Wild Oats

Whole Earth

Corrections or additions?

This article by Nicole Plett was published

in U.S. 1 Newspaper on April 15, 1998. All rights reserved.

Food Fights (100% Organic)

Is there room in this town for two organic markets?

You bet, say the experts. Watch out, McCaffrey’s.

It’s powerful," a woman was overheard telling her

companion as the lights went down at McCarter Theater last week. Was

she referring to the blockbuster movie "Titanic"? The booming

stock market? No. She was talking about Wild Oats, the natural foods

retailer currently making its East Coast debut on Nassau Street in

Princeton.

The opening of Wild Oats, the new market at 255 Nassau Street, the

former home of Davidson’s Market, certainly has lots of people talking.

And the newcomer’s impact is certainly powerful — but is it powerful

enough to knock out the other natural food store just down the street,

the Whole Earth Center? Or will its power — especially its marketing

and presentation power — help grow the base of the organic food

industry in town?

For pretty close to 28 years, Princeton’s Whole Earth Center, a nonprofit

corporation, has sold natural foods here. A pioneer, perhaps, in its

day, many newcomers have been shocked to find such a quaint whole

foods retailer on Nassau Street. Until its spiffy 1995 remodeling,

the store seemed to have changed little since the wild and woolly

’60s, and was guaranteed to conjure up memories of back-to-nature

community co-ops and buying clubs.

But natural foods retailing has changed. And those who once scooped

100-pound bags of beans have gone and got themselves MBAs. At the

Whole Earth Center, for example, the president of the non-profit board

is director of information technology at a Route 1 company. In the

last half dozen years Whole Earth has enjoyed double digit growth

in sales and has undergone a substantial physical renovation —

all despite keeping banker’s hours that fly in the face of conventional

food marketing strategy.

In the brief 10 years since Mike Gilliland founded Wild

Oats in good old Boulder, Colorado, his company has grown to be one

of the nation’s largest natural foods retailers. With 55 supermarket-size

stores in the western United States, Wild Oats is second nationally

only to Whole Foods Inc. Adding to the current Princeton buzz is the

fact that the bright and bouncy new store is the company’s first entry

into the eastern market. And it’s not afraid to compete directly with

the big supermarkets at the shopping centers and on Route 1. Wild

Oats is open daily from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sundays from 8 a.m. to

9 p.m. It’s a big business.

Donna Batcho, executive director of the Pennington-based Northeast

Organic Farming Association-New Jersey, is not surprised to find the

Whole Earth Center joined by brash new neighbors. She says for NOFA’s

consortium of consumer and farmer members, the expansion of the market

is good news. The organization has 500 members, including 50 NOFA-certified

organic farms in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

"The market for natural foods has been growing by leaps and bounds,"

she says. "A recent article in Barron’s Magazine calls it a `$12

billion a year health food wave,’ and it’s a market that’s growing

at 20 percent a year."

As both a long-time beneficiary of the Whole Earth Center and a future

beneficiary of Wild Oats, NOFA is optimistic that Princeton’s new

store is simply tangible evidence of a booming natural foods market.

Wild Oats, which also does business as Alfalfa’s and Caper’s Markets,

has just arrived. But Whole Foods, the nation’s top retailer, already

does business in New Jersey as Fresh Fields. With stores operating

in Millburn and Montclair, it plans to add three more New Jersey stores

this year.

Batcho says that economists have pinpointed the Alar apple scare of

1989 as the media blitz that raised the public’s awareness about poisons

on food. Even though the scare was just that — unproven rumors

about the dangers of Alar residue — Batcho says the story "was

enough to get people upset and get attention." So even though

Alar was not a true villain, it focused national attention on pesticide

residues.

And this is the factor that is foremost in the minds of today’s organic-seeking

boomer parents.

"Children are especially at risk for pesticide exposure,"

says Batcho. "The Environmental Working Group [a Washington, D.C.-based

research organization], did a study that indicates that by the age

of five, millions of children have ingested up to 35 percent of their

lifetime `allowable’ dose of some carcinogenic pesticides."

