Natural Foods Merchandiser

25 Who Championed a Cleaner Plate

Tony Bedard
Bedard joined Frontier Natural Products Co-op in 1991 as a plant manager, became chief executive in 1999, was named vice president of operations when Steve Hughes took over as CEO, and was reinstated as CEO a year ago. Prior to joining Frontier, Bedard worked in various positions for Winnebago Industries.

  • Years in the industry: 13

  • What motivated you in the beginning? Bedard liked the autonomy inherent in working for a co-op, and the rapid growth of the industry. ?It was a chance to be a big fish in a little pond,? he says.

  • What motivates you now? ?The industry continues to change—I learn every day.?

  • What has been your biggest obstacle? ?Frontier is a company that does a lot of things, has a lot of SKUs, and it?s owned by 18,000 members. It?s a pretty complex industry, and we need to simplify the things we do.?

  • When did you finally realize you?d made it? When Frontier was able to ?establish itself as more than just a brand in the trade/bulk business.? Now, Bedard believes Frontier is more of a consumer packaged-goods company, thanks to some highly visible brands.

  • When did you know the industry would survive? Bedard says Frontier had a ?keen recognition? of the importance of industry survival when it was founded 28 years ago. ?It was inherently part of the Frontier culture that organic and natural was a piece of being a high-quality company.?

  • When did you know the industry would survive? More natural and organic food migration into mass markets. ?I have nothing but optimism that the natural foods industry is doing the right thing, that we?re in the right kind of place.?

  • If you could write your own epitaph, what would it say? ?Tony Bedard: an honest, hard-working person who cared deeply about the people he worked with.?

Andy Berliner
In 1974, Berliner invested in Magic Mountain Herb Teas. Several years later he was named president and increased the company?s annual sales from $35,000 to $12 million in four years. He and his wife, Rachel, started Amy?s Kitchen in 1988, shortly after their daughter Amy was born. The company now manufactures more than 110 natural and organic convenience foods, employs about 700 people at its Santa Rosa, Calif., plant, and has sales of more than $100 million a year.

  • Years in the industry: 30

  • Early motivation: ?When Rachel was pregnant, we realized that we wanted to create a business that would allow us to provide for our child. At the same time, we found ourselves buying natural and organic convenience foods for the first time. Until then, we had always been able to grow and cook our food from scratch. We just weren?t happy with the quality of convenience foods that were on the market at that time.?

  • Motivation now: ?I enjoy working. I also am motivated by the constant feedback from consumers telling us how much they appreciate our food, especially those with food allergies.?

  • Obstacle: ?Those that any new business faces: financing, equipment and personnel. It was easy for us to gain distribution, since our product was so unique. Sourcing organic raw materials required a lot of work, but it wasn?t that difficult, even back then.?

  • Made it when: ?In one sense I knew we?d make it before we started. I was literally on a mountaintop in Yosemite and realized what a powerful idea we had. I think I knew at that moment that Amy?s would be very successful. In another sense, we don?t feel like we?ve made it yet. There?s just so much to do and so much more room to grow.?

  • Industry survival: ?I never thought about it or doubted that the organic industry would survive.?

  • Predictions: ?I expect the industry to continue to grow and continue to outpace the growth of conventional foods. I am also seeing a return to the basics, such as the renewed interest in the use of whole wheat. It might be the beginning of the return of the ideals that the naturals and organics industry was originally founded on.?

  • Epitaph: ?Loving husband and father, and good boss. He walked gently in this world.?

Neil Blomquist
Blomquist co-founded Cup of Sun natural foods store in Kalispell, Mont., in 1976 and sold it in 1985. After a stint as sales manager for Fairhill Foods, he joined Spectrum Organic Products in 1989. He was named president and CEO in 2002.

  • Years in the industry: 28

  • Early motivation: Blomquist says he has a very strong entrepreneurial drive, which, coupled with an interest in natural foods and alternative lifestyles, led him and his wife to open a retail store.

  • Motivation now: ?Right livelihood, and the people in the business. Though they have changed since the early years, they still have a lot of heart and soul.?

  • Obstacle: Finances. In the early years of retailing, Blomquist had to survive on what he calls a ?subsistence income.? At Spectrum, ?We have a lot more opportunity than working capital. Because we?re in a leadership position in the [culinary and nutraceutical oil] category, we get a lot of offers. The big challenge is to pick the ones that make the most sense and not overextend ourselves.?

  • Predictions: ?Sustainable agriculture will be driven more by economics than anything else,? he says. Farmers will choose organic methods because they offer better yields, higher prices and stronger plants.

