With nearly 30 years experience in the Natural Foods business, I have seen many changes and witnessed pivotal events. Through this blog, I hope to share my thoughts on the issues of the day and to occasionally tell stories from the “old days”. This dynamic industry will never leave me short of topics!
About that experience…..
Like so many of us who have been in natural products since the early days in the 1970’s and 80’s, I came to this career almost accidentally. I began as a Volunteer Member at the Semple Street Food Co-op in the heart of Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood, near the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie-Mellon University. At the time, I was a librarian at the University (a little-known fact), but my commitment to natural foods was growing. Volunteering morphed into a full-time job as one of six members of the collective team, joining them in October 1982. Eventually we merged Semple Street into the larger East End Food Co-op and I stayed there until summer of 1986, leaving as the General Manager of the newly re-located facility in Point Breeze, where it still thrives, twenty-six years later.
After four years in the world of natural foods, I was settled that I wanted to stay in the business. My wife, Lynne, finished her Ph.D in 1986 and was offered a job at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The stars were aligned and I was able to land a job in Durham.
I had the excellent luck to begin work for the man who many of us affectionately know as “The Food Guy”, Lex Alexander. Wellspring Grocery was in its fifth year of business and had just moved down Ninth Street from its original location; now home to the fabulous Magnolia Grill. My food education took on a new focus, working with Lex and Anne and an amazing team of passionate food people. As the store thrived in Durham, and our creative energies grew, it was soon time for store number two, taking over part of a recently closed Kroger in Chapel Hill. There were lots of great things about that store, but my favorite was Penguins’ Cafe, one of the first ventures into sit-down dining in a grocery store.
Much can and will be said of Lex’s food knowledge, golf prowess, wit, charm and his gift for storytelling. The one piece of advice he gave us that I use over and over was: “Know who or what you want to be and work hard to achieve that!” It applies to individuals, brands and retailers.
A chapter in retailing history was made in 1991 when Lex was approached by a visionary Texan, John Mackey, who was looking to grow his little ten-store chain called Whole Foods Market. With the exception of the original New Orleans store, we became the first Whole Foods Markets east of the Mississippi. At that point, Whole Foods Market was a private company with sales of about $98 million.
1992 was another whirlwind year. It started with the company going public in January. With my roots in co-ops, I never thought I would be part of a publicly traded company. That summer John Mackey decided to accept an experiment called Regional Buying and I became the first Regional Grocery Buyer in the company! Fall 1992 brought the next wave of expansion, the acquisition of a great small chain in New England: Bread & Circus. By the end of 1992 I found myself holding the job of Regional Buyer, overseeing Purchasing for Grocery and Nutrition (now known as Whole Body) for the newly formed Northeast Region (aka “Bread & Circus”).
The move was made extra special because I was back home in New England after an amazing journey through Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and North Carolina.
Our team at Bread & Circus, led by Chris Hitt, was tasked with helping the company move forward in retailing excellence in meat, seafood and produce. Bread & Circus, along with Mrs. Gooch’s in Southern California, were leaders in holding companies to strict ingredient guidelines, and I became the keeper of that flame. We would make no changes without an exhaustive review by Team Members and customers.
Three original B&C ingredients standards which stood out were:
1) No refined sugar, hence the development of Sucanat and Evaporated Cane Juice.
2) No refined flour. Our bakeries and our pasta sets were quite challenged!
3) No hydrogenated oil. B&C was way ahead of its time as the issue of Trans Fats did not become mainstream until the early part of this century. I will speak more on ingredient standards in subsequent blogs.
After the exhaustive reviews, under Chris’ leadership, two years later in January 1995 we allowed the use of refined sugar and unbleached white flour in products. The new items debuted at our first store in downtown Boston, the Symphony store. Hydrogenated oil was never allowed and the standard of no hydrogenated oil was soon adopted by the whole company.
1996 brought many challenges to our regional team: we were going to be pioneers and open up the first Whole Foods Market stores in Washington, D.C. Unlike Boston, where we were the leader in Natural/Organic/Specialty Retailing, the DC Metro area had a formidable competitor, Fresh Fields. Despite numerous mistakes, building hurdles, leadership challenges, and even the murder of a Team Member by another Team Member, we made an impression on the Washington, DC food scene. Four months after opening the Arlington store (#2), Fresh Fields was no longer a competitor, but now was part of the Whole Foods Market family. I ended up doing double duty for another year doing Grocery for both the newly formed Mid-Atlantic region and the Northeast Region. [Despite almost weekly flights between Logan and Dulles, I didn’t have many frequent flyer miles to show for those trips!]
Chris Hitt left the Northeast Region to head up the newly created Mid-Atlantic region. He was succeeded by a retailing genius, AC Gallo. Big change in personalities; still lots to learn and new challenges to overcome.
Fast forward to June 2006: Whole Foods Market was on track to finish the year at $5.6 billion and 186 stores, in North America and the United Kingdom. The stock, after several splits was trading at around $65. The re-named North Atlantic region had opened Washington, D.C and New York City for Whole Foods, spawned a new region, the Northeast , and was in the process of developing the United Kingdom. National Purchasing had grown way beyond an idea tossed about in a van driving across the Iowa prairie. Whole Foods Market had become a household name and was leading the charge in pushing the boundaries of food retailing.
At the same time many of the brands we had nurtured and grown up with were part of the diet of many more Americans. Annie’s was no longer just a purple box of macaroni and real cheddar cheese; Stonyfield had grown beyond its New England roots to full national distribution; Organic Valley was developing small dairy farms in all regions of the United States, spreading this Wisconsin co-operative into California, Texas and New England. I could go on and on naming small regional players who have grown up to be players on the national scene.
I wanted to get back to working with those small regional players to help them chart their paths in this amazing industry. With the encouragement of friends, family, and most importantly, my partner on this journey, Lynne Tirrell, The Tim Sperry Group was launched at the Summer Fancy Food Show in July 2006. You will hear more about the consulting business in subsequent posts.
I look forward to sharing my perspective on the industry with my readers.