Natural Foods Merchandiser

Sandy and the Seven Stores that changed an industry

Once upon a time, in a sunny land where palm trees and bikinis lined beaches and Wonder Bread and Velveeta lined store shelves, a golden-haired mother lived peacefully with her daughter. She spent her days shaping schoolteachers out of the rawest material and evenings with her child. Warm breezes brought a hint of the ocean through her windows. Honeybees danced in and out of the flowers in the courtyard. All was good. Until she ate the poison apple.

Actually, it was a Fresca…

In 1974, Sandy Gooch, an otherwise healthy Californian, was rushed to the University of California, Los Angeles Medical Center, gripped with chest pain, body convulsing in tremors, head spinning. She thought she was having a heart attack. Doctors found nothing wrong. The symptoms subsided. She was sent home.

Two weeks later, another seizure struck. Back at the hospital, she underwent days of testing and treatment. On the fifth day, as doctors observed her, another attack racked her body. They saved her life, she says, with quick thinking and a shot of Benadryl. But they failed to find an explanation for her illness.

Feeling wretched, she went home, where she languished, bedridden. “Every day,” she says, “I wondered if I would live through to the next day.” This lasted month after month.

Specialists failed to find a diagnosis. Some suggested it was psychosomatic.

Her father, Buck Buckner, a research biologist and chemist, was enraged. He conducted his own tedious investigation to identify what was making his daughter so sick. He discovered that a combination of foods Gooch had eaten, combined with doses of tetracycline she had received for a cold and later for an eye infection, had weakened her enzyme sets (chemicals in the body critical to survival). The last thing she consumed before the onset of a seizure was a Fresca. Buckner realized that the bromelated vegetable oil in the diet drink acted like a fizzy bomb in her system, paralyzing enzyme and antihistamine activity. The combination of chemicals and additives hidden in Gooch's diet nearly killed her. She began eating only natural foods and regained her health.

Sandy Gooch's near-death experience led to the birth of an industry. She went on to create Mrs. Gooch's Natural Food Markets, pioneering concepts of quality and marketing that continue to shape the way Americans buy food. “She is literally the creator of what we now know as the natural food market that has become such an important part of so many communities in the United States as the place where you go when you're really concerned about how you live your life, when you're looking for quality, safety and honesty. She created a culture,” says Loren Israelsen, president of Salt Lake City-based supplements consultancy LDI Group and a 25-year industry veteran.“She is the original visionary for what we now know as the natural products industry,” adds Cheryl Bottger, director of training and education at manufacturer The Hain Celestial Group in Portland, Ore. Her standards defined an industry. Her creativity splashed Technicolor onto the black-and-white world of food shopping. Her heart inspired an unsurpassed level of devotion among those she worked with and a dedication to naturals across the country. And she did it all as a woman in a world dominated by men.

“They asked, ‘How can we find good food?' ”

Sandy and the bean stock ...

It began with a quest for beans. Gooch crisscrossed California, hunting for natural, untainted foods. “For my own survival, I developed a pattern of shopping that went from Santa Barbara to San Diego,” she says. She found beans in one place, poultry in another and lies in between from markets and companies making “all-natural” claims. She began lecturing about her health and diet. “People were enthralled with what was going on with our food system,” she says. “But they asked, ‘How can we find good food? We can't drive down to San Diego for beans!' ” So she opened a store.

For years, Gooch had been a master teacher, instructing other educators in a classroom that attracted students from across the country because of her innovative methods. But she had never taken a business course. In her late 30s, she partnered with friend Dan Volland to open the first Mrs. Gooch's in an old A&P space in West Los Angeles, investing her life savings and teacher's pension. She had no doubt she would succeed. “It didn't occur to me that it would fail. It really didn't,” she says.

