In the countercultural mecca that is Santa Cruz, Calif., natural foods stores are a way of life. Even so, Staff of Life is one store that stands out in the crowded field. "Santa Cruz probably has more health food stores per capita than any other city in the country," says Scott Mason, the store's grocery manager. "And they all do well, because of the lifestyle of this city. For us, business is booming."
Staff of Life was started in the mid-1970s as a bakery, but co-owners Gary Bascou and Richard Josephson have shepherded the store through many changes. It now includes all the amenities today's naturals shoppers expect, including a meat and seafood counter, full-service deli and sushi bar, bakery, and—because this is Santa Cruz, after all—an amazing variety of vegan offerings, from tofu-based fruit pies to case stacks of rice milk.
"The meat and seafood counter went in three years ago," Mason says. The store's population of vegan shoppers didn't embrace this change, but Mason says Staff of Life needed to appeal to all shoppers in order to avoid being left behind. "We carry organic meats, and [we carry] seafood fresh from Monterrey Bay," he says. "It comes right off the boat to our back door."
Following an increasingly popular trend, Staff of Life decided to lease out those areas of the store that require special expertise to run in a cost-effective way. Thus, the sushi bar is run by sushi professionals, and the meat and seafood counter by a local fisherman. Staff of Life receives a percentage of profits from both areas.
If the Midwest is America's breadbasket, then California must be its fruitbasket. Not surprisingly, Staff of Life excels at providing quality produce. "Produce, obviously, is a huge plus for us because of the availability of so many organic products grown right in this area," Mason says. In spring and early summer, the produce bins are filled with local artichokes and asparagus, as well as the expected citrus fruits.
Of course, the other naturals stores in Santa Cruz have access to the same cornucopia of fresh produce, so Staff of Life has found additional ways to bring in customers. One of the most successful has been its quantity-buying program, which allows the store to pass deep discounts on to customers. "We specialize in trying to keep our prices a bit lower than most stores," Mason says. "We do this by multicase buying, so we have stuff on sale all the time. Having lower prices increases our sales, so the discounts we pass along to customers also work for us." An entire aisle of the store is given over to case stacks of grocery items purchased in quantity, and the sale items can all be found in this aisle as well as in their normal shelf space, Mason says.
Across the parking lot from its main store, Staff of Life operates a separate vitamin and personal care store. Unlike many natural products stores, Staff of Life tends to carry full vitamin lines and to group them by manufacturer rather than function. The store also carries a wide variety of personal care lines. The space now occupied by the vitamin department was once a sit-down café; the vitamin department was until recently located in the main store, where the deli now resides. "The industry has moved more toward prepared foods," Mason says, "and that's what we've done, too."
The new arrangement has proven much more cost-effective than the former layout, according to co-owner Bascou. "Business is booming," Bascou says. "We're doing more than $30,000 a day." The store is locked into a long-term lease, protecting it from the soaring rents that affect the Santa Cruz area, but recent spikes in power prices have proved costly; the store spends more than $50,000 per year on its energy costs, Bascou says.
And the rolling blackouts California has been subject to in recent months have hit Staff of Life, too. The owners are considering a backup generator system to help prevent spoilage, should longer blackouts become a fact of life in the future.
In spite of these challenges, it's obvious that Staff of Life is thriving. And in a town as fiercely independent as Santa Cruz—where the big naturals chain stores have twice tried to muscle in, and twice been rebuffed—the store's eclectic spirit seems certain to continue drawing customers.
Staff of Life Natural Foods Market
1305 Water St.
Santa Cruz, CA 95062-1517
831.423.8068 or 831.471.2140
Square feet: approx. 14,000 including separate vitamin store and warehouse space
Annual Sales: $11 to $12 million
Owners: Gary Bascou, Richard Josephson
Mitchell Clute is a poet, musician and freelance writer based in Louisville, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXII/number 8/p. 50