Annie Christopher
Christopher was an artist and waitress in Manhattan before enrolling in a hotel and restaurant management college program. After graduation, she opened a barbecue stand in Vermont and developed a line of barbecue sauces. She formed Annie?s Naturals in 1984 with her husband, Peter Blackman, to produce and sell the sauce. Today, the brand encompasses 37 products, including salad dressings, sauces and condiments. The offices are still in the couple?s farmhouse in North Calais, Vt.

  • Years in the industry: 20

  • Early motivation: Annie?s Naturals was a way to combine Christopher?s interest in culinary arts with her desire to be a stay-at-home mom. Also, no other company was making natural sauces and dressings when Christopher started her business.

  • Motivation now: ?I?m able to combine my profession with a lifestyle I enjoy in the country. I walk across the road to work every day.? Christopher also likes the creativity inherent in food development and is proud of Annie?s status as the country?s top brand in natural salad dressings and condiments.

  • Obstacle: ?The biggest in terms of marketing and sales is how to manage the continual growth of the company, and we do that the old-fashioned way—with calculators and spreadsheets. For me, the challenge is to be creative within a fairly traditional category. The way I address that challenge is by reading, traveling and eating at restaurants a lot.?

  • Made it when: ?When I realized I?d never have to sell my products from the back of my pickup truck again! And I think we also knew we?d made it when other companies started trying to copy us and emulate our unique flavors.?

  • Industry survival: ?I never questioned it wouldn?t, because people want different foods, healthy foods, and the industry developed out of a need to begin with.?

  • Predictions: ?I think [the natural food industry will] become more and more mainstream. Everything always moves toward the center.?

Ben Cohen
With an initial investment of $8,000, Cohen co-founded Ben and Jerry?s Ice Cream in a former gas station in Vermont in 1978. Despite Cohen?s efforts to keep the company independent, it was sold to Unilever in 2000. Cohen resigned as chairman and is now president of Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, which operates TrueMajority, a group whose more than 100,000 members monitor Congress on issues of social justice, environmental sustainability and international cooperation. Cohen is also chairman of two socially responsible venture-capital funds: The Barred Rock Fund and Hot Fudge Social Ventures.

  • Years in the industry: 26

  • Early motivation: ?I was a failure as a potter and was just trying to make a living.?

  • Motivation now: ?Using the power of business to implement quality of life for people.?

  • Obstacle: ?There was tremendous opposition in the business and financial and legal community to the idea that business could legitimately spend effort and resources on solving social problems. As a manufacturer, the biggest problem was distribution.?

  • Made it when: In the late 1980s, Cohen was giving a visitor a tour of Ben and Jerry?s first ice cream plant, in Waterbury, Vt. ?We were walking around outside, and I looked at our huge ice cream facility and I thought, ?I guess we?ll survive,?? he says.

  • Industry survival: ?When we started to see supermarkets accepting natural foods.?

  • Predictions: ?The future of the industry is exceedingly bright, as more and more people realize the solution to cancer and other diseases is not finding the ?cure? for disease, but that the cure for disease is growing and producing food in such a way that it doesn?t make you sick.?

  • Epitaph: ?He tried.?

Mel Coleman Jr.
Coleman was raised on a ranch in Saguache, Colo., that has been in his family for five generations. In 1982, he joined his father?s company, Coleman Natural Meats, and eventually became chairman. Coleman has helped lobby the U.S. Department of Agriculture to create labeling standards for natural beef, served on the Organic Trade Association and Organic Food Alliance boards, and is currently a member of the Pew Initiative for Food and Biotechnology?s Livestock Advisory Panel.

  • Years in the industry: 22

  • Early motivation: ?After graduating from college, returning to the ranch was a dream that seemed impossible due to low cattle prices and the economic burden another mouth to feed would put on our family operation,? Coleman says. But after Coleman Natural Meats was formed and the USDA natural beef certification was approved, Coleman decided that ?with all the work that needed to be done, the need and opportunity was the open door to return home, and that?s exactly what I did.?

  • Motivation now: ?Providing economic incentives for not using antibiotics or growth hormones helps sustain today?s small family farms and ranches.?

  • Obstacle: Consistently forecasting future consumer demand, because it takes 18 to 24 months to get cattle ready for market.

  • Made it when: ?We?ll know we?ve made headway when the USDA defines natural as how livestock and poultry have been raised: source-verified; without the use of antibiotics and growth hormones; and fed a 100 percent vegetarian diet.?

  • Predictions: ?History will prove that natural and organic food production practices not only contributed to the wellness and well-being of consumers around the world, but also contributed to the economic sustainability of small family farms and ranches.?

  • Epitaph: ?Since I didn?t enter the natural and organic business until I was in my early 30s, I?d like my epitaph to read that I was a leader and contributor to our industry for over 70 years.?

