Natural selection

The natural-foods scene has seen radical change since this reporter first stumbled on a “health-food store” in a low-rent shop in Orlando, Fla., back in 1969. Poorly lit shelves sparsely stocked with nondescript packages were jammed up against a rack featuring a smattering of strangely titled magazines and books. The scent of incense permeated everything, and a hippie chick in an Indian-print skirt was stuffing carrots and celery into a giant juicer. “You want some carrot juice?”

Carrot juice? Far out!

And it’s a safe bet that no one in the place had ever heard of tofu.

These days, the word “natural” is as ubiquitous in grocery stores as “sustainable” seems to be in political speeches. And with the opening of Greenlife Grocery last July, Asheville is now home to two supermarkets selling mostly natural and organic foodstuffs, a big downtown co-op and a smaller “sister” co-op across the river offering organic products almost exclusively, plus a couple of other stores aimed at the same customer base. Clearly, more and more consumers are concerned about the health impacts of their food choices, and local retailers are heeding the call.

Even mainstream groceries are getting into the act. Some, such as Bi-Lo, have special sections featuring natural foods. Others, such as Ingles, use special identification tags to flag organic items. The Fresh Market, meanwhile, simply intermixes its shelf stock and identifies organic produce on the placards, leaving it up to customers to zero in on those items.

East Asheville resident Marty Peele echoed comments by several shoppers interviewed by Xpress when she said: “I love the fact that Asheville has so many options. I visit other towns and they don’t have these options.”

But even as local retailers hasten to cater to the growing demand, it remains to be seen how many such stores this area can support.

A sprouting revolution

The story of organized natural-foods outlets in Asheville and environs spans several decades.

In the early 1970s, Asheville native Roger Derrough discovered health-food stores while studying out West. Inspired, he came home and opened Dinner for the Earth, a tiny store on Merrimon Avenue, in 1975 (see “Tempeh Fugit,” May 28, 2003 Xpress). That same year, a group of like-minded Ashevilleans formed the French Broad Food Co-op. Initially a buying club whose members placed monthly orders, the Co-op soon set up shop, first on Carolina Lane downtown and then in the old Chesterfield Mill on Riverside Drive.

Dinner for the Earth relocated to a larger space at the intersection of Merrimon, Broadway and North Lexington, where it flourished for 14 years. Then, in 1993, it moved across the river to be reborn as Earth Fare, which now operates 11 stores across the Southeast (the newest one, in Charlotte, opened Jan. 12). Meanwhile, the Co-op outgrew its riverfront digs and, in 1990, moved into a former Coca-Cola bottling plant on Biltmore Avenue.

Down the road in Black Mountain, Healthy Harvest opened in the 1980s. After appearing to struggle for survival under a succession of owners, the store closed its doors in the mid-’90s. Around that time, Trout Lily market was founded as a membership co-op adjacent to the Fairview Public Library. Trout Lily later morphed into a privately owned business and, more recently, set up shop on U.S. 74A.

Rosanne Kiely was manager of the French Broad Co-op in the late ’90s when the Grove Arcade, then undergoing renovation, proposed that the Co-op relocate there once restoration was complete. The membership rejected the offer, in part because the plan involved becoming a more mainstream grocery, Kiely recalls. But the idea planted a seed in her mind, and in December of 2002 she opened the Grove Corner Market — a mainstream urban grocery with considerable emphasis on organic and local products. And across the river, the burgeoning West Asheville community sprouted a new membership co-op of its own: the Haywood Road Market.

Upping the ante

Greenlife opened July 16 in a former A&P store that was extensively remodeled by architect Robert Sweetser and builder Jerry Gilley. The style might be described as au courant, with exposed structural elements and dropped track lighting. The effect is similar to the stall-market area of the remodeled Grove Arcade (for which Gilley was also the primary contractor).

Of course, appearance isn’t the only measure of a food store. West Asheville photographer Marcela Ashburn cited other issues as she stowed a bag of groceries in her car in the Greenlife parking lot. “I’d rather shop the co-ops; that’s what I usually do. But sometimes this is more convenient.” For Ashburn, there are larger economic and social issues at stake. “I shop at the French Broad Co-op and the Haywood Road Market,” she explained, “because I believe in supporting the local economy, specifically local farmers and producers. These big chains take money out of the community.”

Greenlife founder/CEO Chuck Pruett is a third-generation grocer who experienced a sea change some years back. “I was managing a store for my father, and one day my wife phoned and asked me to bring home some baby food for our infant daughter. I read the baby-food labels and I told myself, ‘I’m not going to feed my kid that stuff!’ So I went and found an alternative source and decided to run my life this way.” In 1999, he opened Greenlife Grocery in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Pruett says he hopes his Asheville store won’t hurt the co-ops, noting that he sees the mainstream groceries in town as his chief competition. But Greenlife, like Earth Fare, has at least some of the earmarks of a bigger, bolder co-op: bulk tofu; rows of bins full of seeds, nuts and flours; and magazines at the checkout devoted to whole foods, mothering, gardening and fitness. And the new store’s arrival in Asheville has already had a substantial impact on at least two other local natural-food retailers — the newcomer’s nearest neighbors.

The Grove Corner Market has definitely taken a hit. In response to a query about sales, Kiely admitted: “We’re down about 10 percent in natural foods. But you have to remember that that is just a small part of our total retail merchandise.”

And Beth Trigg, president of the French Broad Co-op board, told Xpress: “The opening of Greenlife has definitely had an effect on the Co-op. It’s a huge new store that sells some natural and organic products. … We have had to reduce the labor force in the last two months and cut costs.”