Batcho also draws data from another surprising and recent mainstream

source. In January, 1998, Consumer Reports, the bastion of middle-class

buying trends, turned its critical eye on organic and other "green

labeled" foods. The magazine’s groundbreaking pesticide-residue

analysis showed that organic foods had "consistently minimal or

nonexistent pesticide residue," and endorsed the fact that children

— with their small, fast-growing bodies and speedy metabolisms

— are our most vulnerable eaters. The study also supports the

contention that "buying organic food promotes farming practices

that really are more sustainable and better for the environment."

Although some pesticides have been proved to cause birth and immune-system

defects in lab animals, data on the long-term dangers to humans is

still sketchy. Farmers who work with pesticides are at higher risk

than nonfarmers of getting some kinds of cancer and ALS (Lou Gehrig’s

disease). Yet the lack of data places government agencies and consumers

in the dark. Another gap: current "safe levels" are set for

21-year-old adult males, not for children.

Yet "organic agriculture isn’t just about produce without chemicals,

it’s about a whole system of working with nature," says Batcho.

The organic system of farming works to improve the land’s fertility

by using natural, restorative methods rather than chemically formulated

fertilizers. Organic soil improvement methods include cover crops,

crop rotation, and composting — all of which combat topsoil erosion.

To be certified organic by NOFA-NJ, a product must be grown on land

that has had no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides applied for three

years. Farmers must keep detailed records of methods and materials

used, submit to an annual on-site inspection, and re-apply for certification

annually.

Batcho notes that the Whole Earth Center, Wild Oats, and Whole Foods

Inc. are allies lobbying against the USDA’s proposed new rules that

would lower the standards for the production of foods labeled organic.

The proposed standards have in fact been tailored to the demands of

agribusiness, according to a New York Times editorial (April 13, 1998).

They would virtually gut the organic movement’s self-imposed standards

by allowing practices that no one calls organic such as irradiation,

the use of sewage sludge as fertilizer, and genetically engineered

crops.

Yet organic produce also has some overblown claims of its own. "There

is no scientific evidence that organically-grown produce is more nutritious

than chemically-grown produce," says Batcho emphatically. "The

so-called `Rutgers Study’ that supposedly proved the difference dates

from 1946 and has been thoroughly discredited," she explains.

The oft-quoted study’s data and interpretation were just plain wrong.

Yet although "natural foods" and "whole foods" are

marketing terms with no national definition, baby boomers are definitely

buying organic, and the biggest markets are in the northeast and on

the west coast.

Batcho also refutes the truism that organically-grown

produce costs more than its conventional counterpart. While she acknowledges

that currently the demand for organics exceeds the supply, she says

chemical-free farming and seasonal, local eating are not expensive

luxuries. "It all depends of time of year and where you are buying

it," she says. "It does not always cost more money, especially

if a consumer belongs to a community-supported agriculture (CSA) venture."

There are two such farms in the area, Watershed Organic Farm in Pennington

and North Slope Farm in Lambertville.

The organics movement in general, and NOFA-NJ in particular, has received

a boost in recent years from top-flight chefs who insist on serving

locally-grown, certified organic vegetables and fruits in season.

"The taste is the biggest thing the chefs talk about," says

Batcho. "There was a vintner who said, `To get good tasting wine,

you need good tasting soil.’ And it’s the same thing with food."

"But we also tell people it’s better to buy local produce, even

when it’s not organic, when it’s in season here. We have such a short

growing season — four months of the year. Unfortunately most markets

would rather stick with one year-round supplier from California than

switch to a local supplier for four months."

Batcho’s concern for the future of the Whole Earth Center is tied

to that organization’s longstanding commitment to NOFA-NJ and local

organic agriculture. "An important thing they have done is even

during the growing season when there is a glut of organic produce

from California at very low prices, they will continue their commitment

to local organic farmers by still paying them a premium price."