Joel Dee
Dee, founder and president of Edward & Sons Trading Co., grew up in the food business. His family owned Ce De Candy, maker of Smarties and candy necklaces. In 1978, Dee began manufacturing Miso-Cup, the first vegetarian instant miso soup available in the United States. Edward & Sons now supplies everything from organic hearts of palm to organic ice cream cones.

  • Years in the industry: 26

  • Early motivation: In the mid-1970s, after Dee became a vegetarian, he was dismayed to find few, if any, natural convenience foods. ?The natural foods industry in the 1970s did not have any vision for who its customers could be. The people who were doing the most business in the industry at the time seemed to view its customer base as made of either older consumers who were interested in products for their age group, or pioneers, i.e., people who are going to cook from scratch on the wood stove.? So Dee started Edward & Sons to address the need.

  • Motivation now: ?Now, if we do not develop this next new product promptly, someone else will bring it to market before us.? He seeks out niche items that would likely go undeveloped without Edward & Sons? intervention. ?To me, that?s gratifying, because it?s the logical culmination of ?We?re gonna show you what consumers actually want.??

  • Obstacle: Dee cites two challenges. One is the lack of retail and distributor support he finds for new organic product offerings. ?Their new-product approval process does not evidence any preference for organic versus conventional.? Dee also finds a challenge in competing with large national vendors. ?As companies consolidate, decisions are made by fewer and fewer gatekeepers [at distribution and retail], and there are fewer and fewer vendors that represent a larger segment of items on retail shelves.?

  • Made it when: When he had established distribution nationally and had consistent reorders. ?I could no longer run the company from truck stops.? Dee cautions others on this point, however. ?It?s not a good idea to get too settled or self-assured. It?s always good to be a little wary.?

  • Predictions: ?We?re gonna see more and more organic product,? he says, and emphasizes watching European trends. ?What we see in those markets is a consumer preference for fine foods, with organic becoming a secondary benefit.? Dee also believes independent retailers will need to affiliate, much as independent co-op grocers have done, to gain financial leverage in national deals. Finally, Dee believes that the industry will need to do a better job of policing itself. ?I?m afraid we?re going to see organic get a few black eyes, which is going to shake out some of the borderline consumer base because of our failure to provide a more effective compliance organization.?

  • Epitaph: ?He always tried to give consumers something they needed but wasn?t there. And he consistently acted on his belief that in diversity lay real strength.?

Steve Demos
Demos, who jokes ?I?ve been eating for 54 years,? when recalling his path in natural foods, founded Touch the Earth natural foods store in New Hope, Pa., in 1974. He launched White Wave, the Boulder, Colo.-based manufacturer of Silk soymilk, in 1977.

  • Years in the industry: 30

  • Early motivation: ?We were out to change the way the world eats, and we wanted to prove that a value-added business model that creates wealth and success is a positive thing and not an exploitative thing. We picked soy to demonstrate a right-livelihood business model.?

  • Motivation now: ?Ditto.?

  • Obstacle: ?Ignorance. A lack of understanding and awareness for everybody, including myself.? Demos says his lack of management and business experience was a hindrance in the beginning, and consumers? ignorance about the difference between natural, organic and conventional products caused problems.

  • Made it when: ?I don?t know that yet, but some people have said I should start warming up to the idea. I think that?s a smart way to be. I don?t know anybody who said, ?My career got better because I knew I?d made it.??

  • Industry survival: ?I knew right after Woodstock.?

  • Predictions: ?[The industry?s] going to be better. We are the antidote to the ills we see around us.?

  • Epitaph: ?He changed the way we eat.?

Frank Ford
Ford was a West Texas farmer when he founded Arrowhead Mills in 1960. He?s considered one of the fathers of the natural and organic food movement, and often served as its spokesman in the 1970s and early ?80s. By 1990, Arrowhead Mills had expanded to 220 SKUs, and in 1999, Ford sold the company to The Hain Celestial Group.

  • Years in the industry: 44

  • Early motivation: Ford wanted to add value to his crops, so he bought an old stone grinder and began processing wheat and, eventually, corn.

  • Motivation now: ?I?m blessed to be a part of a group of dedicated young people. They created the natural foods industry. Paul Keene of Walnut Acres, Warren Clough of Shiloh Farms and others were inspirational.?

  • Obstacle: ?We were a bit undercapitalized in the early days—that?s probably an understatement. We were trying to create a new wave without very much capital.?

  • Made it when: ?In the ?90s, we became pretty solid, thanks to the natural food stores. It was mutual—we helped each other.?

  • Industry survival: ?I always knew it would. It?s a good product with good, truthful labeling. It?s based on solid ground.?

  • Predictions: ?The industry will continue to prosper. There are many fine natural foods stores doing such a good job, I see nothing but continued growth.?

