Marieke Cormier was born into natural foods. Her parents started a store when she was a baby and owned it for three years. “I was literally in the aisles in a backpack,” Cormier says. Her mother, Ellen, continued to work in natural products off and on throughout Cormier’s childhood before opening Roots Natural Foods in Leominster, Mass., in 2002. Six years in, Cormier moved home from Alaska to help her mom run Roots and give Ellen some much-deserved time off—“although that never happened because we kept growing and growing!” she says.
Sadly, Ellen got sick and passed away three years ago. For Cormier, losing her mother also meant losing her right-hand woman, who offered years’ worth of business experience, natural products knowledge and cherished guidance. But she forged ahead, determined to carry on her mom’s legacy and mission and to continue creating a sense of family within Roots, among her fellow retailers and throughout her community at large. NFM checks in with Cormier to learn how she’s accomplishing these goals and more.
What was your mom’s—and now your—main mission as a natural products retailer?
Marieke Cormier: We’re not in a very progressive community, so education is number one. We teach people how to eat whole and about ingredients and issues such as GMOs. Number two is bringing people the best products I can find. I travel far and wide to find products to stock, from raw to paleo to gluten free. I also really consider pricing. Money is tight in our area, so at the moment, it’s a privilege to eat like this. I work very hard to make our pricing structure right. We also work hard to build community. Most people don’t feel comfortable walking into natural foods stores because they’re not plentiful here. Our goal is to create a space where everyone feels at home.
What kind of products do you offer that other local stores do not?
MC: We have strict standards for what we carry. It’s the regular list: no corn syrup, no parabens; we’re trying hard to eliminate GMOs. I’m not sure if that can happen in the supplements department, but we’re chipping away at it in grocery.
Where do you turn for business guidance?
MC: I joined the Independent Natural Food Retailers Association after my mom died. That has been hugely helpful in guiding me through the industry as a second-generation store owner, especially now that I’m running the store solo. Just by meeting fellow retailers, I’ve found this huge brain trust, a close-knit inner circle of help, so I don’t have to research everything on my own. For instance, we’re hoping to get a POS system in a few months. Rather than wading through the sea of systems out there, I’ve been asking INFRA members for recommendations. There are so many great role models who are willing to share knowledge and really want to see us grow.
How does Roots interact with the community outside the store?
MC: One of our claims to fame is Roots Fest, our annual customer appreciation/birthday party. It’s a huge event that attracts lots of new customers and grows every year. We had 50 vendors last year, a salsa-making contest, speakers from various supplement companies, local health care practitioners and more. Other than Roots Fest, we work with a lot of organizations, such as Growing Places, which teaches people in low-income communities to grow gardens. We’ve also done tabling in schools and participated in local festivals. But my goal for this year is to do even more. I’ve done a good job of networking within the industry, but I want to get out there more in the community.
3 tips to strike a chord with the community
Teach by taste. As part of its annual Roots Fest, Cormier’s store feeds everyone a free, fully organic barbecue. “It’s our way of showing people that organic doesn’t have to be exotic or weird,” she says. “It can be the same as what they’re already eating, only organic. Last year we fed 1,000 people.”
Give them what they can’t get elsewhere. Even if you’re the only dedicated natural store in your area, nowadays shoppers can find many natural foods in supermarkets—but not necessarily organic produce, supplements or natural body care. This can work in your favor. “There aren’t any other vibrant independents nearby that sell produce and natural body care, so Roots fulfills this need,” Cormier says. “We have a very extensive HABA department and do about 50 percent of our sales there.”
Take customers’ lead. Once shoppers feel comfortable in your store, they’re more apt to tell you what they want. Listen to their suggestions. “Customers have been begging us to do a juice bar, because there isn’t anywhere nearby to grab a quick, healthy juice or lunch,” Cormier says. “So I’m diving into foodservice, which I’m not as comfortable with, but I think it will be a great addition. Maybe after that we’ll add more grab-and-go stuff.”