A Review of Tallahassee’s Expanding Natural Food Selection

Natural Abundance
Scott Holstein
For nearly 40 years|!!| the home-grown New Leaf Market has been bringing natural foods to the local market.

With Whole Foods Market moving in, Tallahassee now has five distinct options for fresh, natural groceries — a surprising selection for a city its size. On the surface, it might appear that the competition would be too stiff to allow all four to coexist, but upon closer inspection it becomes clear that these businesses each bring something unique to the table, with different approaches and selections that will combine to serve Tallahassee a hefty, healthful grocery selection.

The New Kid on the Block

With a much-anticipated debut on Oct. 15, the 40,000-square-foot Whole Foods Market promises to be Tallahassee’s largest source for natural grocery options. While the chain’s size might seem intimidating, executive marketing coordinator Russ Benblatt stressed that Whole Foods has very clear priorities — and foremost among them are the customers.

“We never want to get so big that we lose connection with our customers,” he said, explaining their business model. Stores are grouped into regions, and authority is decentralized across them. Florida is actually the only state with its own region, with 18 open stores and five more in development. Benblatt added that Whole Foods makes serious efforts to listen to customers — all feedback they receive gets read and answered.

Whole Foods operates with seven core values, the first of which is to provide the highest quality natural and organic products available. On a local level, this means doing some homework and linking up with local sources. “We try to source our products as locally as possible … . We actually know the farmers that grow the products that we sell,” said Benblatt. If a product cannot be found locally, the store turns to regional sources and finally national sources as a last resort if the product cannot be found nearby.

Benblatt continued to explain how exciting the Tallahassee opening is — for the company, as well as the community. “We’ve been wanting to open a store in Tallahassee for such a long time … Every single person I’ve spoken to in Tallahassee is excited for us.” When the Miracle 5 space opened up, Whole Foods saw an opportunity in the Midtown location, convenient to both downtown and the populous northeast.

Details of the store are still in the works, but Benblatt said that there would be a hot bar with more than 100 options and a salad bar with over 50. Like all Whole Foods stores, the Tallahassee location will stock only unprocessed, organic foods in their most natural state possible. Foods with artificial preservatives, colors and flavors do not make it onto the shelves. Additionally, the store will partner with local farmers and CSAs, functioning as a drop point free of charge.

Ultimately, Benblatt said, their efforts up until opening will be focused on getting to know Tallahassee’s community. Selections are tailored store-to-store to suit community need. “What the community in Tallahassee is asking for is, I imagine, light years away from what South Beach is asking for,” he explained with a laugh. In addition to retail selection, the store promises to bring its other usual programs, too, including cooking classes and demonstrations, community events and donations to local food banks and charities.

A Local Cooperative Effort

While Whole Foods is the new kid on the block, home-grown New Leaf Market has been serving up a heaping helping of natural and organic food to Tallahassee since 1974.

It started off as the Leon County Food Co-op and changed its name to New Leaf in 1989. As a co-op, New Leaf’s structure is different from corporate chains.

“It means that any person can become part owner of this store,” explained Cristin Burns, New Leaf’s marketing and project manager. “We are owned by the people who shop here, and that means a lot of different things. It means that as an owner, you actually have voting rights for our board of director’s elections. If we were to change something drastic about the way we function, that has to go to a vote of our owners. It also means that you get special sale prices that only our owners get.”

Additionally, New Leaf’s owners enjoy seminar discounts and a portion of profits in rebate checks. Becoming an owner costs $100, with an additional $5 administrative fee. Ownership can be fully refunded at any time, although many choose to leave their ownership fee with New Leaf even after moving away; of the 10,000 owners, only 5,500 are active, meaning the rest chose to leave their money to support the co-op.

Another part of being a co-op, says Burns, is that it gives the store a triple bottom line. Like any other commercial enterprise, making money to stay afloat is one goal, but additionally Burns emphasized New Leaf’s commitment to educating the community and also giving back — to the tune of thousands of dollars each year, volunteer hours and product donations. In fact, the store has an entire department dedicated to community outreach and giving back.

“We’re not only locally owned, but we’re also supporting local businesses,” she said. “I know a lot of places — a lot of corporate chains — talk the talk really, really well when it comes to local, but when you actually go in the store to look for local products, you have a hard time finding them.”

Supporting local businesses is important, says Burns, because for every dollar spent at a local business, 68 cents stays in that local community. When local businesses support one another, this compounds to form huge benefits for the local economy.

New Leaf’s selection is composed of “clean” products only — all natural and organic. Very rarely, a conventional item from a local vendor might be allowed in, but is always clearly marked so that shoppers know that it is not certified organic. As many local items (from within 200 miles of Tallahassee) as possible are stocked and displayed prominently on shelves to support these local sources. No foods at New Leaf contain artificial additives or colorings. There is also a special order program, so shoppers can access other items not readily available in the store.