Earth Fare General Manager James Saldutti denied that his store’s sales have been affected. “Greenlife,” Saldutti told Xpress, “has raised more of an awareness in our city; that’s been a positive. … I’ve seen new faces here since they opened.”

“Earth Fare has everything you need, and it’s close to home,” noted Asheville resident Bianca Ryans as she exited the store. “They’re pretty much equal, though I like the ambience better in Greenlife. And there’s the novelty, because Greenlife just opened.”

Farther afield, the managers at both the Haywood Road Market and Trout Lily say they haven’t noticed any impact on their sales.

How local is local?

While organic and natural are the best-known yardsticks for “healthy” food, locally grown and “slow” foods are also rapidly gaining adherents (see “I Want a Lover With a Slow Fork,” Sept. 8, 2004 Xpress). Many consider locally grown food to be healthier for both the community and the environment, because it provides an economic incentive for preserving agricultural land and requires less fossil fuel for transport. All six natural-food stores in the Asheville area carry varying percentages of local produce, in season.

The slow-food movement favors local whole foods over nonlocal processed products, coupling the nutritional advantages of fresher foods with a general increase in awareness about food sources and traditional varieties and methods of preparation.

But such criteria aren’t always clear — or, for that matter, compatible. The Grove Corner Market, for example, has a section featuring local products, but many of them are not organic. And the French Broad Co-op, which offers solely organic produce, sometimes stretches the boundaries of what’s considered local.

“We not only emphasize local products throughout our store — local goat cheese and cheddar, locally milled flour, and in-season produce that comes from within an hour of Asheville — we helped start Carolina Organic Growers, which makes North Carolina organic food available statewide,” Trigg told Xpress. And though many people consider any produce grown in North Carolina to be local, she noted, it can come from as much as 400 miles away — prompting others to restrict the “local” label to food produced here in WNC.

Hugh Cantey, the produce manager at the Haywood Road Market, said: “Our emphasis is on organic and local. During the season, at least 70 percent of our produce is local. And in nonproduce areas, we strive to carry local products from craftspersons and artisans, as well as herbs, tinctures and bread.”

Greenlife, which emphasizes natural rather than organic (though it sells both), has a cafe that promotes slow food. In September, the store co-sponsored “Slow Food Asheville Goes Whole Hog,” a fund-raising event for the Asheville Slow Food Convivium.

In addition, the French Broad Co-op, Haywood Road Market and Greenlife all host tailgate markets on their premises. Short of growing it yourself, that’s about as local as food gets, going directly from producer to consumer. And all of the stores mentioned in this story carry Ben & Jerry’s organic ice cream — neither local nor slow (unless you like it melted), but clearly a hit with the health-food set.

Chunky Monkey may be a success, but what about the stores themselves as the local competition heats up? Brevard resident Robert Stoutamire offered this optimistic view as he offloaded five bags of groceries from a cart outside Earth Fare: “More variety and competition is better for the natural-foods movement, because more people will see the stores and take advantage of the opportunity to buy healthier food.” He added, “I look forward to the day when there are as many Earth Fares as there are McDonald’s.”

The tale of the tape

In our cost-conscious culture, a lot of shoppers judge a store by what happens at the cash register. Accordingly, Xpress compiled a representative shopping list and headed into the aisles for some comparison shopping. Everything on the list was organic, and it included produce; dairy, soy and rice milk; bulk and packaged tofu; bread and pasta; canned goods; frozen foods; fruit juice; tea and coffee; cookies; chips and salsa; and cat food. Only identical brand-name products were tallied (except for bulk tofu and bulk whole-bean coffee), and we used the regular price for items on which stores were offering temporary specials.

The total came to $131.01 at Earth Fare, $130.46 at the French Broad Co-op ($123.94 with a 5 percent member discount), and $122.82 at Greenlife.

Using a shorter list of items available at the smaller stores, prices at the Grove Corner Market ran about 1 percent above Earth Fare, Haywood Road Market was about 3 percent above Earth Fare, and Trout Lily came in about 36 percent higher.

Earth Fare is the largest of all these stores, both in square feet (28,000) and overall company size. Greenlife, a two-store “chain,” has just over two-thirds the space (20,000 square feet), and the French Broad Co-op checks in with 4,000 square feet of retail space. Next in line is the Grove Corner Market (3,000 square feet), followed by the Haywood Road Market (1,750) and Trout Lily (about 1,600).

All of the retail stores start full-time employees at $7.50 per hour, except for the Haywood co-op ($6.50) and FBFC ($7.85). All offer a week of vacation time after one year of service except FBFC (two weeks). Beyond that, the benefits vary. Earth Fare and Greenlife provide partial health-insurance coverage, and FBFC provides full insurance coverage plus a 50 cent-per-hour benefit for health-care needs not covered by insurance. None of the smaller stores offers health insurance, though Haywood Market employees receive a free therapeutic massage or acupuncture from a worker-member every six weeks. All these stores give their employees discounts, ranging from 20 percent at Earth Fare, FBFC and Greenlife to 15 percent at the others. In addition, the Grove Corner Market allows its employees to special-order goods at cost.

Gathering and hunting

Here’s where to find the retailers mentioned in this story:

Earth Fare: 66 Westgate Shopping Center, Asheville

French Broad Food Co-op: 90 Biltmore Ave., Asheville

Greenlife Grocery: 70 Merrimon Ave., Asheville

Grove Corner Market: 1 Page Ave. (Grove Arcade), Asheville

Haywood Road Market: 771 Haywood Road, West Asheville

Trout Lily Market: 1297 Charlotte Hwy., Fairview

About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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