With help from ancient Chinese herbs, technical ionic drink instruments, a secret menu, elixirs and tonics, the customers at Los Angeles-based Erewhon Natural Foods Market are under a spell to be healthier and buy more premium-priced products. No, it’s not witchcraft—the store is operating a successful tonic bar.
“Tonic herbs are a lost art from a sacred world,” says Truth Calkins, tonic bar herbalist. “We created an apothecary kind of thing—a little healing center for people to come to.”
If you dream it, they will come
For Calkins, launching a lucrative tonic bar was never a goal. His focus was on his own health as he battled candida, a yeast infection that can cause chronic fatigue. Literally growing tired of being tired, he began to educate himself on Taoist tonic herbalism in search of a cure. Six years later, a healthy Calkins works with other Erewhon staff members to dish out drinks that contain potent herbs, proteins, minerals and vitamins to help others be healthier and more informed about their nutritional choices.
“As people experienced Taoist herbal elixirs, they got into a deeper conversation about health with the herbalists themselves,” Calkins says. “When people get on a program [involving herbs and tonics], it completely turns their life around. When that happens, you really start to make a lot of sales, and that can be pretty amazing.”
The bar has become so popular that it has to close an hour earlier than the store so the bartenders have time to finish all the orders. “The customers love to be in the bar and hang out,” says store Manager Juan Hernandez. “So we have to kick them out. It’s pretty funny.”
Measuring success differently
You’d think that lingering customers and high sales would translate into big profits at the bar. But the store’s upfront costs for the herbs and minerals are high, resulting in a small margin but more opportunity for other departments in the store.
“If the bar was stand-alone, it wouldn’t work. It just couldn’t pay for itself. But because it is in a supermarket, people come and make use of the bar and get their shopping done,” Calkins says. “Once they try the drinks, they ask how to do them at home. I write out a program and show them everything they need to buy. Then they spend $1,000 and walk out of the store.”
The additional revenue is great, according to Calkins and Hernandez, but not the reason they consider the bar to be successful. To them, it’s the change they see in people that come to the bar looking for a deeper meaning of health.
“One of my favorite stories is of an ex-record producer, Lou Maglia. When he came to me, he was 64 years old and on seven medications for thyroid, blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes,” Calkins says. “I listened to his story and gave him a beginning program of the herbs, vitamins, minerals and supplements I had at the time. He attacked it like a monk, like a master. Within six months, he was completely off all the meds. It completely changed his life.”
LA trendy, retail friendly
Despite Erewhon’s excellent location in the middle of LA, Hernandez and Calkins believe the tonic bar’s monetary success and their customers’ personal triumphs can be mimicked anywhere in the country—but only if the right people are employed.
“I would recommend that you find passionate people that are into this world,” Calkins says. “They will know the sources of the best products to order and how to design drinks and recipes. You have to be a nutritionist, a health clinic and a demo booth at an Expo. It’s live and it’s interactive and you have to work quickly. It takes special kinds of staff to do it well.”
Sample tonics at the Erewhon tonic bar
Green mint chip ice cream drink contains high-quality protein powders, omega-3 oils and minerals.
Immunity shot has colloidal silver, Kyolic Aged Garlic Extract and oil of oregano.
Jinged-up reishi espresso contains deer antler, ginseng and reishi.
Tea balm contains maca, acai, stevia and cacao.
7660-B Beverly Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90036
Founded: 1980. Moved to current location May 16, 1991
Store size: 12,000 square feet
History: Ron Teeguarden, a Los Angeles-based herbalist and author, started the tonic bar with his old friend and Erewhon owner Tom DeSilva, as a Dragon Herbs outlet inside the store. The tonic bar is now operated by Erewhon exclusively, with herbalist Truth Calkins at the helm.