Burns emphasized that New Leaf also offers plenty of opportunities for families to save money with weekly coupons (and additional owner coupons). “Our prices are very competitive,” she added. “If you’re comparing our natural and organic to natural and organic at other locations, we are right there with them; we’re as good and sometimes even better.”

This, paired with a family atmosphere and co-op business model, makes the store a welcoming and fun place to shop — for dedicated owners and newcomers alike.

A Homegrown Open-Air Market

Opened in the ’60s, Tomatoland is Tallahassee’s oldest source of fresh produce. Butch Reagan, its current owner, bought the store from his father-in-law in 1987. All possible produce is locally sourced, with a few stand-ins from California for products that cannot be grown nearby.

“We try to sell everything that is pretty much local to this area,” said Reagan. “Fruits and vegetables, and things like mayhaw jellies — things that are obviously Southern things.”

Four years ago, the store added a commercial kitchen, and now the little lunch spot comprises about 40 percent of Tomatoland’s business — particularly in the winter months, when people are less inclined to shop outside.

With Whole Foods moving in next door, Reagan knows things are going to change but also feels confident everything will resettle after a while. According to Reagan, every local grocery source — even Publix — will probably feel the new competitor’s impact for a time.

“Tallahassee, you’ve got three colleges. You’ve got state government. You’ve got a lot of people coming and going; it’s growing and has been growing for as long as I can remember,” he said. “There’s a lot of people here; it’s a big market.”

This big market, Reagan believes, is going to be able to support all grocery sources, once the dust settles and everyone gets used to having a Whole Foods. And while Whole Foods is certainly a bigger enterprise than Tomatoland, he believes that each store has its distinct advantages and disadvantages.

“Whole Foods has got a lot more bells and whistles, but my thought is that people can’t get it any fresher,” he said, adding, “A lot of people are concerned about the economy, and I can be a lot cheaper.”

A National Chain with an Emphasis on Local

Founded in 1974 as Dinner for the Earth, Earthfare is one of the largest natural and organic food retailers in the country, with more than 28 stores across the Southeast and Midwest. The chain is driven by a “Food Philosophy” guiding what hits the shelves and what stays off of them. Their “Boot List” outlines ingredients that will not be stocked.

“We do not allow anything in the store to contain high-fructose corn syrup, artificial fats or trans-fats, flavors and preservatives, as well as antibiotics and synthetic growth hormones in any of the fresh meats or dairy,” said Kristi Kanzig, Earthfare’s assistant director of marketing. The store’s goal is to provide a selection of great food as “close to the ground as it gets.”

Kanzig stressed the importance of community commitment in Earthfare’s approach. Their website, she explained, is a perfect example.

“Our new earthfare.com features three community goals that help us on our mission to connect communities and improve lives through food. These goals feature actions that bring people together around great food, and when we reach these goals we will reward the community as a whole by awarding $1,000 worth of physical education equipment to neighborhood schools,” she said.

Customers keep coming back to Earthfare for the great food, customer service and coupons, according to Kanzig. The store has both weekly deals and freebies available online and also in-store coupons and paperless text coupons. Their commitment to ending childhood obesity has also led them to hold Family Dinner Night every Thursday from 4–8 p.m., offering a free kids dinner (up to six children) with the purchase of one adult meal.

“It’s a great family-friendly night for an easy, healthy meal for the kids,” said Kanzig.

A Co-op Based on Mutual Aid

Bread and Roses is a co-op with a strong focus on its central philosophy. The idea of mutual aid, social justice and environmentalism plays a big part in how the store is run. 

“We’re a little bit different from a typical store in that we’re completely member-run, so everything is run on volunteer hours and volunteer time. We have no paid employees and no management,” explained Johnny Hill, one of the store’s keyholders. Members receive discounted rates in exchange for three hours of in-store volunteering per month and a lifetime fee of $125 ($100 of which is refundable). This keeps costs down and members closely involved with the store.

The food is also selected in keeping with this philosophy; Monsanto and Nestle products will probably never hit Bread and Roses shelves, as food stocked in the store must be something members want. It also must make it through their ethics committee.

Last year, Wild Greens (see story, page 218) opened next door to Bread and Roses, and while the two are separate entities, there is a lot of collaboration between them; they share a kitchen and split costs like utilities and rent. Many Wild Greens employees are also Bread and Roses members.

In addition to all of the organic, GMO-free and local food options available in the store, Hill believes that the store’s ethics and atmosphere keep people coming back.

“I think that they know how committed we are to sticking to our ethics … . I also think that this is a really great place for community in general, food aside,” he said, adding that not only friends, but also community organizations gather at the store to socialize and share ideas.

Categories: Business, Dining Out, Long Reads, Nutrition, Our City