  • Epitaph: ?He did his best.?

Michael Funk
Funk founded Mountain Peoples Warehouse in 1976, and went on to become founder and director of United Natural Foods Inc., the first distribution company in the United States to be fully certified as a handler of organic products.

  • Years in the industry: 28

  • Early motivation: ?I had a strong interest in health, in sustainable agriculture, and a desire to do something on my own as an entrepreneur.?

  • Motivation now: ?Supporting not only sustainable agriculture, but a sustainable world, including use of alternative fuels and power, and protecting forests, the ocean and the environment as a whole.?

  • Obstacle: ?Starting out as one man in a truck and ending up with 4,000 employees. Learning how to develop management skills and deal with the growth of the company and the industry has been the biggest overall obstacle.?

  • Made it when: ?I always felt like if you ever came to that conclusion, it means you haven?t succeeded. There?s always another level to go to and you just keep pushing the bar up.?

  • Industry survival: During the Alar apples controversy that was sparked by the 60 Minutes investigation in the 1980s. ?I think that was a watershed event in kicking the industry into another gear and increasing emphasis on organic foods.?

  • Predictions: ?I think overall we?re going to see growth several times of that of the conventional foods business, and organic foods will continue to be one of the main sales drivers for that growth. People want to see local, regional and smaller companies that produce unique products survive, and as long as we maintain that type of diversity, it will separate ourselves from the mainstream.?

  • Epitaph: ?Somebody who worked his butt off to make the world a better place.?

Lynn Gordon
Gordon is a certified macrobiotic cooking teacher who studied under Michio Kushi and went on to become founder and president of French Meadow Bakery, the nation?s first certified organic bakery, in 1985.

  • Years in the industry: 19

  • Early motivation: ?When my mother died at the age of 42 from ovarian cancer, my life became about learning the connection between what we eat and what we feel. Healing others, working with others and helping them with their diet became the most gratifying work for me.?

  • Biggest obstacle: ?Myself. My commitment, stubbornness and unwillingness to compromise. I had many offers to make other products using yeast and I simply didn?t want to do that, so there was a lot of business that I lost.?

  • Made it when: ?When Bon Appetit named us one of the 10 best bakeries in the country. I felt accomplished and recognized and was honored.?

  • Industry survival: When she began seeing big, mainstream markets with natural food sections.

  • Predictions: ?I think this is just the beginning. With things like mad cow disease and other worries, I think food consciousness is rising. The baby boomers are a hugely influential generation and we have money and we?re going to spend it on taking care of ourselves.?

  • Epitaph: ?I have a few choices: ?I care too much?; ?I believe?; or possibly Joseph Campbell?s saying, ?Follow your bliss.??

Hass Hassan
Hassan founded Alfalfa?s Market in 1974, which he sold in 1996 to Wild Oats Markets, and went on to co-found London?s Fresh & Wild Markets, recently acquired by Whole Foods Market Inc., for $38 million.

  • Years in the industry: 30

  • Early motivation: ?Back in the early 1970s, there was a big need for [stores] for those of us eating organic and vegetarian foods. There really was nowhere to buy those kinds of products. Also, I wanted to work for myself and be proud of my work.?

  • Motivation now: ?The people—from the suppliers and producers to the farmers and customers—it?s a tremendously positive group of people. That keeps me motivated.?

  • Obstacle: ?There are always challenges, but I don?t think there have been many serious obstacles. The timing for this business has been perfect, with such an increased focus on health and well-being, in addition to environmental awareness, in the past 20 years.?

  • Made it when: ?Only when I sold the business! While I was involved, there were clearly indications the business was doing well, but I always felt like we had to stay on our toes and that we were never more than one or two bad decisions away from wrecking the business. When it was sold, then I could say ?OK, I guess it was a success after all.??

  • Industry survival: ?I was confident from the beginning. The products are good, and it?s irrefutable that if you have a good diet and healthy lifestyle, you?ll feel better, and if you grow food without heavy chemicals, it?s better for the planet, so I think it?s been clear to people that this is simply good stuff.?

  • Predictions: ?I think that Whole Foods has shown that the large-store format in major urban areas appeals to a broad spectrum of people—not just hardcore organic or health-conscious people—and I think that will continue to succeed, but I also think there?s still a big market for smaller, specialized food outlets.?

  • Epitaph: ?We did a lot of innovative things in the industry. Sometimes we succeeded and sometimes we made mistakes, but we put care and depth into our work and we aspired to behave honorably.?

