Natural Foods Merchandiser

Focused Ideals Build Papa Jon's Into SoCal Powerhouse

In the early 1950s, John Quinn left a stable and promising career in the traditional grocery business. It was the decade after World War II, and the key words in that convenience-driven era were preservatives and additives. But Quinn refused to eat processed foods. He didn't want his wife or three sons to eat them either. And he definitely didn't want to sell processed foods to the general public.

In 1954, Quinn purchased a nutritional supplements store in the Los Villas district of Los Angeles. His first day in business generated a meager $11.87 in revenue. But Quinn's dedication and hard work soon paid off. In two years, he was able to add organic produce to the market. People soon traveled from as far as 30 miles away just for his fruits and vegetables. And by 1987, Quinn's tiny supplements shop had grown into a five-store natural foods chain garnering $15 million a year in revenue.

Southern California in the 1950s was an oasis of possibility for entrepreneurial young men. The region spawned such infamous companies as McDonald's and the Disney Corporation.

But in Southern California in the 21st century, the qualities that matter are experience and integrity. And Jon Quinn, son of John Quinn and owner of Papa Jon's Natural Market & Café, holds almost half a century of experience in natural foods. Quinn is the elder statesman of organic retailing in the land of the valley girls.

"[Natural foods] is more than just a business," son Jon Quinn says. "It's a way of life." Quinn's path from washing dishes after school in his father's first store to running a $2.5-million enterprise is testament to this dedication to the industry. Quinn purchased the smallest of his father's stores in 1982 and, six years later, relocated to the Belmont Shore district of Long Beach. Within a few years, he turned the five-employee store into a $7,000-a-day business with 35 employees and a daily average of almost 800 customers.

Quinn's recipe for success is simple and effective: Hire a credible and knowledgeable staff. "In my interviews, I ask 'Are you a U.S. citizen? Are you a vegetarian? Do you shop natural foods [stores]? And do you smoke?'" Quinn says. "We discovered real early on that it's much more important to hire for attitude than skills. You can teach skills; you can't teach attitude."

While Papa Jon's staff is responsible for much of the market's success, the store's true anchor is Quinn himself. "Since I look the part, people believe [me]," says Quinn, a marathon runner and health foods advocate. "They ask what products I'm taking, what suggestions I have." Quinn's industry experience has helped him hone in on products that sell best.

"My father said it most appropriately. If he wanted something there were probably a lot of other people out there who wanted the same thing. Coming from a health food chain, I had the understanding of how to run a supermarket with the [ability] to evaluate products by personal choice," Quinn says.

Jon Quinn's personal choice in retail, a 6,000-square-foot market, is a vibrant addition to the busy Belmont Shore retail district. "We have one of the most unique retail settings in the United States," Quinn says. "It's a 15-block shopping area ... three blocks from the ocean. The area is surrounded by million-dollar homes."

Papa Jon's market may be surrounded by the modern wares of the SoCal elite, but the bread and butter of the operation is the same as it was for his father back in 1954: nutritional supplements. Thirty-five percent of the store's sales are vitamins and 12 percent are cosmetics. But Papa Jon's isn't traditional or trapped by its history. The truth is quite the opposite.

Quinn has developed a diverse alternative-healing center on the market's second floor. The center hosts an acupuncturist, a chiropractor, a massage therapist and a colon therapist.

In one section of the market's main floor is an all-vegetarian café. "Percentage-wise, [the café] takes up about 22 percent of store space," Quinn says. "It accounts for 13 percent of store sales. Unfortunately, [it accounts for] about 50 percent of overhead."

The café started as a snack bar with soups, salads, shakes and sandwiches. But customer interest fueled its growth, and the in-store café now offers three meals a day. "[Long Beach] is the 32nd largest city in the United States, and we're [its] only vegetarian restaurant," Quinn says.

With a family history in the natural foods industry that spans 50 years and a marketing campaign that includes newspaper and television advertisements, Papa Jon's Natural Market & Café is a staple of the Long Beach retail community. And Jon Quinn is an example of the positive outcomes of a healthy and natural life lived preservative-free.

Papa Jon's Natural Market & Café
5000 E. 2nd St.
Long Beach, CA 90803
Phone: 562.439.3444
[email protected]
Retail space: 6,000 square feet, plus a 1,500-square-foot mezzanine
Best-selling department: vitamins
Produce: 90 percent organic
Employees: 35 total, 20 full time
Opened: May 1988
Hours of operation: 8 a.m.-9 p.m., seven days a week

Vishal Khanna is a Winston-Salem, N.C.-based freelance writer. He can be reached at [email protected]

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 3/p. 154

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