At age 12, when David London got a job bagging powdered carob and lecithin for 50 cents an hour at his parents' store, his natural products career had officially begun. It was the early 1970s, and the store was called Nature's Cupboard of Love.
London's parents owned four natural products stores in the Baltimore area. His father became involved in the naturals industry in 1971 when, as a food broker, he realized that he didn't like what he was selling and wanted to promote cleaner, healthier products.
When London returned home from college, his parents were trying to get out of the naturals business. "It was a really tough time for the industry; about half the stores in the country closed in the mid-1980s," London says. But he wanted in.
In 1986, he took over the 1,000-square-foot Columbia store, which is now called David's Natural Market. "I went from 1,000 square feet to 2,000 and then three and so on until it grew to its present 12,000 square feet—all at the same location; we've just been taking walls down from the left and right," London says. Eventually, he also opened a 15,000-square-foot store in Gambrills and a 1,500-square-foot store in Bel Air.
London's three stores employ about 70 people, 50 or so of whom are full-time. Although London doesn't have an official employee incentive program, he encourages education. "Some of our employees are taking education classes, and we compensate them with [higher] hourly wages and time off," London says. He also encourages staff to attend many of the manufacturer-presented seminars.
Customer service is important at David's, and London teaches his new employees early on that the customer is king. "We want them to realize that they wouldn't have a job if it weren't for the customers," he says. "We try to bend over backwards to meet [the customers'] needs."
In the face of growing competition—a Whole Foods in nearby Annapolis and a Wegmans on the way—London is not too worried. He sees David's as serving a different type of customer than the competition. "Whole Foods' clientele is mass; they want mass-market shoppers to cross over," London says. "We do things differently; we're not looking for crossover customers. We want to maintain our natural foods' customer base."
One of the primary ways London does this is by carrying only certified organic produce. "Customers appreciate that we do it," London says. They don't have to worry about commingling, employee error or mislabeling, he says. "Five years ago, it was more difficult. We might not have organic grapes for three months." Today, the store might be without organic bananas for just a few days.
London also differentiates David's from the competition by not ordering products with hydrogenated fats, artificial colors, sweeteners or flavors—although it's getting harder, he admits. "We're seeing more and more 'natural' products with these ingredients." London does stock the Atkins line, which contains some artificial sweeteners, but he says customers want it and he feels that it offers an option to diabetics.
London also tries to serve his customers by stocking store shelves based on the demands of each store's community. For example, customers at his Columbia store are the most educated about natural products, so that store has a large supplements section and a full-time nutritionist. "We also sell more alternative products there like soy and rice milks and gluten- and wheat-free," London says.
The Columbia store is also the only store with a sushi bar and café, which serves healthy options such as the SBLT (soy bacon, lettuce and tomato) and vegan desserts. The Powerhouse sandwich (seven-grain bread, canola mayo, tomato, Colby cheese and sprouts) has been available in the café for 18 years. London opened the sushi bar at the Columbia store a year ago, and it is thriving today. The family-run bar features organic white and brown sushi rice, and wasabi and pickled ginger with no artificial colors.
London also makes David's a presence in the community by supporting many local events, including a triathlon and the local chapter of the American Heart Association. "We sponsor walks and runs, school events—whatever anybody asks us to do," he says.
Although London is rarely behind the register these days, he remains involved in the business. "I do the ordering a couple of times a week; that way I'm in the aisles and I can see if the store's clean." He spends most of his time fielding calls from his constantly ringing cell phone. But when he can, he still tries to do his favorite part of the job: helping people. "When people want to make a healthy change in their lives, I love helping them do it," he says.
Anna Soref is a freelance writer in Lafayette, Colo.
David's Natural Market in Columbia and Gambrills, Md., will be on the Natural Products Expo East store tour from noon to 4 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 4. For more information, click here.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 10/p. 146