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“Go to your grocery store and bring back your favorite fruit,” says Jimbo Someck, founder and owner of San Diego’s popular chain of Jimbo’s… Naturally! grocery stores.“Then we’ll go to a natural food store – let’s say my store, because I know what we’ve got. Then let’s do some taste tests and see the difference in the flavor.”
It’s a simple statement, and one that cuts to the heart of the swiftly changing landscape of the food retail industry. Health food stores have long appealed to certain demographics (particularly the eco-conscious and health-conscious) – but savvy shopkeepers have noticed that, over the decades, more consumers are buying into what health food stores are selling. The Organic Trade Association reports that sales of organic food and beverages in the United States have skyrocketed from $1 billion in 1990 to nearly $27 billion by 2010. So what’s the deal? Why are consumers wandering from traditional grocery stores and produce in search of something more?
Taste may certainly be one factor, there’s more to it than that. “Folks are seeking out minimally processed whole foods that are packaged in ways that lessen their carbon footprint,” says Amber Forest McHale, newsletter editor and marketing director at Ocean Beach People's Organic Food Market. “You can see evidence of that shift by what large chain grocers and food manufacturers are beginning to sell.”
“Ultimately people are going to want what’s best for their kids,” Someck adds. “So if you believe that to some extent you are what you eat, I don’t think you want to put chemicals and pesticides and artificial colors in your body – you especially don’t want to feed that to your kids, who have less of a tolerance for those items. There’s more information being put into the public forum around the benefits of organics – and as that information gets into the public eye, I think people are going to make choices that reflect the information that they have.”
It wouldn’t be the first time people have studied the facts and reached such conclusions – it’s the same conclusion reached by Someck himself in the 1970s, as years of work and education at the Ocean Beach People’s Market solidified his passion for organics and a vegetarian lifestyle. At the time, the People’s Market was a pure co-op operating out of a one-bedroom house, and when Someck decided to strike out on his own in 1984 and open the first Jimbo’s in San Diego’s North Park area, he faced an uphill struggle to win over a skeptical community.
But that was then. This is now, and times are good for health food stores.
In previous decades, small local health food stores like Jimbo’s and the Ocean Beach People’s Market were the only games in town. Now, North Park and surrounding areas are now chockfull of organic-based grocery store chains like Henry’s Marketplace, Whole Foods, and smaller outlets. The smaller local health food stores hold a wary truce with nationwide organic giants, acknowledging the impact they’ve had in successfully promoting the concept of organics to all new demographics.
Meanwhile, local health food stores continue to flourish as well. Jimbo’s is enjoying success at four North County outposts including Carlsbad and the upscale 4S Ranch. The OB People’s Market is also still around and thriving, having evolved from an in-house operation to a proper sustainably built and fully green two-story shop with a grocery store on the bottom floor and a full-service cafeteria up top.
Both stores remain true to their initial philosophies – providing customers with high-quality, organic food that’s produced locally whenever possible –and both are looking forward to future trends as interest in organics continues to increase. Someck predicts an increased shift toward dietary lifestyles such as gluten free, raw, and vegan – especially in backlash against what he refers to as GMO “frankenfoods.”
After all, tastes may come and go, but it’s higher expectations that keep customers coming back, as Someck recounts in an especially heartwarming story from the early days of Jimbo’s.
“When I first opened my store,” Someck recounts, “a lot of seniors lived in the area. There was one elderly gentleman who used to shop there on a regular basis, and he was pretty meticulous about writing down all the items he bought on a sheet of paper before he got to the register, and he knew what the prices were so when he checked out he was always real close to the total.
“After about a year of doing this he called me over one day and said: ‘do you mind if I talk to you about something?’ I said no. He said: ’I’ve been shopping here for about a year, and I used to shop at Vons across the street before you opened. I did a comparison of how much it costs me to shop here buying organics versus where I used to shop before.’
“I kind of grimaced, because I knew where it was going to go: it was something like maybe 300-350 more for the year. But then he said to me: ‘I save more than that on medical bills, and I’ve never felt better in my life.’”
And really, when it comes to groceries, what more could anyone hope for?