She explains that California has a much longer growing season and

a larger scale economy, plus cheaper farm land, that enables it to

beat a New Jersey farmer’s lowest price. "Consumers don’t always

care where their organic produce comes from. But New Jersey produce

is local, generates less transportation pollution, and it’s fresher."

Batcho believes the area is big enough for both Whole Earth and for

Wild Oats. "I don’t see any conflict," she says. "Most

towns have more than one shoemaker, more than one bookstore, and many,

many supermarkets. And lots of our farmers need markets."

How the natural foods industry has cast off its ’60s reputation for

"crunchy" (a.k.a unpalatable) foods is clearly manifest in

NOFA’s 120-page resource book, "Eating Fresh from the Organic

Garden State." The elegant guide features recipes tailored to

each of the four seasons by top chefs from restaurants that support

area and organic growers, including the Ryland Inn in Whitehouse,

the Barnards Inn in Bernardsville, and even Windows on the World.

In her introduction to "Eating Fresh," former New Jerseyan

Alice Waters who pioneered the farm-to-restaurant connection at her

renowned restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley, calls for "an impassioned

collaboration between those who cook and those who produce the ingredients

. . . and an organic partnership between the producer and Nature."

She boasts that her restaurant only serves fresh tomatoes during the

three months of the year when they are at their peak.

Top Of Page
Wild Oats

From the first day of Wild Oats’ "soft opening"

— the official grand opening will be Wednesday, April 22 —

business has been brisk. On a weekday afternoon, all the usual suspects

can be seen plying the aisles and scrutinizing the displays: young

people, Princeton professors, a retiree in a tennis dress, and the

slightly muddled octogenarian seen walking off to his car with the

sign-up girl’s clipboard.

Wild Oats’ signature yellow and purple logo extends to purple shopping

baskets, carts, and new diminutive carts for children. During the

opening week, the store was giving away of sturdy cotton duck cloth

shopping totes as well as a plethora of yellow-and-purple plastic

sacks. The plastic sacks are emblazoned with their own defense brief.

They are made of 80 percent recycled material, which is supposed to

save trees and use less energy and create fewer pollutants than the

manufacture and shipping of paper sacks. Nevertheless, the bags do

inform their user that "plastic is eternal." Customers are

asked to use each bag at least five times.

An opening-week special featured California strawberries (lovely to

look at, but not too flavorful) for 99 cents per pint, on display

alongside their organic counterpart at $2.99 per pint, pointing up

a natural foods industry dilemma. Conventionally-grown strawberries

are by far the most contaminated fruit or vegetable on the market.

The Environmental Working Group’s test batches showed 70 percent contained

at least one pesticide; 36 percent contained two or more.

The layout of the 15,000 square foot store (Wild Oats normally moves

into supermarket-size spaces of some 25,000 square feet) suffers from

impromptu aisles created by merchandise displays. With all the extra

help standing around to help customers (and each other) through the

opening-week jitters, it doesn’t take too many shoppers to make the

store feel crowded. Not to mention the parking lot.

Inside there is a deli counter features salads (a three salad sampler

is $4.99), a salad bar, packaged sushi, and hot food trays with entrees

and pizza slices. A Juice and Java Bar is run by the popular Small

World Coffee. The meat and seafood department, manned by several servers,

bears an uncanny resemblance to Davidson’s premium meat cases. More

familiar to boomer veterans of health-food co-ops and buying clubs

are the scoops and bags for such self-service staples as rice, grains,

flour, beans, nuts, and now carob chips.

Be kind to the earth? Sure, but give me my snacks, say most boomers.

Here in abundance are baked potato chips, blue corn chips, rice cakes,

and all the rest. Packaged products carrying Wild Oats’ own label

are prominent throughout the store and represent the key to the chain’s

success.

Wild Oats is also known for its extensive shelves of cosmetics, skin

care, vitamins, and supplements — premium products that don’t

suffer the low profit margin of perishable foods. Near the checkouts,

you’ll find fragrant "Bath bombs," a lethal looking perfumed

ball that effervesces in water like an Alka-Seltzer, $2.99. For those

seeking one-stop shopping, there is also bathroom tissue ($1.19 for

four rolls) and laundry products.