She traces her positive outlook, her business sense and her commitment to quality to her parents. Her mother, Ruth, was legally blind and deaf. “She could have easily been a victim,” Gooch says. “She was anything but.” Ruth had her husband paint DayGlo orange (she could see colors) on the oven control at the 360-degree mark so she could cook. “She insisted on ‘ properly' so she could understand me and because it was correct,” Gooch says. When 6-year-old Sandy skipped out on cleaning the tub after taking a bath, she froze when she heard her mother call, “Sandra Buckner, you get in that bathroom right now!” “How did you know?” she asked her mother. “Because. I. Can. Feel. It.”

“And I realized that one way or another, things had to be done right,” Gooch says. “There was no cheating.”

Her father's own insistence on quality left a deep impression on his daughter, who recalls overhearing conversations he had with clients at his wholesale medical supply company. From their Altadena, Calif., home, he packed Gooch off to college at the University of Texas with a triple-entry account book. “At the end of every day, I needed to count the change that was in my purse and reconcile that with what my budget was,” Gooch says.

Her parents' commitment to excellence was matched by their idealism. “Rather than being in this box with all the ‘shoulds' in life, the box was open for me,” Gooch says. “Whether climbing a tree, riding a horse or reading a book, it was always ‘You can do it.' ”

Gooch spent months and months finding products for the store that fit her rigid standards: no refined sugar or flour, artificial colors, preservatives, caffeine or alcoholic beverages. She and Volland, who owned other health food stores, talked to scores of people for advice. One distributor, Art Miller, offered this: “You're not going to survive with such a narrow variety. You have to carry products with things like turbinado sugar.” Gooch told him, “I just can't do that, Art.”

Gooch and Volland opened the first 5,000-square-foot Mrs. Gooch's Natural Food Store in November 1976, on the edge of what The Natural Foods Merchandiser, in the cover story of the publication's very first issue, called a “downright transient, low-class neighborhood.” The store was a smash hit from day one. “People came in hordes,” Gooch says. By the middle of the day, lines snaked from the registers to the back end of the market. Gooch walked up and down the lines, thanking people, handing out free cookies and plants. She had to cancel scheduled advertising until the store could add more checkout counters. Those first days were “exhilarating—and exhausting,” Gooch says. “Fisticuffs broke out in the parking lot because space was so limited. We all did everything we could.” Her then fourth-grade daughter, Kristin, manned the frozen yogurt counter. “I couldn't even see over the top,” Kristin recalls. “There was just this little hand with Alta Dena yogurt reaching up.” Eighteen months later, Art Miller invited Gooch to lunch. He told her: “I've never been so glad to be wrong in all of my life.”

John Moorman joined the company as CEO and they opened a second store in Hermosa Beach, Calif. It was followed by a new store about every year for five years.

A nd the bunnies and the lambs all gathered to help our heroine. The animals danced in the windows. They wore bonnets. Even the penguins pitched in…

Riding shotgun in his convertible, headlights slicing through the dark Los Angeles alleys, Gooch and friend Jim Snyder prowled the back streets on trash nights, the car's top curled down to make room for their haul. Snyder had decorated for Bloomingdale's in New York. The pair would collect anything that looked like it might bring Gooch's vision to life: old furniture, broken sewing machines, wooden animals, farm tools and old pots and pans. The results were unlike anything anyone had ever seen in a food store, let alone a “health food” store, which at the time tended toward “dingy and very, very hippie,” says Jane Drinkwalter, vice president of sales for Irvine, Calif.-based supplement maker Vitamer Laboratories. Those early stores also often “smelled like supplements,” says Hain's Bottger.

The overall theme had to do with food, but also with old-fashioned goodness, says Nancy Uyemura, who was Gooch's student teacher and then became her store décor compatriot when the markets opened. “It all went back to the ‘good old days,' whether they were real or not, when people stayed at home and grew and made their own food, when things were ‘better,' ” Uyemura says. “It evoked a homey place. It evoked safety.”

Gooch and Uyemura decorated the stores on a shoestring, using trash-night treasures and student art. Shoppers' eyes were drawn to stuffed bears posed with porridge and signs about whole grains. Trailing green plants draped color throughout the grocery aisles. Produce was arranged as if it were waiting for Cezanne. Drinkwalter remembers locating the frozen section by the penguins nesting on the freezers. “No boring black-and-white sign for Mrs. Gooch,” Drinkwalter says.

