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Natural Foods Merchandiser

Peter Lassen: 40 years in and going strong

Decades later, this retail leader still finds joy in providing people with wholesome food and helping small, local manufacturers break into the business.

Peter Lassen was practically predestined to become a natural products retailer. His parents ran a shop in their native Denmark before immigrating to the U.S. Then in 1971, his mother, a nutrition enthusiast who’d toss eggshells into her seven kids’ breakfast drinks for extra protein and calcium, opened a small vitamin store in Camarillo, California. Lassen would help out at the shop while munching on fig bars and sipping kefir. After majoring in accounting in college, he returned home to run his mom’s newly opened second store. When she felt ready to retire, she sold her son the business for $39. Today, he oversees 12 Lassens Natural Foods & Vitamins locations spanning from Fresno to Los Angeles. NFM chatted with Lassen about his 40 years in the natural products biz.

What’s your primary role in the company and what does your day-to-day look like?
Peter Lassen: I’m the big-picture guy. I try to keep the company going in the right direction, making sure we keep true to our goals and mission statements. I do quite a bit of traveling, as our stores are so spread out. I really love going out and talking to our employees and seeing what’s happening at every location. Our staff are the ears of what customers are asking for, so I’m always making sure we are well connected and getting in the products they are requesting. I also work on expansion, which we plan to do more of, although there’s nothing concrete in the works at the moment.

What’s the most enjoyable or rewarding part of your work?
PL: I love to eat! And I love to see people enjoy what they’re eating. Eating is such a wonderful thing we get to do in life, and to be able to offer clean, fresh, wholesome food is so fulfilling. Eating can be a necessity or it can be very romantic, so I’m happy to help people embrace good food. I also take pride in the fact that we can help small, local manufacturers sell their products, as long as they meet our criteria. We are easier to get into than Whole Foods Market or Sprouts Farmers Market, so we like partnering with small producers and giving them a chance to innovate, develop, grow and offer exciting new products to the public.

Along with prioritizing local, are you big on organic, too?
PL: We are huge supporters of organic. Our produce department is 100 percent organic, and for any packaged item, we’ll choose organic over conventional any day. Storewide, 98 percent of the products we sell are organic certified or non-GMO. There are some things such as spices that are hard to get in either, but we are very committed to the non-GMO cause.

Are you feeling the competition tighten with natural and organic foods now so widely available?
PL: Well, my belief is only we stand in the way of our own success. I think our ability to be successful depends on our own attitudes and making sure we’re providing a great service to our customers. Yes, sure, now natural and organic foods are sold in more places. But I still believe we have the complete power to succeed by ensuring we’re doing as much as we possibly can to offer the best service. Besides, I’ve been in this business long enough to know that it always ebbs and flows. Conventional grocery stores want to dabble in organic, but they don’t have the capacity to really support it. So those products get convoluted with all their other stuff and they end up taking the organic items back off their shelves. The Walmart and Target shopper is not necessarily the natural foods customer. If people can rely on us and know we are committed to these foods, that goes a long way.

Besides providing quality products, how else do you cater to customers?
PL: We do plenty of educational events, seminars, cooking classes and so on. Educating our customers is important, but we also put in a lot of time and effort with our staff to make sure they get proper, ongoing training and are always equipped with knowledge. It’s also important that our employees taste and know all about the products we sell. That really makes us different from Walmart or most regular grocery stores. They just throw products on shelves and expect them to sell. We want to make sure that when customers come in with questions, we can provide answers and allow them to taste products.

What are the biggest changes you’ve observed in this industry in your 40 years?
PL: Well, that’s actually one of the best things about this industry: the way we’ve been able to change, evolve, grow and innovate. Lassens has been selling organic foods for decades, but now to see them in regular supermarkets, that’s great. To have a consumer base that’s much more conscientious about what they eat, that’s a wonderful thing. When we started in the ’70s, what we could sell was very limited. The cookies tasted bad, the whole-wheat pasta was really heavy, the supplements were very limited—pretty much just the basic letter vitamins and a few minerals. But now so much research and innovation has gone into natural foods and supplements that this has been a great train ride to be on. It remains exciting and refreshing and it’s why I’ve enjoyed being in this business for 40 years. I hope that never ends. The moment we stop having stuff change in this industry is when it will die.

Any concerns about the current state of the industry or the future of independents?
PL: Not really. There’s a lot of potential in the food business. There is room for everybody, and I want everyone to succeed. I guess it’s a little discouraging when I see independents not being run as efficiently or kept as clean as they could be—it’s discouraging because we have so much to offer the public. But overall, there are so many opportunities out there to succeed that I don’t really worry. Sometimes these small manufacturers get gobbled up by big boys like General Mills, but all that does is open doors for someone else, so I say let them go do that. We still live in exciting and fascinating times.

Being so invested in and passionate about your work, do you get much free time?
PL: All work and no fun is just not good, so yes! I really enjoy hiking and backpacking. I just turned 60 and have had it on my bucket list to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, so my wife, my kids, a buddy and I just did a six-day trek up to the top, which was 19,000 feet. I’ve also climbed 12,000-foot Mount Fuji in Japan and Mount Whitney in California. I am also a tennis enthusiast, love skiing in the winter and enjoy a good movie or book. I would go back to the Galapagos in a heartbeat. I found it so amazing to swim with sharks and penguins, go snorkeling and have birds dive into the water right next to you.

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