Bill Knudsen
Knudsen worked in his family?s juice-processing business, R.W. Knudsen, since its inception in 1961, and was named president in 1977. He sold the business to the J.M. Smucker Co. in 1984, continuing to work as chairman until 1999, when he and his wife, Nancy, founded Natural Vitality, a beverage consulting company. Knudsen is a former president of the Organic Trade Association board of directors, a founder of the Organic Food Alliance, a past member of the National Nutritional Foods Association board of directors, and a current member of the Citizens for Health board of directors.

  • Years in the industry: 43

  • Early motivation: ?I returned home from Vietnam looking for an entrepreneurial opportunity and found it in my family?s seasonal organic juice business.?

  • Made it when: ?When we realized we were the largest producer of natural juices.?

  • Predictions: ?Continuing specialization of the natural foods stores, continuing upscaling of the supernaturals, and continuing adoption of natural and organic foods by the mass market.?

  • Epitaph: ?With regards to this industry, I would like to be remembered as someone who made a difference.?

Bob Moore
Moore, founder of Bob?s Red Mill, discovered natural foods through the urging of his wife, Charlee. After a few years of self-education, Moore?s fascination with old-fashioned stone milling led him to give up his day job as the manager of an auto-repair center and purchase his first mill equipment in 1972. After he sold that business to his sons, he and his wife retired to Oregon and attended seminary. Shortly thereafter, fate led him to another mill, and he soon found himself back in business.

  • Years in the industry: 32

  • Early motivation: ?I was looking for a way to make a living at something I really believed in.? Moore says that after his wife gave him some books to read on healthy eating, he became convinced that it made sense as a way of life. ?I can?t remember when I didn?t want to make my own flour and cereal,? he says, ?as soon as I thought how easy it was to grind wheat into flour.?

  • Motivation now: ?One word: people. I love people.?

  • Obstacle: ?Funny, the word obstacle. I don?t really use that much. I walk pretty close to the Lord and I pray a lot, and life isn?t as mysterious to me as it is to some others.? Still, Moore talks about when his second mill—the red one, his labor of love—was torched by an arsonist, and about the inherent difficulties of working with family, or of losing key employees to competitors. ?I just keep getting up every day and doing what is put before me to do.?

  • Made it when: ?You start doing that and you?re heading for a fall. You better be careful. ? There?s no standing still; you?re always either going forward or backward.?

  • Predictions: ?I think when you take whole grains, you take the farmer. I don?t think the really big companies ? are ever going to be successful with a simple whole grain because it isn?t profitable enough. I don?t think there will ever be a time where there won?t be a minimal number of people in this world who will always be interested in whole grains. There?s nothing simpler.?

Robert Nissenbaum
In 1971, Nissenbaum launched Morning Dew Food Market, an organic and natural food store in St. Louis, and three years later opened Sunshine Inn natural foods restaurant. In 1982, he co-founded Imagine Foods, maker of Rice Dream rice milk. He sold Imagine to The Hain Celestial Group in 2002.

  • Years in the industry: 33

  • Early motivation: ?In the early ?70s, I was exploring the inter-relationship between diet, physical and spiritual health, and nature by studying yoga, macrobiotics, organic gardening—all very foreign concepts back then. I wanted to share those ideas with other people.?

  • Motivation now: ?Innovation and new challenges. Although I?m still involved with the industry in minor ways ? my main interests are focused elsewhere. I am involved in the solar/renewable energy field, which is ? poised to make significant breakthroughs into the mainstream of industry and awareness.?

  • Obstacle: ?In the early ?70s, the biggest challenges were simply finding sources for natural and organic foods.?

  • Made it when: ?When the banks started coming to ask if we would like to borrow money.?

  • Predictions: ?The industry will thrive and continue to increasingly affect mainstream dietary awareness. Very gradually, the fads and trends that ripple through the industry will subside as long-term scientific observations verify results. Most importantly, individuals? knowledge and trust of their own experiences will lead them to find diets and lifestyles that really work in their lives.?

Michael Potter
Potter, president of Eden Foods, founded the company in 1968 and in 1993, established the first policies against the use of GMOs. Eden products are also free from irradiation, preservatives, food colorings and refined sugars. Potter pioneered the need for an audit trail to authenticate the organic claim.

  • Years in the industry: 36

  • Early motivation: ?When I was 18, I read the book You Are All Sanpaku, by George Ohsawa, in a day, and that day I stopped eating meat and sugar and began the process of acquiring good, quality natural foods, and that process developed into Eden Foods.?

  • Motivation now: ?The same as 36 years ago—acquiring the highest quality natural foods I can for myself, my children, for my grandchildren, and making that available to people.?

  • Obstacle: Developing the organization to do business. ?Dealing with the egos and foibles, and building redundancy in the system to prepare for mistakes, which are inevitable.?

