SURVIVING AS AN INDEPENDENT NATURAL foods store is not easy in today's highly competitive market. With the constant expansion of supermarket-sized natural foods retailers such as Whole Foods and Wild Oats, small mom-and pop stores struggle to keep their strong customer base. In addition to overcoming the seemingly impossible task of price-matching multi-million dollar food retailers, finding a receptive location is also a challenge. Everything Natural—located in Clarks Summit, in the heart of Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA)— has definitely beaten the odds.
Longtime vegetarian and natural foods activist Barry Kaplan launched Everything Natural in 1985 to provide the NEPA area with a store that offers vegetarian, holistic, and organic products, ideas that were foreign to the area at that time. However, it wasn't the food that first brought many of the early customers to Everything Natural's aisles so much as the new store's atmospherics, particularly its trendy and appealing music.
"In 1985, we started playing music of our choice," Kaplan said. "It was then known as new age music. People said they loved it. They asked where to buy it, and that was one of our 'a-ha' moments. We started selling the music we loved and became the largest resource for that type of music in our region."
Since then, Everything Natural has been thriving, offering classes, workshops, food, gifts, music, and other products centered around vegetarianism and natural living. Kaplan credits the rise of health consciousness to Everything Natural's continued success. "People have come to realize that there is an association between your health and your food," he said. "That acceptance and awareness have brought more customers to our door."
Aline Chang is the president of NEPA's non-profit vegetarian support group, The Vegetarian Way, and spoke to the importance of reciprocal relationships between local organizations and regional stores.
"The staff at Everything Natural is always happy to post our flyers," said Chang. "We refer people to them, and they let folks know about us."
Everything Natural's customers come for a variety of different products and reasons. They range from ethical vegetarians and health-conscious natural living people to those who are just interested in products not offered by the major food chains. Kaplan speaks of the growing customer diversity.
"Some of our clientele come to us because they're dealing with health problems and want advice, while others come in to get products that support a healthy, eco-friendly lifestyle," he said. "And, of course, new vegetarians always find their way to us."
With a nearby Wegman's that offers a wide array of vegetarian and natural products, one would think Everything Natural would inevitably succumb to the large retailer's seemingly unbeatable prices. But Kaplan eschews the idea of competition and claims that his store easily matches larger regional stores.
"For the most part, if people just shop for a basket of food, they'll usually spend less here," he said. "We're not elitists; we're real people who want to make natural foods accessible to other real people. We didn't come into the business looking for gross profit margins. We came into it because of a passion for living better."
Customers coming back to the store with success stories and accounts of enhanced vitality are most fulfilling for Kaplan.
"Sometimes it's the littlest thing—and we may not know at first—but it had profound meaning for them. To us, that's a fulfillment of what our goals are."
Bobby Allyn wrote this article during a summer internship with The Vegetarian Resource Group. He is currently studying journalism and international relations at American University.
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