By Katy Stewart
Cool Spring Organics Market and Café reopened on state Route 11 North just before the holidays, providing an alternative for consumers seeking organic foods in the Rockbridge area.
Owners Brad Eisold and Selena Anderson acknowledged that the area’s size and limited population make for a tough organic foods market.
“Any small business is going to be challenged, not necessarily to do well, but to grow,” Eisold said. “But we do well here.”
Eisold said that although his store increased the overall supply of natural foods in the area, demand in the market has also increased. Eisold declined to give specific numbers, but since the store re-opened in November, business spiked, leveled off around Christmas and is increasing now that Washington and Lee students are back in town.
“We’re seeing a growth spurt again,” he said.
Cool Spring used to operate in a smaller location at the south end of Lexington, but closed in September 2010 when its lease ended. Eisold and Anderson, who are married, had always planned to reopen but took their time securing a location. The couple, with years of experience at grocery stores including Whole Foods and Harris Teeter, designed the new store themselves. The building was formally occupied by a pizza restaurant.
The new space, which is one-third larger than their previous location and features a café, allows them to offer a greater variety of products. Best-selling items include produce, bakery breads, coffee and environmentally friendly cleaning products.
The natural foods industry as a whole growing, Eisold said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that natural foods are a $26 billion industry and, according to a 2011 report conducted by SPINS, a market research firm that focuses on the natural foods industry, the sector grew about 8 percent between 2009 and 2010.
Hunter Mohring, general manager of Rockbridge Healthy Foods Co-op, Inc. — commonly referred to as Healthy Foods — has noticed this trend and believes that local shoppers are buying more and more organic food.
“It’s a product whose time has come,” Mohring said.
She was prepared for the re-opening of Cool Spring to cut into her business by up to 15 percent of gross sales. She said she felt the crunch in November and December. But since January business is back where it was a year ago, she said.
Mohring readied Healthy Foods, on West Washington Street in Lexington, by cutting back on advertising and targeting its offerings to customer demand. She made smaller purchases and restocked inventory only when products had sold out. She has been successful with that strategy; best-selling items still “fly right out of here,” she said.
Overall, Healthy Foods’ sales declined only 0.6 percent in the last three months when compared to the same period last year.
But Eisold does not see Healthy Foods as his main competition.
“We intend to cater to a wider population base,” he said.
He says he competes with larger grocery stores like Kroger and Wal-Mart because Cool Spring offers the organic versions of conventional supermarket products. He also emphasizes a small-store feel, customer service and professional expertise. Customers might first experience organics at supermarkets, then venture to places like Cool Spring for information and access to a wider variety of products, he said.
While potential customers might hesitate at the higher prices of organic foods, Eisold said, his prices are comparable to the organic offerings at larger chain grocery stores.
But Kroger’s produce manager, Michael Atkins, said Kroger is able to offer lower prices for organic foods, an advantage that keeps his customers coming back. The store’s size allows it to negotiate prices with vendors as well as offer an extensive variety of organic products.
“People appreciate our prices,” he said.
According to Atkins, Kroger has expanded its alternative offerings, such as gluten-free and lactose-free items, to meet the changing needs of customers. For example, Kroger offers up to 20 types of specialized milk alone.
Atkins also said the company educates employees about new products through weekly video and online training sessions. But, Atkins said, he learns a lot on the job by talking to customers who purchase natural foods from his store.
Many of his customers shop entirely for organic items. Organic lettuces, broccoli, asparagus, apples, and berries are among the best-selling items, he said.
He said he has not noticed a difference in sales or clientele since Cool Spring re-opened in November.