  • Made it when: ?When we started in the ?60s, the work was a labor of love for many of us and paid very little, but I remember feeling success in the 1980s when I realized we had matured enough as a company to pay people a fair, livable wage and provide health insurance and make this a decent place to work in the long term. But most of the time, you can?t think about success because it?s like a chemistry experiment—you keep adding ingredients and all you need to do is add one wrong ingredient and the whole thing can go ?poof.??

  • Predictions: ?The only thing I?m certain of is I?m going to be surprised.?

  • Epitaph: ??Here lies Michael Potter, a man who chose to do things the most difficult way possible.? It?s a joke around here that I always find the most difficult way to do things because shortcuts are not an option.?

Barry Sears
In 1982, Sears, author of The Zone, was a scientist at MIT, involved in the development of intravenous drug-delivery systems, when he realized that the same principles could be applied to food: Keep the nutrients in a therapeutic zone, where their hormonal effects were not too high and not too low. This could reduce inflammation, which he says is the underlying cause of diseases ranging from Alzheimer?s to heart disease and cancer. Quoting Hippocrates, Sears says, ?Let food be your medicine; let medicine be your food.?

  • Years in the industry: 22

  • Early motivation: ?Everyone in my family dies prematurely from heart disease,? Sears says, including his father, who was a world-class athlete. ?I knew I had the same genes. I couldn?t change that but could change the expression of those genes. I figured if I could save myself, I could save others.?

  • Motivation now: ?Looking at this great netherworld out there of what really causes chronic diseases. It all deals with inflammation. This is where the natural foods industry comes in. You can put together diets with natural foods to control inflammation to a far greater degree than you can do with any drug.?

  • Obstacle: ?Misunderstanding of what the Zone Diet is all about. It?s not about losing weight, but about controlling the hormones that affect inflammation.? People have to be ready to accept your message, he says. ?I went from being Boy Wonder at MIT to being a charlatan in a matter of months.? Now, he says, he is no longer considered to be in the outer fringes. ?You can find the pioneers—they?re the ones with the arrows in their back.?

  • Made it when: ?Success is having a goal and achieving it. But what if you achieve a goal and you?re the only one who recognizes that? Are you successful?? If the answer is yes, Sears says, he achieved success sometime in the 1980s, and it took 10 or 15 years for others to recognize it.

  • Predictions: ?The industry is always looking for the next new thing. The next new thing is inflammation. You have the tools. You can take this to the next level.? Sears cautions against focusing on ?what the next magic ingredient is that you can extract and put in a hard-shell capsule. ... It?s all about food, and we have the power to control our future, and change our future.?

  • Epitaph: ?He saw the future. And he made it happen.? Sears says he?s got the first half of that sewn up. As for the second half, he says, ?I?ve got maybe 15 more good years left to make it happen, to demonstrate that you can use foods to change health care.?

Bill Shurtleff
Shurtleff is director of the Soyfoods Center, which he founded in 1976 with his wife, Akiko Aoyagi. He is also the author of The Book of Tofu and 52 other books on soy products.

  • Years in the industry: 32. Began serious study of tofu with a tofu master in 1972.

  • Early motivation: Shurtleff was introduced to the vegetarian diet while working at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in California. When he went to Japan to further practice meditation, tofu became his main source of protein. ?I thought a lot of people in America would be interested in what I?d discovered in Japan, and that motivated me to write The Book of Tofu.?

  • Motivation now: ?The chance to play a role in changing the world for the better and bringing a food like tofu to places like Africa, where it really can make even as profound a nutritional difference as it can anywhere.?

  • Obstacle: ?The whole concept was completely new to America at the time. The products were not very well merchandised and not widely available to supermarkets.?

  • Made it when: ?When our books passed the half-million sales mark—that?s when I felt a strong sense of personal success.?

  • Industry survival: ?When these products really started to go mainstream in the [United States]. Seeing things like tofu and soymilk in major supermarkets—that really makes me feel like the industry has succeeded.?

  • Predictions: ?I think in 100 years people will look back [on how] the world feeds itself today as they do now on slavery and say, ?How could they possibly have done that?? My vision is there will be a totally different way of eating, in which foods from animals are only a small part of our diet and they?ll be replaced by quality foods from plants and protein from soy.?

  • Epitaph: ?He tried to relieve suffering among all beings by changing the way humans eat.?

Mo Siegel
Siegel began foraging for wild herbs in Aspen in 1969 when he was 19. Later that year, he and a friend produced their first blend, MO?s 36 Herb Tea. In 1972, he introduced Red Zinger and revolutionized the tea industry by convincing consumers that herbal tea could be flavorful and refreshing, as well as medicinal. Siegel sold Celestial Seasonings to Kraft in 1984, then to Hain (now The Hain Celestial Group) in 2000. Celestial Seasonings is now the largest herbal tea manufacturer in North America.

