Tempeh fugit

“I began shopping in the local natural-food store there in Idaho, befriended the owners, and learned how to pronounce some of the exotic products. Months later, I called home and asked my mom if anyone had started a natural-food store while I was gone, and soon I was making plans to return to Asheville and open my own store.”

— Roger Derrough

Earth Fare founder Roger Derrough seems a humble, unassuming man. The Asheville native admits to drinking black tea like a Brit but says he’s learned to favor soy milk over cream. That’s his favorite Earth Fare product — and how could you expect anything less from a bona fide local health-food mogul?

In case you’ve been living in fast-food land, Earth Fare — now celebrating its 28th anniversary — is Asheville’s health-food supermarket. It’s a place sufficiently distinct from your typical grocery store to make you really want to try goat’s milk fudge, seitan or tofu sandwich “meat.” A store where you can get freshly squeezed juice, sit back and read the Herb Quarterly, or browse the natural-supplements aisles. (Earth Fare also boasts a broad selection of standard food items, including quality cheeses, breads, meats and an extensive beer-and-wine selection.)

But when asked what sets Earth Fare apart from conventional supermarket chains, Sales and Marketing Director Troy DeGroff says it’s all about responsiveness to customer feedback. The whole concept of natural-foods stores, he notes, grew out of customer dissatisfaction with what they were being offered by the mainstream.

“In terms of management style, I’d like to think there’s more of an open-door policy [here]. We listen to staff, because they are the representatives for us with our customer base. They keep us in touch with what our customers want,” asserts DeGroff.

Apparently, it’s working. The natural-foods chain now boasts six stores across the Southeast: in Asheville and Greensboro, N.C.; Athens, Ga.; and Greenville, Charleston and Columbia, S.C. Another one is slated to open within weeks in Mt. Pleasant, S.C., reports Advertising/Publications Coordinator Tracy Schneider, with still more on the near horizon.

Earth Fare, says Derrough, was founded on three principles:
• Stop poisoning the earth;
• Stop poisoning yourself; and
• Take responsibility for your health.

And despite the store’s enormous growth over the years — from a modest Merrimon Avenue storefront to a corporate presence with a regional reach — that vision, maintains Derrough, has remained intact.

“On the whole, teaming up with a venture-capital group has been very good for me personally as well as for the company,” he reports. “Earth Fare’s mission statement is the same mission statement we had [before], as is our product philosophy. There are some romantic notions that never came to fruition, like going solar, but who’s to say that would have ever happened anyway?

“I also think that growing has been great for our staff; it’s given them a much more professional atmosphere as well as added job benefits that we didn’t have when we were smaller.”

Recently recruited President/CEO Mike Cianciarulo is “a very hands-on [executive],” reports Schneider. “He’s in the store all the time.” Leadership is important to Earth Fare’s success, first under Derrough and now under Cianciarulo, but the staff, notes DeGroff, are the connection to the customer. Employee training, says DeGroff, is essential: “You can’t sell natural foods unless you know what quinoa is,” he muses.

Asheville Earth Fare employee Mary Campbell says the quarterly training sessions help keep her up-to-date on natural-food issues. As she juices an Immune System Smoothie for me, for example, she can rattle off the health benefits of spirulina.

A modest start

It all began in a small clapboard storefront on North Merrimon. After taking time off from school to travel out West (where he discovered what it meant to eat healthfully during a National Outdoor Leadership School trip), Derrough returned to his hometown in 1975 to open a small health-food store called Dinner for the Earth. The name, Derrough explains, came to him while he was in Idaho. “It was an ecological name: Food grown ecologically was good for the Earth.”

Launching the business was tough, he recalls. “I had no reason to believe that I would be in business even one year. I was in uncharted waters; I had no idea what kind of demand there would be for healthy products. On top of that, I had very little money and no business background. What I did have was a strong belief that I was doing the right thing.”

Five years later, Dinner for the Earth had outgrown the Merrimon location and Derrough moved his business to the edge of downtown, where it flourished on Broadway for 14 years. And when the time came to relocate once again, Derrough says he had to choose between just finding another storefront and bumping up the whole vision to another level altogether. It was 1993, and there was nothing like that around here.

Once Derrough had decided to relocate to the Westgate Shopping Center in West Asheville, he struggled for months to find a name that fit the bigger vision. Finally, somebody came up with Earth Fare. “Fare,” he felt, implied a bigger operation; “Earth,” the connection with the old name. It made perfect sense.

