Demand for natural and organic food has hit mainstream and is booming big in Oklahoma. Despite a down economy and often higher price tags, numerous natural and organic food grocers have opened doors in the state with much success.

The opening of Whole Foods Market in Oklahoma City at the Triangle on Classen Curve in October ranked among the top 25 openings for the chain of more than 300 stores, says Stacey Innerarity, marketing team leader for Whole Foods Market Oklahoma City.

“We had guests camping out at 4:15 on Wednesday morning to be the first to see the new store,” says Innerarity.

Brad Carder, store director for Sunflower Farmers Market, reports that Oklahoma City offered the chain of 40 stores its most successful opening, as well.

Oklahoma City and Tulsa have seen several natural, health and local food stores open this fall. More are slated to open for business this year.

Sarah Hoffmann of GreenAcres Market is set to open the third in her family’s chain of natural food stores next summer in the Village on Main in Jenks.

“We’ve gotten some nice affirmation about it, watching things explode in Oklahoma City,” she says of opening the market in tough economic times.

Natural Goes Mainstream

Much of the success of these businesses in the shadow of an economic crisis is owed to the mainstreaming of organic, natural and local foods. A slow and steady awareness of health benefits, industrialized farming practices, environmental impacts and food scares have piqued consumer interest. The once largely alternative market serving people with specific dietary needs has given birth to a slew of full-service grocery stores that offer near one-stop shopping in a coffeehouse-like atmosphere.

Hoffmann’s family opened the first GreenAcres Market in 1994 in Wichita.

“We were really alternative then. And the food wasn’t real tasty,” says Hoffmann.

Since 1994 natural and organic has become big business with selections even popping up in grocery stores that don’t specialize in such things.

“Dollars speak,” says Daniel Cameron, proprietor of Cam’s Grocery, which is set to open in Tulsa’s trendy Brady District this spring. “That is what these big companies look at. ‘Well, this organic stuff is making a lot of money.’ So they start putting money into it.”

Until recently and despite a number of natural and organic grocers in the state for some time, shopping for natural or organic food has been largely a very intentional activity often requiring an extra stop. Akins Natural Foods Market, for example, has been headquartered in Tulsa since 1935. The company has five stores in Oklahoma and three in surrounding states, as well as a Florida affiliate chain. Dodson’s has been serving Norman since 1968. Oklahoma Food Cooperative has given Oklahomans the ability to buy directly from Oklahoma food producers since 2003. Many others have long served the state including, Norman’s Native Roots, the Health Food Center in Oklahoma City and Whole Foods in Tulsa.

However, the demand for natural food stores in Oklahoma seems to have only recently reached fever pitch. Mainstream interest has caused huge demand for mainstream options like Whole Foods Market.

“Products have changed,” says Mary Ann O’Dell, registered dietician for Akins Natural Foods.

Health food did not always mean tasty food. O’Dell says that is not the case anymore.

At GreenAcres Markets, Hoffman says shoppers are increasingly proactive in decisions affecting their health and the environment. She points to television personality Dr. Oz and others like him for mainstreaming natural and organic lifestyles.

O’Dell says that consumers have a very preventive mindset and view health as necessity.

“It’s probably going to be cheaper for me to stay healthy than get sick and go to the hospital,” she says, citing a common sentiment.

Frightening food recalls like the recent Listeria-contaminated Rocky Ford cantaloupe have caused a rise in people’s interest in information about where their food comes from. Hoffmann says these incidences often increase traffic in her stores.

“Good or bad press allows us to educate our consumers,” says Hoffmann.

Cameron, who also holds a degree in biology, says the public is increasingly aware and uneasy about the chemicals used in the food supply. He points to a number of ailments common in modern society that have caused people to question what’s in and on their food.

Naturally Different

Traditional grocery stores tend to sell consumers on prices, while the two tenets of natural and organic grocery stores seem to be education and community.

Grassroots efforts and mainstream media might provide the information to spur a curiosity, but most organic and natural food grocers feed that curiosity with very active informational programs. Shoppers are offered seminars, cooking demos and tastings to educate them about the products and benefits.

“It is more about a lifestyle than it is about coming in to pick up a product,” says Hoffman.

For this reason she says natural and organic stores are places people tend to hang out. The stores work to foster this atmosphere, hence the beautifully displayed foods, in-store dining options and slew of amenities that hook shoppers.

“Community is what it is about,” says Hoffmann.

She says they really try to create a place where people want to be and work to create relationships with their customers.

“We don’t want them to pick up a product and leave,” says Hoffmann. “We want to help them with their whole health journey.”

Cam’s Grocery is so community-oriented it is already hosting community events and reaching out to neighbors despite not even having a brick-and-mortar location open yet.

“A grocery store is really a community place. We are really trying to be a part of the community already,” Cameron says.

Giving back to the community is also a huge part of this culture. Four times a year Whole Foods Market donates five percent of a day’s sales to a local non-profit.

What the stores ultimately offer is peace of mind with community, environmental and education resources.

The Price of Natural

The value of shopping for organic, natural or local food was historically in the food quality and the services stores offer; not the price tag.

“Pricing is getting better,” says Hoffmann.

Whole Foods Market offers value tours to its customers in an effort to teach them how to shop at Whole Foods on a budget.

The weekly circular has also become a mainstay at natural and organic grocers.

Sunflower Farmers Market’s whole model is serious food, silly prices. Carder, says that Sunflower Market has a mix of both bargain shoppers and natural food consumers.

Prices are no longer so high that only the trendy early adopter shoppers will pay. The general population can afford to venture into natural and organic grocers. Oklahomans are lining up to get in.

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