  • Years in the industry: 35

  • Early motivation: ?To help people become healthy. Somewhere in there was the need to make a living, but making people healthy was my deal. I was your basic health nut.?

  • Motivation now: ?Basically the same reasons that I started with—seeing people healthy. That?s still totally motivating. I feel strongly about people getting the right food and the right beverages.?

  • Obstacle: ?We went a little more mass market than some, early on, so getting people to believe in this was tough. Having enough money to grow was difficult, as was getting distribution at stores at levels we wanted—not that there wasn?t a lot of stuff that went right.?

  • Made it when: ?I?ve never felt that way and I?ll die never feeling that way. There?s a lot of work and simply not enough years.?

  • Industry survival: ?I bumped into the CEO of a multibillion-dollar food company back in 1970, and he predicted that in 10 years all the food in America was going to be made out of a test tube. Then and there I was absolutely convinced the natural foods industry would succeed. I knew that a certain number of human beings would not accept that.?

  • Predictions: ?My thoughts are that if the people that run this industry focus on the best-tasting food with the healthiest qualities, this industry is going to do terrifically. Without good taste, the products won?t sell. And without health, then why are we in the business? Whether it?s tea or packaged or fresh, if it tastes good, it will just grow and grow.?

Charles Stahler
Stahler is co-director of the Vegetarian Resource Group, which he co-founded with his wife, Debra Wasserman. The VRG was an outgrowth of the Baltimore Vegetarians, which the pair established in 1982. The VRG is a nonprofit organization for educating the public on vegetarianism and related issues; it also publishes the Vegetarian Journal, cookbooks and pamphlets.

  • Years in the industry: 22

  • Early motivation: The difficulty in finding scientific information on vegetarianism early on. ?A lot of veggie groups back then regarded doctors and nutritionists as the enemy, but we always believed there were doctors and dietitians on our side.?

  • Motivation now: ?The same things as before. Ethical business is very important to me, and that doesn?t just mean not doing anything illegal; it means producing good products, which is what the natural foods industry is about.?

  • Obstacle: ?Organizing the people on our side of the fence—sometimes they don?t realize how much we can accomplish, and don?t always work together as a team. When we work forward as a team, we move forward.?

  • Made it when: ?When we exhibited at the American Dietetic Association and our booth was crowded and the pork producers? booth was empty and they were just staring at us—that?s when we knew we?d succeeded. And at the National Restaurant Association conference, again, our booth was crowded with restaurant owners who needed recipes.?

  • Industry survival: ?When we saw things like soymilk and tofu products sold in stores, we knew the industry would succeed.?

  • Predictions: ?The big question is going to be, how do we grow while maintaining a balance to allow room for the small innovators? Large companies have so many audiences to serve that are beyond the vegetarian core. It?s getting harder for small businesses to introduce new products, so the question is, how far away will they get from their roots??

  • Epitaph: ?He tried to make the world better and tried to treat people decently.?

Arran Stephens
At age 23, Stephens owned Canada?s first vegetarian restaurant, the Golden Lotus. In 1985, he founded Nature?s Path, and launched the company?s first product, Manna Bread, at Natural Products Expo West. Nature?s Path is now North America?s largest certified-organic cereal company. Stephens served on the board of the OTA from 1996-2002.

  • Years in the industry: 37

  • Early motivation: ?Service. To provide a service to people who wanted unadulterated foods and to provide a worthwhile service to humanity.?

  • Motivation now: ?The challenge for Nature?s Path to become a trusted name in every home.?

  • Obstacle: ?Changing myself from a recluse to a professional leader and entrepreneur.?

  • Made it when: ?Success is a journey, not a destination, but I can think of several indicators of success: When your customers, your suppliers, your staff and your communities honor you; when you get prime rate; when you have honored all of your commitments; and when you enjoy good health and inner peace.?

  • Predictions: ?The sky?s the limit. Regardless of what the ?industry? does, Nature?s Path has its own goal to become a global brand of organic foods to the benefit of all stakeholders.?

  • Epitaph: ?Nurturer of people, nature and spirit.?

Bob Stiller
Stiller is CEO and chairman of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, the Waterville, Vt.-based coffee-roasting company he started in 1981. The company specializes in organic and fair-trade coffees, and had sales in excess of $116 million for the fiscal year ended September 2003. The majority of the sales were generated by the company?s wholesale business.

  • Years in the industry: 23.

  • Early motivation: ?We were always interested in sustainable sourcing, and worked with organizations including the Rainforest Alliance and other groups. We were socially and environmentally focused, and it was motivational for the employees of the company, knowing the good we were doing. We found that the farmers were equally motivated, knowing that people cared about what they were doing, so it really created a synergistic sense of community.?

