Celebrating 65 years in business in August, Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage is among the oldest and most successful natural products retailers in the nation. Launched by trailblazers Margaret and Philip Isely—who started by going door to door to offer nutrition education, healthy food and supplements—the Lakewood, Colorado-based company now boasts 159 stores (and counting) in 20 states.
Leading Natural Grocers now are Margaret and Philip’s children: sons Kemper Isely and Zephyr Isely, co-presidents; daughter Heather Isely, co-vice president; and former daughter-in-law Liz Isely, also a co-vice president. Still, the retailer remains committed to nutrition education, quality products and services, always-affordable prices, community and staff, called the good4u Crew.
Natural Grocers’ longevity is firmly rooted in five founding principles that haven’t wavered as the business has grown. These unshakable tenets play out in myriad ways, including Natural Grocers’ industry-leading product standards, earning generations of consumers’ trust.
Natural Foods Merchandiser talked with Heather Isely, Kemper Isely and Raquel Isely about furthering their parents’ legacy and holding tight to their values, no matter the circumstances.
Congrats on 65 years! What does it mean to you to be running the company your parents started—and doing so successfully?
Heather Isely: Thank you! We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished, that we’ve grown our parents’ legacy and the business. Providing the healthiest foods, supplements and nutrition education to more and more communities is always what has motivated us, so being able to do that means a lot. We’re proud that we always stay true to our founding principles, improve our quality standards and offer the most affordable prices.
What was it like growing up with such pioneering parents?
Kemper Isely: We all started working for the company at a very young age, which helped us learn a lot about work ethic and life. I have memories of getting teased at school for our healthy lunches by the kids whose parents let them eat whatever they wanted.
Did you always know you’d take over the company someday?
KI: It was the path we were on. We come from passionate people and grew up in the business, so it was a natural step to buy it from our father in the late 1990s after our mother passed away. We’ve always been passionate about Natural Grocers—it truly is a part of our DNA. We knew our parents had started something amazing, and we wanted to continue the tradition and take it a step further. We’re lucky to now have some of the third generation involved in the company.
Natural Grocers has posted exceptional revenue growth during the pandemic. What’s driving that?
KI: It all relates back to our five founding principles. We’ve gone above and beyond in keeping our crew and communities safe when shopping at our stores while not raising prices just because we could.
Let’s dig into those principles. How do you carry out nutrition education?
HI: If not for our five founding principles, the business wouldn’t exist—they drive all our business practices. We are committed to providing free nutrition education in a variety of forms to empower people to make choices to improve their health and well-being. We have a nutritional health coach at each store who advises shoppers, teaches classes and does community outreach, though much of this has moved virtual because of COVID-19. We’ve been publishing our magazine, The Health Hotline, since the 1990s and have a book section and free literature in our stores. We also provide ongoing nutrition training for our good4U Crew, who are passionate about health and education.
How about your commitment to quality?
HI: We’ve always had a list of unacceptable ingredients that we won’t sell, and we’re always reassessing our quality standards. For example, we banned partially hydrogenated vegetable oils in 1990 because the evidence already showed that trans fats are very bad for our health. Product quality is combined with our commitment to always-affordable prices. Unfortunately, the health food industry has gotten a reputation for being expensive, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Our parents weren’t wealthy. They borrowed $200 from our mom’s mom to put gas in the car and food on the table and go door to door in Golden, Colorado. When we negotiate deals, we pass on the savings to customers. But again, affordability must be coupled with quality. You can sell cheap stuff, but what good does that do if it’s not quality?
Do you believe the strict standards, specifically, are a big reason why Natural Grocers has thrived for so long?
HI: Absolutely. This has been proven by everyone else trying to copy our standards or fool the public into thinking they have the same standards. We lead the way and have transparency, and consumers trust our standards, trust that we do our research and know they don’t have to worry.
Is it tough to stick to them when it means bypassing solid sales opportunities?
HI: Yes and no, but that’s how we build customer and crew loyalty. They trust that we won’t bend our standards just to have trendy products. It doesn’t make sense to jump on fads when there is potential to tarnish what this industry is all about: health. For example, when raspberry ketones were all the rage, we found out they were all produced synthetically and stopped carrying them. When the energy drink market was exploding, we decided not to carry products with added caffeine unless it was to stabilize the caffeine content. Sure enough, that fad came and went—and came back to bite the industry.
What has navigating the pandemic taught you about yourselves and your company?
HI: First and foremost, it has taught us the importance of focusing on health. We now provide free supplements to our crew to support their immune systems and emotional health, and we ensure they take time off because it can be very stressful at the store level. We aim to empower people through knowledge, so we’ve been focusing on helping people understand how important foundational health is during times of stress and infectious disease—because that’s where immune confidence and emotional resilience come from. We’re working hard to get this message out, including to underserved communities. We’ve been doing a better job of speaking to people of color and paying extra attention to our marketing and the images we use to reinforce that this matters to their communities as well. We are a small company, but at least we can be one voice.
Once the virus risk finally wanes, do you think shoppers will return to pre-pandemic habits or keep shopping like they have in 2020?
Raquel Isely: Trip frequency has increased and basket size has decreased, and that trend will probably continue over the next 12 months. There will probably be some residual effect where people will have found it more convenient to buy more at one time and visit the store less. But consumers will likely go back to their old habits as life gets back to normal.
Where will Natural Grocers expand to next?
RI: We are still expanding west of the Mississippi, except for California. As far as markets go, we are always looking for smaller underserved communities. Our goal is to be prudent with our openings, in the range of five to seven new stores per year.
How many SKUs does Natural Grocers carry?
RI: We have more than 67,000 active products, on average. Out of all of those, we stock about 22,000 in our stores. Out of those 22,000, 700 are Natural Grocers brand products.