When asked about his success, Derrough is very matter-of-fact. “It’s not like we waved a magic wand and six stores appeared. Part of it is making progress every year. It’s a lot of work.”

Like DeGroff and Schneider, Derrough credits the people of Asheville in making Earth Fare a success. “Asheville has been a good town for the Earth Fare concept,” he notes. And in a letter to his employees, Derrough wrote: “Ultimately I’m most thankful and most awed by the fact that there are so many people that care enough about their health, the health of their loved ones and the environment to shop at Earth Fare and other natural food stores.”

Organic or not?

Earth Fare boasts the only fresh natural-beef selection and the largest organic-produce selection in Asheville (which, says Derrough, is what really sets the store apart from the mainstream grocery crowd). In fact, the chain bills itself as the “experts in organics.” Thanks to the federal organic standards passed last October, however, Earth Fare now faces tighter restrictions, notes DeGroff. And that, he says, has led to some customer misunderstandings about the store’s ordering procedures.

Earth Fare, DeGroff explains, draws on many sources. “We buy a number of things locally; we buy our produce from a distributor in Florida. We buy from California; we even buy pears from South America when they aren’t in season here.”

But that, notes Schneider, doesn’t diminish the store’s commitment to supporting farmers in the region. “When there’s a local vendor, we always make use of them — pawpaws and fresh nettles, a fresh eggplant. Each of our stores will support their local growers as the need comes up.” About 20 percent of all produce is locally grown — meaning “direct from the farm,” adds DeGroff (the actual percentage varies, depending on the season). Apples (in the fall) and hydroponically grown tomatoes from Hendersonville, South Carolina peaches, herbs from Black Mountain, and sweet potatoes are among the local products now carried in all six Earth Fare stores.

Under the new USDA regulations, farmers must document exactly how they grow their produce and what they feed their livestock for it to qualify as organic. In some ways, says DeGroff, that’s good; but it can really hurt small farmers who have to pay fees to qualify as organic.

According to store literature, Earth Fare’s beef is fed natural grains, with no antibiotics or hormones. Earth Fare’s poultry is hormone- and antibiotic-free and air-chilled (rather than of water-chilled). But the store doesn’t offer much fresh, organic meat (from animals fed only organically grown grains), says DeGroff, because the sticker shock would drive many customers away. “We do have some organic meat in the freezer, however,” he notes.

Out of the cave

Earth Fare has recently remodeled its Asheville store to accommodate the larger number of shoppers they’re attracting. “People of Asheville have been very kind to us over the years. They’ve tolerated our crowded aisles, but as the aisles got busier, we knew we had to do something,” DeGroff explains. The change to warmer colors has made a huge difference, he reports; the store also added a bookstore section with a reading area, expanded the cafe and the nutrition department, and added two express checkout lanes.

“It’s more comfortable. … It’s got a really nice feel; it reflects what Earth Fare is now,” says Schneider.

DeGroff, meanwhile, extends heartfelt thanks to the community for its continued support. “We owe a debt of gratitude to Asheville, really. For a while during the renovation, a lot of the lights were down and in the narrow aisles, it was what I called ‘cave shopping.’ People were really great, though, and now we have a lot to show for it.”

Even the inevitable disgruntlement, muses Schneider, reflected Earth Fare’s unique place in the community. “There were some customers who lost it, got angry during the renovation, but that was really good in a way. That wouldn’t happen at [a standard grocery store]. Customers feel invested in this place.”

Eric Swanson, who works in the Asheville Earth Fare’s cafe, also applauds the remodel. “We have more to offer now. It’s great having the extra space,” he says.

But that’s not the end of Earth Fare’s expansion plans. The corporation, DeGroff reports, plans to double in size in the next two years. “We’re not leaving the Southeast, though,” he affirms. “We’re planning three more new stores next year, but we have a regional focus.” To some extent, he continues, it’s simply a matter of loyalty to old friends. “There was this older woman that came into the store a few weeks ago and saw the picture on our wall of the different storefronts of Dinner for the Earth, and she said that her husband had helped move the store from Merrimon to the Broadway location years ago. We hear interesting stories like that all the time. Asheville is really involved in Earth Fare and has been for [more than] 25 years. We like that.”

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