The avocado green and tangerine orange paint job on what used to be the old National Furniture and Mattress store on Highway 99 is the latest hallmark of Medford’s booming demand for organic and local health foods.
Natural Grocers, which opened for business on March 26th, is the third alternative grocery store to set up shop in Medford in the last two years, after Trader Joes and the Medford Co-op. Only a few years before that, Valley residents who wanted a larger selection of organic and non-conventional products had to drive to Ashland. Now they can choose between more than five locations in Medford to pick up gluten-free snacks and organic produce.
For some people, it’s about time that Medford had a large dedicated health food store like Natural Grocers, which has 65 locations in 13 states. Others shoppers are torn between euphoria that they can now gawk at an entire aisle of gluten-free cookies or worry that the larger, more financially stable big box store might put beloved locally-owned stores out of business.
Alternative groceries cater to multiple needs and interests. They may attract parents looking for organic and chemical free foods to feed their families, people with special dietary needs, local-vores who want to keep their money in Medford, environmental activists who support green businesses, and those who just enjoy the vibe. It’s a niche market that has been sorely neglected, which may be why Natural Grocers selected Medford as its first branch in Oregon.
For years that hole was filled by Sherm’s Food 4 Less, owned by Medford community members Sherm and Wanda Olsrud, which introduced a natural foods section in 1997. Fred Meyers, another Oregon-based store, offered only a very small selection. “We’ve pretty much been the leader in natural foods and supplements,” says Terry Johnson, the manager of natural foods at Food 4 Less. It’s still the only health food venue open 24 hours a day.
The sprawling discount warehouse on Biddle Road specializes in providing low prices to customers while serving an extremely broad range of needs and interests. Conventional goods and soda share shelf-space with gluten-free pizzas and bottles of super food teas. Before Natural Grocers opened last week, Johnson says she could promise that Food 4 Less offered the lowest prices in natural foods in the Valley. Now she’s not sure.
Matching the prices of larger stores is not of primary concern to Medford Co-op General Manager, Emile Amarotico, although he admits that in some instances it will be a challenge.
The bright green and purple trim of the Medford Co-op marks a cheery, cozy store with crowded shelves, low ceilings and a warm ambience decorated with Tibetan prayer flags and hand woven baskets. The refurbished building used to be a two-story house, with fireplaces bookending where the produce section and the cash registers are now. It’s a stark contrast to the warehouse feel of Sherm’s Food 4 Less.
“Have you seen the produce section?” Amarotico beams, remarking on the tidy array of organic produce. A community effort allowed the Co-op to open in August, 2011 and it has flourished. In the year since its opening, member numbers swelled to 2,500, and an upcoming member vote will elect a board, who represent the owners/members in policy and strategic decisions-such as whether or not the empty building next door will be remodeled into a deli much like what is offered at the Ashland Co-op.
Amarotico is optimistic about the opening of Natural Grocers, seeing it as a natural part of a growing trend toward healthy living that will offer a wider array of choices to meet people’s individual needs and values. “That Natural Grocers chose Medford as its first step in Oregon is really validating to this community,” he says. “It’s the nature of demand going up.”
One of these demands is that stores reflect the values of its shoppers. Environmental conscientiousness or a desire to support the local economy guides some shoppers as much as prices or availability. Natural Grocers and the Medford Co-op make concerted efforts to be as eco-friendly as possible, banning single-use bags, using efficient lighting and refrigeration units, and recycling. Food 4 Less has taken a less rigorous approach to greening the store, but store managers have noticed a shift in the shopping culture.
“I think that people in the community in general are becoming more environmentally aware,” Johnson says. She notes that years ago they tried selling eco-friendly products like compostable forks and spoons and recyclable paper towels but the items didn’t move off the shelves. With each year they sell better and better.
People have also become more aware of the importance of buying local, a value emphasized in all of Sherm’s grocery stores. That Sherm’s stores are also locally owned and operated, keeping the money in Medford, is a fact its store managers consider hugely important. Food 4 Less currently carries over 100 products from local food artisans like Rogue Salsa, Pickled Planet and Silly Zak’s, a gluten-free bakery based in Central Point.
“We support everybody,” Johnson says, noting that they would like to continue expanding the selection of local foods, but need to decide where to physically put them in the already crowded store. She jokes, “We can’t push the walls out.”
Despite having its base in Colorado, Natural Grocers also puts a strong focus on including locally made products. Before opening, the store made the effort to seek out and approach many local producers like Silly Zak’s.
Co-owner Dan La Fond says that he and other local producers see the new store as a good sign of a growing market which will welcome start-ups and encourage more local businesses. It may even offer new opportunities for local vendors to expand by selling their products in Natural Grocers in other states as well.
“Natural Grocers has the where-with-all to generate even more awareness about health food and wellness products,” says co-op General Manager, Emile Amarotico. “Ultimately their presence will accelerate growth in everyone’s sales of natural and organic foods.”
He adds, “All boats rise.”
Photos: Lindsay Gasik