Interviewed by phone, Joseph Macchione, Wild Oats’ regional director,

spoke about choosing Princeton for its market expansion. "We have

found that any time we are near a university we do well. It’s an instant

match," he says. Untroubled by the store’s small size, he adds,

"It’s a little tight, but it creates a easy atmosphere. It you’re

pressed for time, you can come in and out pretty quickly." Is

he concerned about Nassau Street congestion? "If we’re going to

be on Nassau, this is the right place to be. We’re happy about it."

Like all good merchandisers, Wild Oats claims it offers "shopping

as theater." Macchione explains: "The usual shopping is kind

of boring, people don’t like to do it. What we want to do is make

a fun atmosphere and a nice setting. People tend to use our stores

as a place to hang out."

He says company guidelines ensure that "99 percent of our stock

contains no artificial coloring, preservatives, or hydrogenated oil."

The Wild Oats label is a big part of its business. "We go out

and seek products that offer great value for great quality," he

says. "For example our pasta comes from a small producer in Italy

and they put our label on it. Our own organic apple juice is only

$4.99 a gallon. Reasonable prices are important to us. The majority

of our produce is organic, we have close to 200 organic produce items.

But if it’s not available organically we’ll carry conventional or

transitional produce."

Who are your competitors? "There’s McCaffrey’s, PathMark, Shop

Rite, and Whole Earth," says Macchione. "But we consider ourselves

a different type of market. We consider ourselves a fresh market.

We carry a variety of speciality products. And our prices are reasonable."

Getting settled locally with Wild Oats are general manager Bruce Perlstein

and his wife, Graysha Perlstein, director of marketing. The couple

previously developed their own natural foods supermarket on Long Island

before going to work for Wild Oats.

Graysha, 47, is a certified nutritionist and Bruce, 44, majored in

film at NYU. Yet these aren’t the couple’s only food credentials.

"Our credentials are that we have six very healthy children and

three grandchildren," says Graysha proudly.

At the time of our call, CEO Gilliland was out front bagging and had

spent the previous night stocking shelves. "You have to understand

this is a publicly traded company. In industry today there is a movement

to make people like automatons, but this is a much more fun place

to be," she says.

"I’ve met with John Bacon, the Whole Earth general manager. We

both determined that we’re working on the same side, to bring quality

food to people, and taking care of the community and the environment,"

she continues. "We differ because we’re for-profit and they are

not, but we’re very much focused in that area, too. In the supermarket

business, big stores locate in close proximity to one another but

no one seems to mind. And I think competition is always good for the

community."

Says Macchione: "We’ve been in situations like this before, and

people find their niche in the market — there’s always room for

more. Our goal is to create an awareness for natural foods. Our customer

base is people who like to eat great, fresh products. In our store,

you can have confidence about the product — and you don’t have

to read the label."

Top Of Page
Whole Earth

Funny, that just when we’d all been taught to read labels,

these stores are telling us we don’t have to. Funnier still, that

Herb Mertz, president of the board of directors of the Whole Earth

Center, says it’s his center — and not Wild Oats — where labels

can be ignored.

"We’re still sort of the purists in town in term of natural foods,"

says Mertz. "All of our produce is organic. If you didn’t want

to read labels at Whole Earth you wouldn’t have to read labels, which

isn’t true of the other stores."

In business since 1970, Mertz says Whole Earth is one of the longest-running

natural foods stores in the nation. Although it was never a co-op,

it was always nonprofit. "It’s an unusual structure," he says.

"A number of community people pitched in and started the organization

in 1970. It’s a nonprofit store run by a board of directors."

Mertz, a board member for 14 years, is director of information systems

at Interpool Inc. at 211 College Road in the Forrestal Center.

The board has changed somewhat over 27 years, with some original members

leaving and then returning. Three of its five current members were

among the founders: Hella McVay, Susanna Waterman, and Barbara Parmet.

