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Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage at 136 stores with another dozen planned

When Margaret and Philip Isely launched their cottage industry that was appropriately named Vitamin Cottage in Golden, CO, back in 1955, they did so with a borrowed $200 and a door-to-door sales program that focused on Margaret’s homebaked bread and nutritional information.

Today Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage retains the founding principles of the Iselys and is in fact still a family business headed by Margaret and Philip’s offspring. Son Kemper is co-president and chairman of the board; son Zephyr is co-president and director; daughter Heather is director, executive vice president and corporate secretary; and former daughter-in-law Elizabeth Isely is director and executive vice president.

The growth of the little natural food and supplement store didn’t happen all at once but rather strategically, with the introduction of all-organic produce departments coming in 1989. On its website, the company says, “ … we made the decision to only sell organic produce. No other large chain does this. Our customers and employees do not have to worry about commingling, cross-contamination, or figuring out which variety of produce is organic and which is conventional. It’s all organic.”

Today Natural Foods is a 136-store chain, with outlets in 19 states. Steve Carlton, Denver-based category manager of produce, an 18-year veteran of the company and a 45-year veteran of the industry, said each of those stores carries between 100 and 200 produce items at any given time.

“Ten years ago we had usually just over 100 produce items,” Carlton said. “More and more items are being grown organically now, and that opens it up for us to carry more.”

naturalgrocersThe produce at Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage is 100-percent organic, with between 100 and 200 items available at any given time in 136 stores west of the Mississippi. Photo courtesy of Natural Grocers.Colorado is a big source of organic product during season, he said. “From June through September we get a good 30 percent of our items from Colorado growers.” Cherries, apples, pears, “tons of greens,” peaches, apricots, watermelon, cantaloupe, sweet corn, onions, tomatoes and peppers and of course potatoes, the state’s number one produce cash crop, come from Colorado during the summer months, “depending on weather.”

Natural Grocers works directly with some growers but mostly obtains produce through regional vendors with whom the growers have agreements. “We try to be really transparent,” Carlton said, noting that the company often establishes communication between growers and vendors.

“We can deal with growers and put packages together and then put the growers in touch with the vendors,” he said.

Individual stores can work with smaller growers who will deliver product directly to the store, he added. “We work with co-ops and vendors a lot, Albert’s Organics and FreshPack Produce here and Charlie’s in the Northwest.”

During the winter months California and Mexico are the primary sources, he said. “If we didn’t have Mexico, we wouldn’t have a lot of the items we do,” he said.

Carlton said with organics being produced more in the United States and in other countries, “we don’t have to depend on weather and seasons, and there’s never a big gap in product.” Between 60 and 80 percent of the company’s fresh produce is imported during the winter.

Natural Grocers is adamant about its 100-percent organic produce, and Carlton said in the rare instance when a conventional item is received in error, it is isolated until it’s picked up.

Carlton said the number-one produce item “varies between bananas, broccoli and avocados. Those three are our biggies.”

And he said the future of organics is solid. “I think it will continue to grow. We see a lot of farmers starting to grow organically, and consumers are learning the benefits. We also see a lot of restaurants putting organic items on their menus. That helps persuade people to eat healthy. People eat something they like at a restaurant, and then they come here to buy the items so they can fix the dishes at home.”