A quarter of a century is a significant chunk of time to do anything, like, say, publish a magazine or run a natural foods store. It?s especially impressive if you run a business with the ethics bar set high, as it is at Greatest Grains in Davenport, Iowa, which begins its 25th year in business this year. Julie Martens and her husband Clyde Mayfield opened their first store on Dec. 15, 1978, because they ?were vegetarian and looking for the best fuel to go into our bodies,? Martens says. The two had begun studying a martial art and found natural foods as the answer to their need for good food.
Greatest Grains opened in a center-city neighborhood and then had a six-year stint in a strip mall. Their third and present location is back in the center of the city, which Martens says fulfills two important needs: ?We both believe in the central city, ethics-wise, but also there?s a chiropractic college in the neighborhood, and the students are a given core of customers.? There is also a massage school nearby. Martens notes that the students at both schools make great employees because of their interest in health issues.
From the very beginning, Martens and Mayfield found that their interest in personal health translated easily into good business health. ?The first day we opened, we had people waiting outside to get in,? Martens says. ?So we?ve always felt blessed and fortunate to have customers and a community that?s interested [in natural foods].? Although she isn?t sure exactly what the successful mix was, it could be that good karma had something to do with it.
Greatest Grains had no vitamin business for the first five years—as in, no vitamin section at all. ?Right next door to us there was a vitamin store,? Martens says. ?[The owner] was an older retired gentleman who lived off of what he made ? and we didn?t want to move in and take his business?we?re not that kind of people.?
Possible karmic reward aside, the couple has achieved success by finding ways to improve the bottom line while being good corporate citizens.
Greatest Grains has a store newsletter, and Martens and Mayfield present classes and seminars inside and outside of the store. They run one print ad in the weekly arts paper and advertise on the radio. The most recent campaigns were carried out using co-op money—money available from manufacturers to co-sponsor an ad—and Martens says ?the campaigns worked great.?
Martens says the co-op money came from connections made at Natural Products Expo West. In fact, they make Expo West a priority every year, attend Expo East every other year, or more frequently when time allows. ?The people in the know are usually at the conventions,? Martens says. ?The companies bring the bigwigs, and we can get a lot done at the show.?
A class for high-school girls on natural skin care, sponsored in large part by Burt?s Bees, was another Expo-inspired brainstorm.
The skin care class was part of a women?s multischool environmental education day. Martens says that they are ?big Burt?s Bees fans and know a lot about [the products], so the store?s Burt?s Bees section does fantastic.? During the class, Martens and her daughter Molly Mayfield ?highlighted Burt?s Bees products that help teen-age skin.? They also gave a short history on Burt?s and their mission, then ?focused on products that we thought would be popular and could help, especially with acne and that sort of thing,? Martens says. She notes that many of those young women have become new customers.
A recent event that came, not from Expo ideas, but from being proactive and using available resources, was a hugely popular Atkins seminar—an example of how the low-carb phenomenon has affected Greatest Grains. According to Martens, sales of low-carb products ?have gone from off the chart to our second-best category.?
Their broker mentioned that if Greatest Grains could guarantee a 250-person attendance, Atkins would send its representative at no cost. Martens says they knew the seminar would be popular, but didn?t expect to have to rent a banquet room to accommodate the 450-person enrollment they received.
The Atkins representative ?did an hour-long employee training for us during the day,? Martens says, and then the main seminar was held at night. The store set up six tables with products to buy, served samples that Atkins had provided and held a raffle. One downside to the huge enrollment was that the event had to be held outside of the store, minimizing the inherent advertising effects.
And, perhaps, the Atkins seminar is the best example of how Greatest Grains has been able to be successful for so long, not only by being true to core values, but also by staying on what Martens calls the ?cutting edge.?
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 1/p. 70