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Green Grocery Pioneers

Native Sun continues its mission to feed us better

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For 20 years, from fringe, outsider buzz to mainstream consumption, the term “organic” has been transformed. Companies that positioned themselves as the go-to hub for the “better-living-through-chemistry generation” now pivot with breakneck speed, cleaning up their images, projecting a new greenness in an attempt to win over a new generation of conscious consumers.

In that effort to capitalize, films, books, TED talks and media cheerlead the natural living movement, inadvertently causing consumers to be lost in the smoke-screen of clever marketing, packaging and legally sanctioned jargon that implies healthful living without necessarily living up to the claims. The onslaught of information leads to confusion: Who can be trusted, what should we eat and where can we find quality food to feed our families?

In Northeast Florida, restaurants are expanding to include vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options. Farm-to-table dinners are common, local farmers markets and, ultimately, the chain supermarkets have undergone an explosion in green products and organic food. As demand rapidly increases, consumers are seeing many shades of “green” businesses.

Rewind to 20-plus years ago. Investing in a business that promoted natural living and organic food which made the connection between food systems and community was not considered bullish—at best it was a niche market. But Aaron Gottlieb, founder of Native Sun Natural Foods Market, banked on the idea that if people had access to natural foods, the bounty of organic growers and better-quality products, he could create a business that would sustain him and his young family.

“The premise of why Native Sun started was because my wife and I saw a gap in foods that were free from chemicals; we saw that the government was letting food be put in the market that was not tested on humans. We had met a number of farmers who said the food they were growing for the general public was not the food that they were eating in their own lives—they were feeding their families chemical-free food,” says Gottlieb.

For the Gottliebs, launching Native Sun wasn’t just a financial decision—it was influenced by a growing awareness of the food available in America.

“We started with the premise, ‘Doesn’t everyone have the right to eat clean enough to be able to take their health into their own hands?’ We found that this was a novel idea. We thought eating organic food should be a no-brainer and shouldn’t be complicated for people to grasp.”

 

Gottlieb’s roots in the organic industry were first formed when he worked in natural food stores while a student at Emory University during the mid-’90s. Combining his studies of anthropology and the international communities in the Atlanta area, he took the time to communicate and research dietary and herbal needs, over time noticing that the best customers were also the ones seeking him out, in part because of the time he spent listening to them.

Traveling with the Grateful Dead and being exposed to vegetarianism, conscious community building and other more natural, possibly idealistic, ways of living, also made an impact on young Gottlieb. Dietary changes inspired by his newfound awareness enabled him to drop 80 pounds and find peace from a number of lingering health concerns. It also strengthened his resolve to help others who struggled with similar issues.

After moving back home to Jacksonville, Gottlieb opened Native Sun’s first location in 1997, a small, 4,000-square-foot organic grocery store. By 2000, it had grown to a 10,000-square-foot operation. Six years later, he and his wife opened a second location at Baymeadows Road and I-295.

“At that time, there was a big green movement around the country and we wanted to build a natural food store from the ground up,” Gottlieb says. “ … We built one of the greenest infrastructures from the standpoint that the building was built from Styrofoam and steel, like a giant walk-in cooler, a great insulator to reduce energy costs. And we were the first with a type of refrigeration in the country called glycol seed refrigeration system.”

For the new building to be as green as possible, they selected recyclable rugs, cutting-edge building materials and other items designed to create a clean, green healthy environment. As is always the case with early adopters, there were some successes and some failures.

“A lot of those materials were so new, they had a lot of problems that caused product loss, having to be switched out. We learned that new, green technology on a large-scale had problems that we should’ve probably considered. Some of those features in that store that were cutting-edge at that moment aren’t even in use today, so we had to make some modifications to make sure that the store still maximizes its energy efficiency.”

The 2015 opening of the Beaches store further expanded Native Sun’s food service to include a juice bar, a full-service deli and a gluten-free bakery. It also broadened the company’s calling card of research and education with store walk-throughs, TV appearances and educational programs. An added bonus was the hiring a purchasing director, who now manages a staff of five tasked with researching ingredients in manufactured foods.