Uyemura and Gooch created life-sized dioramas, a sort of Gooch's Food History Museum, including an 1800s kitchen that changed with each season. The outside display windows “were amazing, like Macy's or Saks at Christmas,” Uyemura says. Bunnies in scarves and mittens rode ski lifts, made snowmen and sipped hot cocoa in sparkling snow. “There were no products featured. It was just a mood,” Uyemura says. Somehow you knew that whatever you were going to buy would be great.

Inviting displays of information called to shoppers as they checked out, recalls Mary Walton, who began her 14-year career with the company at the cash register. “It wasn't sale info, but information about what the store was about, what we stood for, how to improve your health, why you don't need salt up the watoosi,” she says.

“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the fairest one of all?” Actually, for our heroine, it was more like a microscope. And she focused that looking glass on the products she sold and the manufacturers who made them...

“You don't have to be afraid anymore” was stamped on the shopping bags, recalls Michael Mooney, director of education at SuperNutrition, an Oakland, Calif., supplements maker. “You never had to read a label because you knew it was safe.”

“Sandy was uncompromising about product quality,” says Israelsen, who was general counsel at supplements maker Nature's Way in Springville, Utah, when he first met Gooch. “We had strict standards, and they were constantly changing,” Gooch recalls. “When you're writing the book for the industry, you go through a lot of drafts.”

As new research emerged, products could be culled from the shelves as soon as Gooch finished reading the scientific study.

Products that met her standards became known across the industry as “Goochable.” “If you could get products approved, you were ‘Gooched,' and that was gold,” says Israelsen “You'd go tell other retailers and distributors you were ‘Gooched,' and it was like getting your green card. And you could lose it.”

Gooch constantly investigated and re-investigated manufacturers, visiting manufacturing facilities and production plants. Leonia, N.J.-based supplements maker Solgar made a lab coat embroidered with her name to wear with the booties and hairnet she sported as she wandered among the company's vast stainless-steel mixers, inspecting the muddy, bulbous roots of St. John's wort as they came down the line, chatting with technicians about formulas. “She was extraordinarily thorough. She made it her mission to understand how things were made,” says Bill Arthur, president of Nutraceutical Solution Consulting of Miami and New York, who worked for Solgar at the time.

“She had standards,” Arthur says, “and those would never be breached.” Though people tried—“daily,” says Gooch. Customers, employees, distributors and even partners pushed her to make exceptions. “But you held the line,” Gooch says. “You have to hold your ground.” That tenacity is what she's most proud of.

“As a vendor, it could be tough,” says Arthur, “because she stuck to her guns. She was a tour de force in quality control. But she really helped vendors improve their game.” “Amazingly, many of the companies appreciated being told [that they needed to change something to attain Goochability],” Israelsen says. “They didn't know. Keep in mind this was 15 to 20 years ago. The level of technical and scientific sophistication wasn't there.”

Gooch walked the talk. She hired Israelsen to audit her stores. He cruised the aisles, examining every single supplement on the shelves, tossing items he had questions about into a shopping cart. He didn't find many, but those he did Gooch immediately removed from all her stores. Then, she would write a report to the company, explaining what was questionable. “Eighty-five percent of the time, companies wrote back, ‘You're right. We'll change it,' ” Israelsen says.

“She forced company after company to improve their products,” says Cheryl Hughes, owner of the Whole Wheatery natural foods store in Lancaster, Calif. “She had that power.”

T he lady gathered with all the wise men and women who came from across the land to create a plan to keep the kingdom safe…

When the industry's ingredient safety came under fire from the Food and Drug Administration in the early 1990s, about 20 industry leaders came together to form the Quality Assurance Alliance, a working group that sought to prove to the government that the industry could police itself. “We put together an enormous monograph of the quality standards for our industry, A to Z, from organic foods to edible oils and supplements,” says Israelsen, a member.

