nobody?s looking: ?In the early years, I was so tired I would go home and eat two pints of ice cream and a bag of potato chips for dinner. But now I?m a poster child for the industry.?

Mark Stowe
President of two Nutrition Cottage natural groceries in Delray Beach and Boynton Beach, Fla. Stowe founded the stores in 1975 with his wife, Karen.

  • Years in naturals biz: 28.

  • Store?s claim to fame: Stowe is licensed to provide nutritional counseling, and his stores emphasize nutritional information for customers.

  • Motivation: ?This is an educational experience; we?re continually learning. Consumers hear about things and want to know more. So we find the information for them. There?s not a day or a customer that?s routine.?

  • Innovation: ?I constantly give talks throughout the community about nutrition, health and the natural food industry. It helps direct business to the store.?

  • Disaster: ?In my late 20s, I worked in international business. I was overweight and unhealthy. It was time for a change. My wife and decided to get into this business. It was a huge change, but it appealed to us.?

  • What you eat when nobody?s looking: ?We?re relaxed about food. I say this: ?It?s not the little things we do wrong occasionally that affect us. It?s the big things we do wrong every day.??

Cynthia Tice
Founded Center Foods in 1978 in Philadelphia when she was 24 years old. It was sold in 2000 but has since closed. Tice is now a partner in the Tice-Genuardi Group, a Cherry Hill, N.J.-based natural foods business consulting company.

  • Years in naturals biz: 25.

  • Store?s claim to fame: ?Its integrity. We really cared about the products we carried and about the quality of information that we gave. We were missionaries.?

  • Motivation: ?In my early 20s, I wasn?t feeling well. One day I was smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee. A friend said, ?Look at you, no wonder you?re not feeling good.? I quit smoking and changed my diet. Within two weeks I was feeling completely different. It became my personal mission to make natural foods available to everyone—and it still is.?

  • Innovation: ?I educated myself about DSHEA and developed a system for communicating information to customers that was very beneficial.?

  • Disaster: ?Early on, we planned big events, but had disappointing turnouts. So we put on small events that were regularly scheduled. When people knew the schedule, we had better attendance.?

  • What you eat when nobody?s looking: ?Chocolate—but it?s always organic.?

Robert Tucker
Natural choice specialist with Bashas? Supermarkets in Flagstaff, Ariz. Tucker was instrumental in developing natural products sets in 62 of Bashas? 140 stores in Arizona and California.

  • Years in naturals biz: 15. Tucker started out at New Frontiers Natural Foods before joining Bashas? seven years ago.

  • Store?s claim to fame: Bashas? had one of the first store-within-a-store natural products sets nationwide. ?A lot of [conventional grocers] have patterned off us,? Tucker says.

  • Challenges: Working in a corporate atmosphere. Tucker had to fight with some people in the corporate office to establish his first naturals set, and despite free latitude now to do any thing he wants in the set, he still has conflicts ?living up to our business plan and mission statement while dealing with a corporation.?

  • Motivation: Tucker?s father died of a heart attack at age 50, when Tucker was 23. ?I started modifying my diet and lifestyle then,? he said.

  • Innovation: Tucker has built up higher-margin naturals departments, such as supplement and personal care, to the extent that his 800- to 900-square-foot section accounts for 10 percent of his store's sales, but is about 4 percent of the total square footage.

  • What you eat when nobody?s looking: "I drank too much tequila—which I have no business doing at age 54—and I think I know what it's like to be close to dying."

Joseph P. Lewandowski is a freelance writer in Fort Collins, Colo.
Vicky Uhland is a freelance writer in Denver, Colo.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 2/p. 30, 32, 34-37

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