  • Motivation now: ?Experiencing that sense of community throughout our supply chain. Making the world a better place is a lot more exciting than saying ?I?ve got to make more profit next year.??

  • Predictions: ?I predict there will be more fair-trade types of certification and organic produce. I feel as time goes on, both will increase. In order for there to be sustainability in the world, people everywhere need to earn a living wage to provide for their families.?

  • Epitaph: ?First, I want to see the year way out there in the future! But I think I?d like it to read: ?I enjoyed life and left the world a better place.??

Albert Straus
Straus, president and owner of Straus Family Creamery, converted his family-owned Marin County, Calif., dairy farm in 1993 into the first certified-organic dairy west of the Mississippi. From there, the company went on to bottle milk and produce other dairy products under the family name.

  • Years in the industry: 14. ?My father started the dairy farm in 1941. I became his partner in the conventional dairy and transitioned it to an organic dairy in 1990.?

  • ?
  • Early motivation: ?My parents as well as myself have fought all of our lives to preserve our land as agricultural land and to keep the environment we wanted.? Straus, who majored in dairy science at California Polytechnical State University, was influenced in his decision to go organic after being approached about producing organic milk for ice cream.

  • Motivation now: ?Making an environment and a place I want my son to grow up in. I value making simple, high-quality products that consumers want, and supporting the idea of sustainable agriculture and what it means to the world.?

  • Biggest obstacle: ?Every day?s somewhat of an obstacle. There?s more and more competition, which is natural, and I think there are obstacles just in growing a business and making sure the farm stays viable.?

  • Made it when: ?I?m still here after 10 years. We?ve survived 10 years and grown double-digits every year.?

  • Industry survival: ?I thought it would survive from the beginning. It?s what people want?good, clean food that supports farming. We?re also in a very progressive area—Marin County—so there?s a lot of community support for what we do.?

  • Predictions: ?Hopefully the trend will just be what we?ve been doing—producing simple, high-quality organic food.?

  • Epitaph: ?Ice cream—it?s what?s for breakfast.?

Cyd Szymanski
For many years Szymanski was uninvolved in her family?s longtime business: raising caged chickens for eggs. But when her father and brother hatched the idea of starting a cage-free business, she bit. Shortly thereafter, the business was her baby to incubate and grow. Now she operates Colorado Natural Eggs, which are pesticide-free, antibiotic-free and harvested from chickens that are never caged and eat vegetarian feed.

  • Years in the industry: 13

  • Early motivation: Though Szymanski says she knew nothing about running a business when she started, much less about the chicken business, she quickly adapted to the demands. ?I kind of liken it to when people say, ?If you want to be in love, act like you?re in love.? The more I was in business, the more I was exposed. I became a convert. I got into the business not out of passion, but the passion developed.?

  • Motivation now: ?The more I?ve learned about chickens ? and the industry, I really am motivated by the opportunity to improve chickens? lives. ? I do think they are the worst-treated farm animal on the planet. ? You start thinking, believing, ?I really can make a difference.??

  • Obstacle: ?Myself?my own weaknesses in knowing how to run a business. Not knowing the chicken business, not knowing anyone in the organic field, being fearful that I was going to fail.?

  • Predictions: ?I think there will continue to be growth. It will be more mainstream, and there will be price pressures down. ? As long as people are willing to be creative in moving their passion forward, I think everybody will be fine.?

Annie Withey
Withey created Smartfood popcorn in 1984. In 1989 she started Annie?s Homegrown and began manufacturing all-natural macaroni and cheese in its distinctive purple box with the rabbit on it.

  • Years in the industry: 20

  • Early motivation: ?Just to give people a choice, an alternative to what?s out there, a natural choice.?

  • Motivation now: ?Our consumer base is a huge motivator for me personally. I feel really connected, and always have, to our customers. I?m still writing letters on a daily basis, often to kids and people who have rabbits.?

  • Obstacle: ?It?s not really an obstacle, just a looming threat, that Kraft will come in and knock us out.? Withey also recounts episodes like the time an entire shipment of mac & cheddar cheese arrived with Alfredo packets. ?How many people out there are allergic to basil and aren?t going to eat this?? Withey worried.

  • Made it when: ?Just four or five years ago, hearing that we were in every state in the country.?

  • Epitaph: ?I would hope [it would say] ?One of the pioneers in the organic food business.??

Nancy Melville is a free-lance writer based in Tucson, Ariz. Contact her at [email protected]. Vicky Uhland is a free-lance writer in Denver. Contact her at [email protected]

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 5/p. 22, 24, 26, 28-30, 32

TAGS: Archive News
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