Joel Patterson dreamed of becoming a doctor. But then the summer before he was supposed to start medical school, “I decided I’d rather heal people with food than medicine,” he says. “So I did a 180—maybe even a full 360—and went to culinary school instead.”
There, Patterson learned all about organic, GMOs, responsible animal husbandry, butchery and clean eating. At the same time he was falling in love with food, he was also falling for his future wife, Cheyenne, a Boulder, Colorado, native. “She grew up thinking natural and organic food stores were on every corner everywhere in the country; she also had a lot of dietary restrictions,” Patterson says. “I wanted to impress her, so I began finding substitutions for dairy and other things she couldn’t eat.”
Meanwhile, he pursued a career in restaurants but soon moved into consulting work as the newlyweds relocated to Peterborough, New Hampshire, Patterson’s hometown. He grew increasingly interested in pursuing a market/restaurant opportunity, and once he secured a location in September 2008, Patterson—at just 26 years old—opened Nature’s Green Grocer Market and Café. Almost a decade later, the store is a smashing success. Here’s our conversation with the next-generation leader.
Was Nature’s Green Grocer Peterborough’s first health food store?
JP: No, the town did and still does have another store. It had been in existence for 30 years and changed hands multiple times. Initially, we looked at purchasing it so to not compete with it. But then the perfect space presented itself, so we opened our own store. We remain friendly competitors. Our town is like a mini-Boulder—artistic, affluent, a multicultural epicenter—so it can support two independents.
And beyond just keeping the doors open, your store has flourished?
JP: Nine years in, we are still growing around 10-plus percent annually.
What fuels the success of Nature’s Green Garden?
JP: We really go for the unobtainable. That is, to provide the best quality, the best service and the best prices—or at least very competitive prices. Usually, stores can do two but not all three. But as a business owner or entrepreneur, if you’re not reaching for the unattainable, then you aren’t waking up every day and pushing yourself to the next level. With quality, we hand-procure everything that goes into our store. Buyers won’t let in products that don’t line up with our strict standards: first organic, next biodynamic or non-GMO, then niche or really special. And clean, of course. With service, we challenge staff to get familiar with as many customers as they can, to know our shoppers on a greater level. We strive to create that “Cheers” environment where we know their names and they know ours. As for staying competitive, we focus on everyday value and try to move quality, not quantity. We don’t try to make big amounts of money that we don’t have to. We continually look for the crazy-unattainable and just go for it.
What other “unattainable” feats are you proud to have tackled?
JP: With protein, our fastest-growing segment, we did independent sourcing before many small stores were doing full-service fresh meat and seafood. We buy local, work with farmers and are as holistically sustainable as possible, using the whole animal among different departments. We’re not just buying products and putting on a show—we’re not wasting. Also, we buy 100 percent renewable energy credits. All of the energy for the store is brought in from solar, wind and hydroelectric. Then six months out of the year, there is enough local hydroelectric energy generated that we can buy all of our electricity locally.
How much of your store is organic?
JP: All of the food we serve in our café—and everything we cook with—is 100 percent certified organic. Proteins are either organic or local. If you exclude wellness, where more and more organic is coming on board, our store is 90 percent certified organic. We are probably one of most organic stores you can walk into while still having a large selection and full service in every department. My motto is to serve customers how we serve our families, so we really go the extra mile.
How does your culinary training inspire your business?
JP: Definitely from a meat department perspective, I knew coming in how to do all the butchery, which is a dying art. I was able to train a new generation to care for the meat and take butchery seriously and show them that it’s a skill and a trade that can be a career. In the rest of the store, with ingredients and products, I understand all the technical terms whereas many people do not. This helps with buying and procuring products for the center store so that we can meet higher standards than other retailers. I also had an understanding of large-scale purchasing from doing consulting and knew how to be low waste, scale up restaurants and cut food costs.
What does your day-to-day job look like?
JP: I do next-level visionary work, looking at where we are going. I support management and buying teams, helping to develop their skill sets, learning their personal-growth goals and finding out how to align those with ours to see how we can all grow together. I also need to have my finger on the pulse, so I travel to tabletop shows, Natural Products Expo and any number of industry shows. It’s important to know what’s going on in the marketplace from a competitive standpoint, especially with the conventional industry hot on our tails and really focused on numbers and top sellers. As an industry, we need to stay focused on being unique and different while supporting our core.
What do you enjoy outside of work?
JP: I love camping and spending time with my family. My wife and kids are the centerpiece of my heart, so I love to get away from distractions and into nature so we can just enjoy one another and the Earth. I am also a big clothes-aholic. I am a brand ambassador for Prana. I love their organic fabrics and sustainability commitment.
What’s your favorite part of your work?
JP: I really love the people aspect. I say that almost awkwardly because I’m an introvert who only appears to be extroverted. But I’ve pushed myself over the years, and I really think that in business, life and relationships, that is at the core of success. It all goes back to people and personal wellness, and as a chef, this is all rooted in food. Food is medicine. I love the frontline interaction with customers, engaging with the community and supporting nonprofits, charities and the arts. I also love building relationships with others in the industry. But my absolute favorite is focusing on our staff—finding out where they are, where they are headed, what makes them tick, and what I can do to help them get where they want to go, whether it’s with us or beyond.
How have you noticed the industry change over the last decade?
JP: It’s been a rapid 10-year period, from all the foods now available to the competitive marketplace to rapid consumer growth. A couple years ago, our industry finally hit 5 percent of total food purchases. That was a big milestone, and I see it growing well beyond that. But the most shocking changes I’ve seen are all the conventional companies buying up natural brands and the continued rise of the supermarket world in organic and natural. I called this about 10 years ago: I knew conventional supermarkets would become big competition for natural food stores. They are now into it—and into it big—and they’re figuring it out.
How can independents deal with these changes and come out thriving?
JP: The supermarket world will keep being one of the drivers in our industry—and it has to be. If we’re really honest with ourselves, and if we truly want our food system to be all organic—if that’s really the dream—then supermarkets must be a big driver. We must embrace this industry’s growth, which can’t all happen within our walls. But with that comes challenges and hurdles.
I’ve managed to push forward by weeding through the good and bad changes, embracing those that make sense and continuing to think outside the box regarding the others. Independents and co-ops have been the backbone and drivers of this industry from day one, well before I was born. So to carry the torch as a younger generation, it is essential we keep being those things while pushing on to the future. There is a big enough growth opportunity for everyone, and those paying attention can survive.