Natural Grocers makes healthy living simple

Kelly Dawson
January 29, 2018
14 min read
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It wasn’t always the case that the word “organic” was commonly used in American conversation.

It may be ubiquitous now, but there was a period just a few years ago when evening news segments and newspaper articles introduced the term as a new way of shopping for and caring about healthy food.

And even though most of us may still not know exactly what “organic” means to this day, our lexicon around this topic has only expanded. Farm-to-table foods, sustainable sources, gluten-free, vegan-friendly, and hey, even almond milk are all products and lifestyles that grew in response to that initial shift into widespread organic offerings.

But what if all of this isn’t as new as we think?

In 1955, a year after a Swanson’s advertising campaign made TV dinners a national sensation, Margaret and Philip Isely founded Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage with a mission to sell healthy food at an affordable price. The pair also wanted their customers to be informed about what healthy food is — how to break down different food groups to achieve good nutritional habits — so that their grocery list was a reflection of a holistic way of life. In other words, the Iselys were ahead of the game, even if they didn’t use the word “organic” in their mission statement.

As America becomes ever-more aware of what’s in processed foods and continues to trade in the legacy of TV dinners for fresh ingredients, Natural Grocers is looking to fulfill its next revolution. The company has its sights on opening more stores this year, adding to its chain of 141 properties, in the hopes that Natural Grocers will soon become a household name. The goal won’t be easy since competition in this industry is fierce, but this former mom-and-pop shop is ready to make its mark. After all, it was organic even before the word had a name.

Apples to Apples

Sixty years after the couple founded Natural Grocers in Colorado, the shop has expanded across much of the country with the same goal of informing and nourishing customers. From the Pacific Northwest and the Great Plains to the Southwest and the Deep South, Natural Grocers has popped up in neighborhoods nationwide to attract customers looking for affordable organic foods and natural products. But the first instance of the company started small — very small.

When the Iselys had the idea to start a grocery business, they didn’t simply open the doors to a new building. Margaret had been chronically ill after giving birth to the couple’s second son, and traditional medicine wasn’t helping. So she started picking up tips from two popular and highly informed sources at the time, doctor Adelle Davis and biochemist Roger J. Williams, and read Davis’s book Let’s Get Well. In it, Margaret learned about the overall benefits of balanced nutrition, the importance of eating natural foods, and the positive effects of dietary supplements. She changed how she ate according to these recommendations and became well again. That was the spark that started her family business.

A little investment goes a long way

Margaret and Philip used a $200 loan to fill up their tank and buy food for their kids as they went door to door in Golden, Colorado with their newfound health guidelines. They gave out samples of whole grain bread and passed out nutritional books to neighbors, and then returned several days later to discuss those readings and take orders for foods.

By the time the pair officially founded a brick-and-mortar building, they had five principles to stand by: high quality products (which are now all USDA-certified organic), nutritional education (includes in-store nutritional health coaches and a resource room in most outposts), affordable pricing, community outreach (such as free nutritional classes and local products), and employee benefits (including free nutritional programs and benefits). These principles are continually upheld by Philip and Margaret’s children, who are at the helm of the company.

Those principles have informed much of what the company chose to do in the years leading up to today. Natural Grocers decided to sell only organic produce in 1989 and nixed all partially-hydrogenated oils from their stores in 1990. In 2009, all plastic bags were erased from checkout lines, and in 2014, pasture-based dairy products replaced containment dairy products.

Natural Grocers sticks to a list of products it refuses to sell based on these standards — like foods with artificial sweeteners, body care items that include talc, and daily supplements that feature human growth hormone — and outlines the extensive reasons for how and why it chooses the items that do end up in stock.

We’ve mostly covered food, but Natural Grocers currently sells items that go beyond everyday eating. From household cleaning necessities to chemical-free cosmetics, this brand lives up to its name by stocking all-natural products that help create a sustainable lifestyle. And really, those habits are no different than what was being done 60 years ago — the company is still attracting those who want to live well with ease. The only big difference is that customers are much more in tune with the longstanding mentality of Natural Grocers, and there are other like-minded companies who also follow suit. How does this store expect to distinguish itself from the fray? With some tried-and-true family practices, of course.

Family ties

Just like everyone has likely come across the term “organic” in recent years, most companies in this industry have also embraced the name in its aisles. Whole Foods and Sprouts are the major contenders, but even big-name chains like Target and Walmart have (free-range) stake in the game. Natural Grocers is the lesser-known sibling in this family, and its 150 or so properties in 19 states don’t yet measure up to the reach of the others.

But keep an eye out — Natural Grocers is planning on sustaining much of the growth it’s had in the last few years.

The 11 new stores it plans to open in 2018 includes posts in Colorado, Iowa, and Texas, which will average in size of about 11,000 square feet. The stores will expand the company’s scale across the country, and introduce its practices to even more people who agree with its stance.

That being said, Natural Grocers will not be moving away from its founding principles — including its unique educational system and commitment to the community — as it grows. Instead, that mom-and-pop mindset will potentially make it at home in these new places, and give shoppers what Margaret and Philip wanted from the beginning: neighbors who had the healthy resources they did.

The terms of a healthy lifestyle may be familiar to most of us these days, but it doesn’t mean that we all don’t need a place to get our resources. Natural Grocers started as a way to get the word out about good nutrition for everyone, and it continues to evolve alongside its customers’ expanding knowledge. It may not be a household name yet, but its daily offerings and routine teachings can only help its lengthening list of customers. And those benefits are worth a national conversation indeed.

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Natural Grocers is part of our Healthy Living portfolio.

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