When Sandy Gooch opened Mrs. Gooch’s Natural Foods Market in West Los Angeles in January 1977, there were no other stores like it—anywhere. Her simple desire to offer a range of quality, nutritious foods at one location while getting people excited about healthy lifestyles gave rise to the natural products store model now emulated by thousands of retailers nationwide. No question, the industry has changed dramatically since Gooch was helping local farmers unload organic produce from their trucks and trekking to supplement manufacturers’ facilities to make sure they were clean. Even though she sold her company to Whole Foods Market in 1993, Gooch stays deeply involved in the industry she helped launch. Here, she dishes on the pros and cons of this evolution and shares her hopes and visions for natural products retail.
Natural Foods Merchandiser: Was it hard to convince your community to try natural foods in 1977?
Sandy Gooch: We were located in a wonderful area close to major universities where people were well read, aware and understanding of our mission, so we didn’t have to convince them to come. However, while they knew wheatgrass, barley and brown rice were healthy, they didn’t necessarily know how to cook them or what to eat them with. So we would educate people once they were inside the market with demos and recipe ideas—we called it “edu-tainment” and “eat-ertainment.”
NFM: What were your biggest challenges back then?
SG: We were the largest store of its kind in the country, and it was difficult to find enough products that met my criteria. There was also the issue of whether the products would come to us in a good fashion. The initial challenge was produce—farmers would deliver their food personally, and there wasn’t a grading system or refrigeration. Also, there were only two major natural distributors, and we couldn’t be sure of the food quality until the deliveries arrived. As we grew and developed a greater customer base, the challenge became getting enough meat and fish. The demand increased and far surpassed supply.
NFM: What challenges do natural retailers face today?
SG: Today, there are many more natural products manufacturers, and with that comes retailers’ responsibility to really understand how each product is made, how it is grown. We have to address genetically modified organisms and insist that they be labeled. Many old-time natural brands are now owned by major companies that don’t want mandatory GMO labeling because they also own brands in the regular channels. Many are in bed with Monsanto. That makes it hard for retailers to discern what and what not to carry. Should our industry boycott companies now owned by major conglomerates? What does it mean if we do or don’t? These are major ethical questions we’ll have to deal with.
NFM: What’s your take on big natural chains like Whole Foods and conventional stores offering natural products?
SG: I see both sides of the coin. The benefit is that a greater portion of the population has access to products that are beneficial to health. The potential negative is that some stores just get involved for the dollar sign and may not have the diligence or passion that mom-and-pop shops and small chains have.
NFM: Will online natural retail crush brick-and-mortar stores?
SG: Online will probably take away some business, but my observation and experience tells me that retailers’ interactions with customers are priceless. Shoppers are involved and asking questions because employees are knowledgeable. And for the most part, everyone is having a good time. That’s not going to occur online. Whoopee, my jar of jam arrived! Big deal! Let me go into a store and learn about the farmer and taste a product.
NFM: What thrills you about the industry today?
SG: I’m thrilled on a variety of fronts. First, there are greater opportunities for organic. Many more farmers are getting involved in organic, and produce now comes into stores looking wonderful. Because more consumers are buying, now even big companies are purchasing ingredients like organic coffee beans from South America and featuring organic and even biodynamic grains in their products. This give-and-take allows growers and manufacturers to make money while treasuring the earth. I’m also happy more retailers are addressing issues with meat, such as how animals are raised and whether they’re given antibiotics, and they’re proclaiming protocol and standards. Also, fresh and deli foods are a cut above what they used to be. Natural foods used to have the reputation of tasting like cardboard, but now there’s more flavor and creativity, and chefs are getting in there to make a taste difference. Supplement quality has come a long way too. Companies now have outstanding standards, protocol and customer education—very different from years ago when I’d have to tour their labs to make sure scientists were actually there.
NFM: What hasn’t changed in the last 35 years?
SG: The camaraderie within this industry hasn’t gone away. I still can pick up the phone and call people at various natural companies to ask what’s coming down the pike. There’s also still a friendliness and sense of family with natural retailers that I don’t see with Kroger or Safeway. When you walk into those stores, the feeling is different, the energy is dull. Shoppers may not be able to put this into words, especially if that’s all they know, but once they get acquainted with natural products stores, they sense that passion and energy and come back for more.
NFM: Anything you miss about the early days?
SG: It was simpler back then, even though it was difficult. We wrote our own standards and checked into companies and products on our own. I miss being on the cutting edge and cusp of things, although I do believe that natural markets doing great business today are still on the cusp. They’re continuing to discover and define flavors, foods and product mixes and convey new information. I see a long life ahead for the natural products industry. As long as we can continue to develop our ethics and standards, adhere to those and always seek to do better, we have a hearty future.
3 tips to create your own legacy
Set standards and stick to ’em. Gooch was a pioneer in creating strict standards for the foods her store carried. As a result, the term <i>Goochable</i>—given to products that meet her criteria—is still used today by natural retailers nationwide. Decide which qualifications are important to you. Will you disallow products that use refined, white flour? Carry only sustainably sourced fish? “The more you define your diligence in regard to the food you offer, the more trust customers will have in your store,” Gooch says.
Make your store exude life. “Sometimes I’ll walk into a natural store and it’ll be ho-hum, plain Jane and lacking in cohesiveness and excitement, and I wish I could spend a week there to turn that puppy around!” Gooch says. “It doesn’t take much money to liven things up.” Paint a few walls bright colors, create a unique, storewide motif, and get your employees pumped about product demos so that shoppers come to know you for more than just good food.
Join the GMO labeling crusade. Gooch was against GMOs before most people knew what they were, and her influence has been immeasurable. As a retailer who your customers trust, you can play a vital role in spreading the word about GMOs and pushing the labeling issue forward. “It took a while for retailers to get involved in and passionate about California’s Proposition 37,” Gooch says. “But we can’t fight Monsanto with dollars—it has to be with passion, education and well-trained volunteers.”