The team dives into the manufacturing process and practices, where raw materials are sourced, and checks down the list to the last ingredient, verifying the quality and veracity of every product on Native Sun’s shelves. Along the way, they weed out products that utilize clever marketing to maximize the implied value of a certain product without delivering on the level of quality and integrity that their customers expect.

The company takes its quality control seriously enough to remove products from its shelves even if the product is selling well, placing quality over profit.

As the natural and organic foods market has exploded, consumers have become targets of slick marketing and branding. In a sea of imitators and fabricators, it can be difficult to ferret out true quality. Gottlieb recommends that folks take stock of how much organic and local produce a store carries, and critically think about the standards used to decide which items to put on the shelf. It’s easy to market to people looking for better quality, but the proof is in the aisles—a minimum amount of organic produce is a good indicator of a dedication to natural foods.

Consumers can also better understand their grocer’s commitment to quality in the bulk section. These sections often serve as a marketing tactic to project a certain image in the store. So what should you do? Inspect ingredient lists. Bulk can be more expensive because it’s associated with natural food stores—the truth is in the ingredients.

Cost is a big factor in many consumers’ buying decisions and buying food is no different. Indeed, for many, if the first word is ‘organic,’ they assume the second is ‘expensive.’ That’s why eating organically is sometimes equated with living a luxury lifestyle.

Gottlieb’s passion shows when he addresses such concerns. He notes that changing one’s shopping habits requires a bit of open-mindedness, and adds that the increased demand for such items has brought the cost of those items down in recent years.

“I’ve realized it’s all about people’s priorities in what they want to spend their money on. When someone says that natural foods are expensive, they either don’t look at the cost of what they do, like spending $5 on a cup of coffee–that’s expensive. I would say to them, look again. If you turn your blinders on to your shopping basket and not other items, you’re missing something important: the quality of products that impact your health.

“I would challenge them to take another look at their life if they believe that. I would also say that eating in season is a good way to get the cost down.” Choosing produce that’s not unnaturally grown for year round availability is an excellentw practice.

Gottlieb further points out that the price of many goods is artificially lowered by government subsidies to large conventional farms. “Wouldn’t it be nice if they subsidized natural foods the same way they do conventional goods?” he asks.

 

In recent years, many people have become more aware of the effect grocery choices have far beyond the dinner table.

“There is a real connection between diet and the planet that people are slowly waking up to,” says Corinne Shindelar, president and CEO of Independent Natural Food Retailers Association (INFRA); Gottlieb is on its Board of Directors. “Agriculture is the biggest impact on climate change. We all have to have food to survive. We don’t need cars. We don’t need a lot of the other things. Food, we must have. It impacts our health and impacts the health of everything around us. And I believe in rightful living and rightful living means real food.”

Shindelar commends Native Sun’s efforts to ensure its products are the real deal, by monitoring ingredients and researching.

“It takes financial and time resources to do, and it’s hard to compete with the [large wholesale food chains],” Shindelar says. “For ensuring their standards are met, Native Sun should be highlighted for their work. They are a benefit to their community.”

And now, 20 years after Native Sun’s founders led the charge on making organic foods available in Northeast Florida, they continue their scope of education, embedding technology into their stores, and working to expand their brand.

“We love being a community grocer, but we want to grow in areas that care for one another and support businesses that are a positive change in their communities,” says Gottlieb. “You can’t multiply like chain stores. When you take investor money, they want a return on investment. As soon as you get publicly traded, you’re beholden to stock interests. You begin talking out of both sides of your mouth.

“We have customers telling us how we improved their lives by listening, taking the time to do proper research on their health education, and give them a truthful answer. At times, I don’t know if my family are our customers, employees, our community, or those I go home to. There’s definitely a blend of who I’m giving back to all throughout the day, but I don’t forget my wife and my children in that equation.

“[My wife] is always making sure I understand why we started it. She’s my reminder every single day, so I make sure my decisions are clear and positive about what’s good for the community because I have someone who understands the passion for the business by my side.”

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Learn more at nativesunjax.com.

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