“And in these meetings of influential people, Sandy was the most influential,” he says. “She was a profound influencer who helped the passage of the [Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act] in 1994.” Many people think of Gooch first as a retailer, Israelsen says, but her work on national standards was “fundamental in allowing the supplements industry to revolutionize itself. And she never took credit for it.”

Working with all her heart and imagination, she made the masses believe…

The “pill stores” always had their own version of standards, recalls Hain's Bottger. “But it was generally communicated in a punitive way—‘Thou Shalt Not,' ” she says. Gooch turned the tables on that—for supplements and food. “She realized that if you made sure the food tasted as wonderful as anything you'd find in a gourmet shop, you'd reach the consumer in a different way.” Gooch believed that just as important as what was not in a product was the qualities it did have—the flavor, the aroma. “She really drove the industry in that way, not just making sure products were free of a certain ingredient, but it had to taste and look good,” Bottger says. Arthur adds: “She brought mass market appeal to natural foods,” convincing customers that “just because it's good for you doesn't mean it has to taste bad.”

To achieve that, in addition to being selective, Gooch employed strategies that changed the industry. Watching customers react to Jay the Juice Man as he juiced his oranges in the store, Gooch saw how excited people were. “We should really do this all the time,” she thought. A character named Gypsy Boots would lug in a black trunk full of dates, and as he handed out samples, he'd talk about climbing the trees to pick the fruit. “People gravitated toward him,” Gooch says. “We had trained staffers demo-ing products, plus growers and manufacturers. They would give a story, romance. The romance was always there. People got involved and became believers.

“They'd say, ‘Well, I'm going to buy Coleman beef because I met Mel Coleman. He had his cowboy boots and his photo book and showed us where the cattle live. I wouldn't buy anything except Coleman beef, and Mrs. Gooch's is the only place that sells it. Therefore I have to go there.'”

Meanwhile, conventional grocery stores had Muzak and fluorescent lighting. “And the products were dreck,” Gooch says. “How do you make Velveeta cheese romantic? How do you tell a story about that?”

Gooch found her own romance in the market. In 1978, Harry Lederman, then a distribution manager for Nature's Best, a health and natural foods company based in Brea, Calif., came to the store to try to sell his line. His salesmen had been striking out. “I didn't sell her the company,” Lederman says. “But I sold her me!” They were married New Year's Eve, 1986 (“Gooch” comes from Sandy's first husband). Their family includes Gooch's daughter, Kristin Pallad, and her stepdaughters, Jordana Mansbacher and Marisa Lederman. They have two granddaughters and 500 to 700 cookbooks. Gooch and Lederman are both accomplished chefs.

A creative force, “Sandy was really the first example of ‘food as theater.' She used that store as her stage,” Bottger says. Gooch's stage reached beyond the store. She created a series of community education lectures about various health issues that became so popular she needed to hold them at hotel ballrooms over several nights to accommodate all the people. Carol Rosenstein, a chiropractor with a background in clinical nutrition and psychology, spoke at several of the events. “There would be 400 to 500 people,” she says of the series' popularity.

The lecture topics could be controversial. For example, before a lecture on candidiasis, “We got hate mail from a group of doctors demanding, ‘How dare a store as credible as Mrs. Gooch's support topics so controversial?!' ” says Rosenstein. “I remember shaking in my boots at the Bel Age Hotel before going on. I was so nervous. But Sandy never flinched.” Gooch believed in giving the customer the knowledge to make the right choices to feel better, whether through reading store newsletters and displays, talking with the in-store nutritionist, working with a personal shopper to find the appropriate products or taking one of the thousands of tours Gooch personally led. “By educating, she created her market. Those people became advocates. It was very brilliant,” Uyemura says. “She's truly a master teacher in every sense of the word. She brought the tools from the classroom into the market.”

Her goal was to create advocates. “A customer can come and go and shop anywhere. An advocate returns, and for the most part, tells 10 other people about their experience,” Gooch says.

