In less than a year, Joshua LaBure and Vanessa Gochnour made Denver's first all-vegan grocery store and clothing boutique a reality. Nooch Vegan Market opened in August 2012 after much anticipation by Coloradoan vegans, many of whom donated to the store's Kickstarter campaign.
Two months in, the store is attracting vegans and non-vegans alike. Nooch (a nickname for B-12-rich nutritional yeast flakes) aims to reclaim the word "vegan" while promoting local, sustainable organic produce, packaged goods, beauty products and clothing.
While the market is Denver's first exclusively vegan grocer, it's also the smallest—and there's a good business reason for why. LaBure reveals the strategy behind the natural and organic all-vegan market and why this niche is growing.
Natural Foods Merchandiser: What prompted you to start the business?
Joshua LaBure: Vanessa and I met through Plants & Animals Denver, a [vegan activism] non-profit that I helped found two and a half years ago. I had a grocery background and Vanessa has a clothing background, and when we discovered we both wanted to open up all-vegan stores, we decided to combine our efforts and open up one small store that has groceries and clothing.
We liked the idea of going somewhere and not having to read any labels, if you're a vegan, and be a place for the community. Plus there's no one who caters specifically to vegans in Denver.
NFM: How long did it take you from concept to actually opening the doors?
JL: After Vanessa and I met, it took about six to eight months. We started setting up our social media accounts, figuring out what paperwork we needed to do and looking for retail spaces. We weren't finding anything that was small enough for us, until some of our friends that work at Crema Coffee House told us about a space for lease in RiNo [where the store is located in Denver].
Vanessa and I on a whim drove to the store and the landlord happened to be outside. She showed us around and within the next two weeks we signed the lease. We set up our Kickstarter [campaign], talked with family for small loans and began on shoestring budget. We avoided getting investors involved because we wanted to have complete control.
NFM: You ran a Kickstarter campaign and successfully met your financial goal. What are your best tips for other companies considering Kickstarter?
JL: Building up your network is the number one thing. Make sure your name and business idea is out there. And make sure that your Kickstarter campaign has a clear goal. People want to know what you're spending their money on; what they're helping out with; why they should help out. Give them good reasons for all of those.
And make sure you offer rewards that are easy to fulfill, but also worth it for people. We're finishing that up, so if I could do anything differently it would be to make sure you'll be able to fulfill the rewards on time. Everyone has been really understanding, though.
NFM: Who is your ideal customer? And who really shops there?
JL: People that are committed to the vegan lifestyle and that want to come buy products they can't buy anywhere else in Colorado. Since we've only been open for two months, we had a really strong support from the vegan community. We're definitely a destination place. People are coming in from all around the suburbs and different towns within Colorado.
We've had people from out of state come, too, who were visiting and heard about us. But right now, within the past few weeks, we've had people from the neighborhood come in wanting to buy staple goods.
You don't have to be vegan to come in. We want to be a resource and answer people's questions [about veganism.] A lot of new vegans are asking us, "How do I bake without eggs? What kind of bread is vegan?" It's been really fun to educate; it's like an extension of our activism.
NFM: How do you grow your local partnerships?
JL: Local is absolutely important to us. We carry a lot of local products, like Ritual Chocolate which is made two blocks away from us, and Denver Seitan Company, which I was involved in at the very beginning of the business, but now we're carrying their product. It's one of our most popular and one of our highest selling already.
We team up with The Vegan Van [a local food truck] for to-go foods. We carry only local produce. We want to partner with people growing food in the city. That's important to the sustainability of urban areas. We will be setting up our own garden in the spring and growing our own food that we can sell cheaply. It's not necessarily about making money as it is about promoting the ultra-local lifestyle to people.
NFM: Because you're selling foods not available elsewhere, and many foods that are naturally more expensive, what feedback are you getting on your prices?
JL: It's a mix. People who aren't used to shopping in natural food stores have brought up that we may be more expensive, but for the most part people are surprised we're really competitive with our pricing. We have low overhead, affordable rent and we don't have staff really; it's just me and Vanessa as employees right now.
We want everyone to eat healthy foods, so it's part of our mission statement to keep prices as low as we can. We don't always get good deals, and there are some things that are more expensive, but there are a lot of things I've noticed that are cheaper than our competitors.
NFM: Do you plan to merchandise by subcategory within the vegan umbrella, such as gluten-free?
JL: We don't necessarily have a need right now for the gluten-free section because it's such a personal experience when you shop here. You can just ask me or Vanessa and we'll take you on personal tour. I have a woman that comes in here who can't have sugar, soy, or gluten. Every time she comes in, I'm ready with a new product for her.
NFM: Is inventory management a challenge for you because of your specialty food focus?
JL: It was a little rough at first when we were getting set up. We're finally getting in to the groove where we're not running out of stuff every week. Every now and then we get a mispick—we usually only order one case of something, so if we get a mispick we'll run out of that one thing.
We're working with a lot of smaller, direct vendors. Those are my favorite people to work with. A lot of times it's a new product and we're one of the first stores to carry it. We carry these cookies from Florida called Om Nom Nom Nom, and were the first outside of Florida to carry them. We carry this jerky from a guy called [Morels] The Vegan Butcher in Lousiville, Ky., he makes a delicious vegan jerky.
NFM: What percentage of your budget are you spending on marketing?
JL: We haven't really spent any money on marketing. I have friends that blog all over, and a lot of vegan blogs have been picking up on us and have come into the store. Tons of word of mouth. We're set up with a lot of vegan events because they're happening within networks that Vanessa and I helped create, so we have that avenue.
We did just get our first ad on the back of a pedicab of one of our regulars, in exchange for a discount. Social media has been amazing for us. Our blogs, Twitter and Facebook have been super active. We already have over 2,000 likes on Facebook.
NFM: Do you think having vegan in the name may turn some shoppers off?
JL: I think, maybe, but that wasn't our intention. We just wanted to be clear about what we were doing. I think vegan is getting less and less scary as the years go by. With people like Bill Clinton going vegan, and actually using that word… it's being talked about a lot right now.
Part of our mission is showing people that there's delicious food you can eat [at Nooch]. And we're normal! We just want to talk to you and hang out. Some people do get a little worried, and they'll come in and say "I'm not vegan," and I say, "That's fine." We just want to talk and share food—that's what we care about.
We want to redefine "vegan," make it less scary and help veganism go into the mainstream. It's not a crazy lifestyle and it's not hard to do. You can get all your nutrients. It's a very positive thing and doesn't have to have a negative stigma to it. The word is just an easy way to say, there are no animal products in this food.
Nooch Vegan Market
3360 Larimer St.
Denver, CO 80205
Square feet: 800