The fifth board member is Laurie Huntsman. To join the board a candidate

must be nominated by a board member.

Whole Earth currently occupies 5,000 square feet of retail space at

360 Nassau Street. In 1995 it spent about $100,000 on its expansion

and renovation, with the cost shared between the landlord and Whole

Earth, transforming the formerly cramped quarters with handsome wooden

shelving, new refrigerated cases, and new lighting. The store currently

has 38 employees, both full-time and part-time.

"It’s been wonderful," Mertz says of the remodeling. "It’s

been such a great addition to the store, I can’t imagine now how we

ever functioned without it. Our business has been growing at over

15 percent per year for the last six years, but the year of the renovations

we jumped about 23 percent."

What about the competition down the street? "We’re very concerned

about it," says Mertz. "It’s forcing some changes on our store,

but these are good in a way. For instance, we’d been hearing from

our customers about more convenient hours. So starting this month

we’re going to be open longer hours, and open on Sunday."

"We have a lot of people who come for special diets and special

needs. We cater to wheat-free, dairy-free, and macrobiotic diets.

As a convenience to our customers, we also sell a minimum of nitrate-free,

free-range meat products, such as fresh chicken and frozen chicken

breasts."

Among the store’s response to the new kid on the street, Whole Earth

has started a newsletter to publicize sales and specials as well as

current environmental issues. "Right now we have a campaign going

on in town against the USDA’s attempt to gut the country’s organic

standards," says Mertz. "We have brochures and flyers all

over town. Our goal is to generate 3,000 letters, faxes, and E-mails

to the USDA."

For Whole Earth, strategies in marketing and pricing could be just

beginning. "I noticed one day we had a lot of milk left,"

says Mertz. "I went over to Wild Oats and discovered that they

were practically giving it away! So, with everyone jockeying for a

market share, in terms of specials, there’s going to be a lot of playing

off against each other, which is good for the consumer.

"We have excellent supplies of local organic produce," Mertz

continues. "Our farmers have told us they’ll supply us first,

and that’s the loyalty factor."

Good works are also nothing new to Whole Earth. "As part of our

orientation, we give approximately 10 percent of net income to charitable

and environmental organizations," says Mertz. Over the past seven

or eight years, about 20 organizations have benefited. The majority

of decisions are made by the board, but the center also allocates

a certain portion of its gifts to organizations selected by the store

employees.

Among the organizations that have benefited are NOFA and the D&R Greenway,

and the Princeton Public Library, which receives money to buy environmental

books for the collection. The center worked with Isles in Trenton

to found an inner-city environmental education program, and also supports

Trees for Trenton.

Since Davidson’s closing Princeton residents have bemoaned the lack

of a supermarket within walking distance of the central business district.

Recently one developer approached McCaffrey’s about putting another

supermarket in the building now occupied by the public library, which

hopes to move to a new building nearby. Now the question is whether

Princeton is big enough for even more supermarkets — and two natural

food stores.

Says Mertz: "I don’t think there’s going to be a problem. We’ll

make some adjustments. In some ways it allows us to go back to the

niche organization we have always been. In the last year, since Davidson’s

and Super Fresh closed we’ve been swamped with business. But in a

way this is going to allow us to go back to focus on the purists of

natural foods and catering to special diets."

National Organic Farming Association-New Jersey, 33 Titus

Mill Road, Pennington 08534, 609-737-6848.

Wild Oats Market, 225 Nassau Street, 609-924-4993. Open

Monday to Saturday, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Upcoming

benefits: Wednesday, April 22, grand opening with 5 percent of sales

contributed to NOFA-NJ. Sunday, April 26, benefit brunch for the Volunteers

of America.

Whole Earth, 360 Nassau Street, 609-924-7377. Open Monday

to Friday, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday,

April 18, open house with organic farmers and other experts to discuss

the proposed new organic food standards. Saturday, April 18, and Wednesday,

April 22, Earth Day and the 28th anniversary of the store, 20 percent

discount on produce and bulk items.

n


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