She was very clear about the kind of print advertising she wanted. And it was as unconventional at the time as penguins on the freezer and gluten-free gift baskets. Most ads didn't mention price. Most didn't even invite people to shop at Mrs. Gooch's. Some didn't even mention a product. Instead, they were copy-heavy ads about companies. “We talked about the Lundberg family and how they grew their rice, or how Mel Coleman rotated his cattle to enrich the soil.

“The advertising people said ‘You can't write that many words. People will never read it,'” Gooch says. But they did. And they shopped. And Mrs. Gooch's won a collection of advertising awards to add to a growing pile of awards for the store's decor.

She inspired them to whistle while they worked. Or at least smile…

When cashier Mary Walton first met Sandy Gooch, Walton was dressed in a giant white box and mask covered with sparkles, accented with a scary rubber snout. She was the Too Much Sugar Monster, hoping to make a point about the sour side of the sweet stuff on Halloween. Gooch gave her the grand prize for her costume. Walton remained with the company for 14 years, working everywhere from the loading dock to accounts payable in the main office for “my Gooch,” as she calls her boss. “My Gooch was always genuinely interested in everyone,” Walton says.

Through the years, when asked what accounted for her success, Gooch repeatedly pointed to her employees. Her quest for perfection inspired a similar effort among her staff, Uyemura says. “In a very loving way, she'd let you know, ‘Maybe we could do this a little better.' She was very wise in the way she handled staff. She walked the talk. You really wanted to be like her and emulate her—to do something over if it wasn't quite right. You began to raise your own levels in terms of your work, whatever it was you did.”

“A tribute to who she is as a person is the fact that even though she is such a successful businessperson, she is someone who you'd really like to work for,” says LDI Group's Israelsen. “She wanted her people to be the best, and she was committed to them. She spent so much time and money on seminars and trainings.” She took staff members on trips to fish purveyors and dairies, documenting everything in newsletters. “There was really an enthusiasm on the staff that they were all doing important work and they were proud to be part of the team,” Israelsen says.

Walton remembers Gooch helping people before they ever thought to ask. She remembers a gift of coveted Metallica tickets. One star employee was hoping to go to school to be a natural health professional. “I really hate to lose you on staff,” Gooch told him. “But the world is waiting for you to do great things.” Then she gave him a scholarship. “That's just the kind of thing she'd do,” Israelsen recalls. “If anybody ever wonders if you can be generous and courteous and value-drive and be successful? Exhibit A is Sandy Gooch.”

Gooch's generosity spread beyond her own stores. She was constantly helping fledgling entrepreneurs. When Hughes began thinking of opening The Whole Wheatery 26 years ago, she called Gooch, expecting a tip or two. “She sat down with me and gave wonderful advice and contacts, on everything from private label—another area she pioneered—to building a business, to customer outreach,” Hughes says. And not just once. Gooch mentored Hughes through the decades, and the two remain close.

And sometimes, our lovely heroine fetched coffee...

Supermarket and advertising executives from across the country had flown to the Food Marketing Institute's meeting in Scottsdale, Ariz. Mrs. Gooch's widely successful and unique strategies were to be featured in the day's presentation. Sandy Gooch arrived early. Coffee and breakfast were served. She was one of three women among more than 100 “blue-suiters,” as she calls them. The other two women were FMI support staff.

A man strolled up to the attractive blonde. He held up his cup and saucer. “Dear,” he asked Sandy Gooch, “would you mind filling this up for me?”

Gooch was furious. But she took the china and brought back a refill. “With one hand I passed him his coffee,” she says. “With the other, I shook his hand and said, ‘Hello, allow me to introduce myself. I am Sandy Gooch, the person who designed the advertising you'll be learning about today.' ” He was stunned.

Things like that happened over and over, says Gooch, as she operated in an arena run by men. Being a woman in business then? “It was untoward,” Gooch says, laughing.

“She was a force to be reckoned with in a man's world,” Arthur says.

“One of the first things that struck me when I learned about her stores is that it was a woman doing all of this,” says Drinkwalter, who remembers walking Whole Foods Market CEO John Mackey through his first awestruck experience at a Mrs. Gooch's store. “We were looking for ideas to steal,” Drinkwalter jokes.

