At the heart of most natural products stores’ missions is a deep commitment to local. Produce sections, bulk bins and meat counters are often brimming with regionally sourced items, and many retailers happily go the extra mile to support small, local producers. But Glen’s Garden Market in Washington, D.C., is taking local to whole new level. The store, which opened its first location in April 2013 and launches its second this month (December 2015), is thought to be one of the nation’s first brick-and-mortar grocers to carry almost exclusively local products. “With very few exceptions, everything we sell at Glen’s was grown, ranched or produced within the states of the Chesapeake Bay watershed,” says founder Danielle Vogel.
Pulling this off as a neighborhood grocery store is no easy task. But it’s one that Vogel, a lawyer turned retailer, is intent on executing. By championing local and taking an environment-first approach to everything, Glen’s is showing how two little stores can help make a lasting, positive impact on our increasingly fragile Earth.
What prompted your major career switch from law to retail?
Danielle Vogel: The failure of the climate change bill I was working on in the U.S. Senate. Climate change certainly isn’t going away, so I wanted to find another way to make progress. To that end, I founded a climate-progress-motivated company in which every single business decision is made with the environment in mind. We call it making progress one bite at a time.
You also have retailers in your family, correct? Were they an inspiration?
DV: My dad, Glen Rosengarten, and his brother, Jay, were grocers. Their dad was a grocer, and my mom’s dad was a grocer. At Glen’s, we’re carrying on a legacy that reaches back 100 years on both sides of my family. It goes beyond inspiration—it’s genetic coding.
Why is local food so important to you?
DV: We’re in the business of displacing demand for industrially produced food and replacing it with locally made, mindfully sourced alternatives. Food that’s raised or made close-by usually tastes better, is more nutrient dense and is better for the local economy. We’re not interested in food that’s engineered to bop across the country in the back of an 18-wheeler.
In what instances do you have to look beyond local to fill your shelves?
DV: We make absolutely no exception to our locality rules in our produce, beer, wine, fresh meat, cheese or charcuterie programs. The only spot where we’ve made some exceptions is in grocery—because folks need things like salt and olive oil, and because our Neighbors (that’s what we call our customers) need their local grocery to stock orange juice. Every concession breaks my heart a little, so there haven’t been a ton of them.
Do you carry any national brands?
DV: We carry a couple of national brands in categories where there is no local producer—things such as boxed cereal, canned beans and some snack items. Our rule is that we don’t put local items in competition against national alternatives, and when we bring in national brands to fill a gap in our product mix, they must be certified organic.
Is it challenging to keep most of your offerings local?
DV: Ha! Ever been to a grocery store that doesn’t sell bananas? Or lemons? Or avocados? Eating seasonally has been a learning curve for our neighborhood, but neighbors have been incredibly patient with us, and we’ve figured it out together. Folks seem to be genuinely enjoying the experience they’re having at Glen’s Garden Market. Business is great, and we’re looking forward to opening our second store, in the Shaw neighborhood, this month.
Are most of your neighbors actually neighbors?
DV: Like most urban groceries, the lion’s share of our neighbors live or work within a fairly tight radius of the store. That said, our mission attracts folks from farther away—so do our $4 draft beers.
Do you think stores in other regions could make this model work?
DV: Absolutely. I daydream about how much easier this model would be to execute in California.
How else do you champion sustainability in-store?
DV: Our kitchen operates under a no-waste mandate, which means we’re generating almost no food waste whatsoever. We operate on wind power. We built our store with reclaimed materials and the most energy-efficient equipment available. We offer only reusable bags—no paper or plastic. All of our containers and serviceware are compostable or recyclable. We compost. All of our countertops are made from compressed post-consumer recycled paper. All of our lights are LED. We have showers in our bathrooms to encourage our team to bike to work—and most do.
Do you do much community outreach or education?
DV: Absolutely. We offer a CSA, a run club, a cheese club and a growler club. We play host to parties for the neighborhood every season and we sponsor and participate in community events all the time. We’re the neighborhood grocery store—so we act like it.
What do you look for in your partner vendors?
DV: We partner with those who make good food close-by. In the process, we grow small businesses along with our own. In fact, in the two and a half years since we opened, we’ve launched 48 food companies, which means 48 food entrepreneurs had their very first chance to sell their products on our shelves. We offer our neighborhood a cultivated subset of the best food produced in our region.
Besides helping them break into retail, in what other ways do you assist small, local companies?
DV: They come to us in various stages of ready-for-prime-time, so we’ve done everything from helping with product development to costing strategy to packaging to business development. Sometimes we invest directly; other times we barter with small-business owners to buy them equipment to help grow their businesses in exchange for future inventory. One of our core values is that we grow small businesses along with our own, so incubating and accelerating those we’ve helped launch is a top priority.
What is the best part of your job?
DV: Two things give me the greatest joy. The first is walking into a larger grocery store and finding products we launched, because that means they’re succeeding and kicking less mindfully sourced stuff off the shelves to gain their slotting. Second, I love looking around the room at our management meetings and knowing that this scrappy, sassy group of smart, dedicated kids figured out how to run a grocery store together and grow hundreds of small businesses in the process.
Where do you see yourself and your store in five years?
DV: Let’s get through the next five months, open the second store and make it through another holiday season. Then we’ll figure that out.