Ralph Johnson has championed natural foods since long before they were hip. Back in 1976, Johnson started a successful natural products home delivery service in New York City. The late ’70s gas crises eventually sunk his business, but it didn’t stamp out his passion for getting natural foods into as many mouths as possible.
After working for a few different retailers, he started his own store, FoodWorks Natural Market in Guilford, Connecticut, in 1992. Today, FoodWorks boasts four locations. And even though Johnson is happy that natural products have moved more mainstream, he still isn’t satisfied. He thinks the industry can do better, and he’s leading the charge to get the right foods and the right messages to the masses.
How has the natural products industry changed since 1992?
Ralph Johnson: One of the biggest changes is all of the packaged foods. When I started in the industry, people came for produce, bulk grains and beans, and maybe a few packaged goods. Now there is so much packaged and frozen food it’s unbelievable. I’m also very disappointed that there’s so much sugar in everything. Initially, natural was going to change mainstream. Now mainstream has changed natural by adding so much sugar. It’s just substituting Cap’n Crunch for high-sugar “natural” stuff. This is so sad, because people think that everything sold in a natural store is good for them.
How do you steer shoppers toward truly healthy products?
RJ: I refuse to carry all the “natural” garbage out there. If I look at a label and see the second ingredient listed is sugar, I say no. I often have arguments with salespeople about hot sellers, but for me, it’s not about the money. It’s about promoting health. I also really push people toward food, because eating well is the most important thing you can do for your health. I even talk shoppers out of vitamins sometimes.
What are some common customer concerns?
RJ: GMOs are big. We don’t carry brands owned by companies that oppose GMO labeling laws. We got rid of Kashi and Naked Juice. If shoppers ask why, we tell them we can’t consciously be a natural store centered on helping people if we don’t take a stand. Also, a lot of shoppers are concerned about multinational corporations buying small natural products businesses. They worry that their favorite products won’t have the same quality or integrity. For this reason, we got rid of Twinlab long ago and cut way back on New Chapter after it got bought out.
Editor’s note: Twinlab was acquired in August by Twinlab Consolidation Corporation, a company owned in part by employees.
What are your biggest challenges as a natural retailer?
RJ: People just don’t have time anymore. They’re looking for quick, quick, quick. They listen to Dr. Oz and want raspberry ketones or green coffee bean extract. That’s challenging because, when those products don’t work, they get angry. But you can’t take green coffee bean extract and then go to McDonald’s. Healing yourself through food is a process.
How do your shoppers feel about the cost of natural foods?
RJ: Prices are definitely a concern. I tell shoppers I wish I could charge less than suggested retail price, but it’s out of my hands. However, I do offer senior discounts and a wellness program for people with chronic diseases where I give them 40 percent off on vitamins. People who are really sick don’t get reimbursed by insurance. If we really want to help, we should step up and give those people a break to help them heal naturally. Why gauge them on price when they’re already stressed out?
What does the future look like for natural products stores?
RJ: Competition is intense because everyone’s jumping on the natural bandwagon, including big conventional chains. But there will always be room for independents. The real question now is: Are supermarkets dead? People don’t want to walk through 40,000 square feet or wait in long lines. Having a smaller store lets us have more interaction with customers. And if someone pulls up when we’re about to close and she just needs spinach, we can easily let her come in and grab some.
Follow Ralph Johnson's lead and fight for customer health
Be real with shoppers. “One guy came in with high blood pressure and wanted a supplement to help,” Johnson says. “I asked him what was going on in his life. Turns out he was getting a divorce and losing his business. I told him I had nothing in a bottle that could fix that. Instead, he should get a glass of wine and soak in the tub. He really appreciated that I was so honest with him rather than just trying to sell him something.”
Get customers cooking. “We’re starting to do more hands-on cooking demos,” Johnson says. “We want to show shoppers that good health is not just popping a supplement or opening a box of cereal. Our biggest role as a natural products store is to inform people about healthy, whole foods.”
Tell the truth about trends. Johnson is skeptical of trends such as gluten free and the paleo diet. He knows some shoppers medically must eat specific diets, but he’s honest with those who are just jumping on bandwagons. “There’s always a new hot diet coming down the pike,” he says. “I tell people that if they improve their diet in any way, they are going to feel better.” By being honest, you’re more likely to have customers who last.