“It was definitely a male-dominated profession,” Uyemura says. “The majority of the shoppers were women, but they had these men dictating what they should like and what the place should look like. Sandy changed that.”

Not that the vivacious blonde toned down her femininity to succeed. Her style and grace improved her allure. Susan Guillery-Harnett, who owned Bread & Circus natural foods store in Boston, remembers spotting Gooch, now a close friend, for the first time at a trade show in Las Vegas. “There was this glamorous lady, dressed to the nines, long dress and flowers in her hair. ‘Who was this glamorous woman?' I thought. She was a queen.”

“It was always a riot to walk the trade-show floor with Sandy,” Israelsen says. “It was like the queen was touring her kingdom. People would be running up saying, ‘Oh Mrs. Gooch this. Oh Mrs. Gooch that.' The only thing missing was a ring to kiss.”

In 1993, Mrs. Gooch's was the largest-grossing natural products market in the world. She had seven stores, 830 employees and annual sales of $90 million. In September, the company was acquired by Whole Foods Market. The stock was eventually valued at $63 million.

“It was almost an out-of-body experience,” Gooch says of sitting down to sign the papers. “It was truly surreal. Here was this baby I was giving up, this family with more than 800 members, that I was relinquishing to another entity and trusting that they would be taken care of. And lo and behold, that's what happened, but there was a lot of trepidation and concern.”

It was nearly four years before she could go back into a Mrs. Gooch's Market. She tried once, and employees mobbed her, crying, telling her how much they missed her. She left in tears and knew she needed to give herself some time before returning.

“What am I going to be when I grow up?” she says she wondered. “What am I going to do with the rest of my life?”

The answer was easy: Save the world.

It was actually what she had set out to do in the beginning. Gooch believes improving people's health is the way to improve their behavior and, thus, the whole at large. “When you nurture a body, then you have the opportunity to nurture the mind and the spirit,” she says.

In 1995, she spearheaded the Healthy School Meals Program in Los Angeles public schools. She served on a task force for nutrition and behavior for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors that conducted research suggesting recidivism among criminals decreased when they were taught about nutrition. She serves with presidents and prime ministers on the Women's Leadership Board at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government—an international group that works to empower women worldwide. She's constantly consulting with people in the naturals industry. And she never charges. “Sandy has a firm belief that you need to give back. It's very important to her,” says Lederman, her husband. “A lot of people make it and don't care. Sandy's always giving back.”

“It's fun,” she says, eyes sparkling.

Sandy Gooch's accolades include 1992 Entrepreneur of the Year from Inc. magazine and Ernst & Young; Retailer of the Year 1990-92 from the L.A. Business Journal; and 1991 Woman of the Year from the National Organization for Women. She was the only woman chosen among “50 Visionary Leaders Who Transformed Food Retailing” in 2003 by Supermarket News. The mayor of Beverly Hills designated a “Sandy Gooch Day.” In 2001 she was selected as one of The Leading Women Entrepreneurs of the World by the nonprofit of the same name.

But her true legacy can be found beyond the certificates and plaques. “Sandy Gooch single-handedly established what quality means, not just for dietary supplements but in the natural health retail industry, including what a store can look like, what customer service can be. She epitomizes the best of everything we strive to be as an industry,” Israelsen says.

“Her company was a great inspiration to people from all around the United States, including Whole Foods Market and me personally,” says Whole Foods' Mackey. “Her passion for high product-quality standards helped improve the integrity of the entire industry.” “Sandy took it on the road, out of health food stores and into mainstream America. She was a woman ahead of her time,” Drinkwalter says.

“I believe she changed the food industry in this country, not just the naturals industry,” Bottger says. “When you see our products become more mainstream, really, that was Sandy's vision.”

“She put her whole heart and her whole being into her work,” Bottger adds. “I believe it was because her motives always came from her heart that she succeeded.”

As Cheryl Hughes and many across the industry put it, the bottom line is simple: She is goochable.

A nd they lived happily (and healthily) ever after.

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