Anyone who has spent time in America's capital will tell you that the traffic is bad—and the parking worse. This may be the secret to Yes! Organic Market's success.
"The little guy can beat the big guy with a wise battle plan," says Gary Cha, one of Yes!'s three sibling co-owners.
Yes!'s successful plan included choosing locations near Metro subway train stops—a great way to go carless in D.C. Many residents plan their lives around the Metro map. These Metro-friendly store locations allow for a return to old-style shopping—the daily trip to the market.
Cha, his brother Gene and their sister Kathy Rachels, were restaurateurs leading the lifestyles that come with the frenetic pace of the food-service industry. They watched as fellow owners and suppliers reached retirement age, jumped into the pension pool and passed away shortly thereafter. "We saw people working until they were 60 and then dying soon after, leaving millions to their kids. It just seemed so sad," Cha says. They began to recognize the unhealthy way they—and many Americans—were living, and decided to make a change for their own and others' benefit.
Their quest began 17 years ago with the purchase of Patrick's Good Food, a struggling but well-located naturals market in the soon-to-be-trendy Adams Morgan neighborhood of D.C. In 1990, they opened their second store, located on Connecticut Avenue in the Cleveland Park neighborhood, and simultaneously changed the name of both markets to Yes! Natural Gourmet. Then, less than two years ago, they opened their Capitol Hill/Eastern Market neighborhood store on Pennsylvania Avenue as Yes! Organic Market, which became the name of the other two locations.
The Adams Morgan store is the smallest, at just about 2,800 square feet, while the Cleveland Park and Capitol Hill/Eastern Market stores are 3,500 square feet. All three neighborhoods are distinctly different, and the shelves reflect this diversity. Adams Morgan, being a hip, multicultural locale, caters to the needs of both Hispanic and young urban crowds, with tortillas, salsa ingredients and varieties of rice, for example.
The Capitol Hill/Eastern Market store caters to the time-starved VIPs and government employees by carrying premade meals and cutting back on those items at times when Congress is not in session.
The Cleveland Park store serves a mostly upper-middle-class-and-above clientele. The store was initially vegetarian only, and Cha finds that people still think of it as such. "We tried to carry meat at that store, but it didn't sell well at all," he says. Consequently, it remains primarily a produce- and vegetarian-friendly location.
Knowing its market is how Yes! manages to thrive, Cha says, "as a 7-Eleven in Safewayland." Paying close attention to location and listening to client needs are the keys to part of the Chas' battle plan. This prompted the expansion into the Capitol Hill neighborhood since many shoppers were making the trafficky 45-minute car trip from that area to Cleveland Park just to shop at Yes!. "We try to be a neighborhood market," Cha says. "This means taking requests and having the freedom to cater to what people are looking for. If someone asks for a product, we can have it the next day instead of waiting for a corporate decision to carry it."
A knowledgeable HABA staff is another part of the battle plan in the fight against mass market retailers. "We may not be able to carry it all, but we remain aware of what's out there, and 99 percent of the time we'll know what a customer is talking about if she asks for something. Then, if necessary, we special-order it; instead of getting old stock off of some big store's shelf, the customer gets fresh items," Cha says. "Also, it's hard for the big stores to educate all of their employees. We only need to train 15 to 20, so they are service-oriented and very knowledgeable."
A final element of the plan is a lesson learned from the family's experience in the restaurant business. "It would be foolish to open a restaurant inside a store," Cha says. "It takes up too much space and too much labor." Instead, they use local bakers for fresh bakery items; local suppliers for sushi and sandwiches; and have only one juice bar, located in Cleveland Park.
After nearly 20 years in the natural products business, "[the three siblings] live much healthier lifestyles," Cha says. And part of this is remembering: "The small guys can win in this age of big stores. You just can't try to do what they do. You have to be different—and better."
YES! Organic Market
After discovering that more than half of Yes!'s job applicants couldn't do simple math problems on the hiring test, the Cha family decided to put philanthropic efforts into schools and has never turned down a school for donations of food or money.
1825 Columbia Rd. NW
Washington, D.C. 20009
3425 Connecticut Ave. NW
Washington, D.C. 20008
Capitol Hill/Eastern Market:
658 Pennsylvania Ave. SE
Washington, D.C. 20003
Bryce Edmonds, a freelance writer living in Boulder, Colo., has written for Yoga Journal, Healing Retreats and Spas, and gear magazine.