Natural Food Markets and Restaurants Remain Successful Despite Economy

Steep Prices Deter Consumers from Buying Organic, Yet Niche Companies Stay Strong

By Ainslie Forsum

Eugene, Ore. – Organic. Natural. Holistic. These are all words we use to describe the vastly popular trend in the food industry, that is the natural food diet. This diet involves buying products that are often times locally grown under the most caring watch of the farmers who tend to them.

The natural food movement has been exponentially growing, specifically in the past decade. According to the Organic Trade Association’s 2011 Organic Industry Survey, US sales of organic food and beverages grew from $1 billion in 1990 to $26.7 billion in 2010. Furthermore, there was a major increase in sales where sales rose 7.7 percent between 2009 and 2010. By 2014, US shoppers are expected to spend more than $40 billion annually on organic food.

The survey also revealed “mass market retailers (mainstream supermarkets, club/warehouse stores, and mass merchandisers) in 2010 sold 54 percent of organic food. Natural retailers were next, selling 39 percent of total organic food sales. Other sales occur via export, the Internet, farmers’ markets/Community Supported Agriculture, mail order, and boutique and specialty stores.”

Customers can find bountiful organic produce at Sundance Natural Foods, located on the corner of Hilyard Street and 24th Avenue.

Because so much effort goes in to quality assurance of organic food items, they are frequently more expensive than the average super-brand products. For example, an organic apple costs 29 percent more than a conventional one. During the past few years, the US has undergone a tremendous economic crisis, causing organic food to be out of financial reach for many consumers. So how did the niche stores and restaurants in Eugene, such as Holy Cow Café and Sundance Natural Foods, stay in business?

Renee Kempka, the general manager at Sundance Natural Foods, gave insight to how the store managed to stay afloat during the recession. “There were definite [product] price increases, due in large part to ‘increased transportation costs’ as many of our distributors and shipping companies felt the effects of increased oil and gas prices,” Kempka said.

Despite the financial struggle, Sundance remained strong and pulled through to have very profitable years. Kempka said, “2009 and 2010 were very successful years financially for the business and I think this is due to our proactive payroll cutting measures and the emphasis our customers placed on eating clean foods. People were willing to pay the premium price.”

Kathy Lavine, owner of Holy Cow Café, started the company with her husband after they moved to Eugene from Israel.

Both Sundance and Holy Cow Café boast the finest quality organic ingredients while still managing to stay local. Sundance, for example, lists bioregionalism as one of its top three requirements to have a product placed on the store shelves.

Kathy Lavine, owner of Holy Cow Café, started the restaurant back in 1990 to give locals the chance to eat vegetarian meals without the hassle.

“It’s really easy to eat meat. That’s why we wanted to create easy-to-make, fast vegetarian food because that’s a harder meal to put together,” Lavine said.

“Although it’s not easy to eat good meat either,” she added. That’s why Lavine recently started incorporating meat products, such as chicken and fish, into the café’s menu. Her goal is to allow vegetarians to bring their friends and families to join them for a healthy, organic meal while still offering something they both will enjoy. This, she hopes, will encourage meat-eaters to consider the vegetarian lifestyle, or even just start eating less meat products.

Rest assured, the meat used at Holy Cow Café is all completely local and ethically raised. “Our chicken that we use is raised by a friend down the street. The fish we serve is line-caught from Port Orford Sustainable Seafood,” Lavine said.

Of course, buying and selling local products comes with a hefty price tag. The infiltration of these meat products into the menu has set the business back a bit. “We need to up the prices because they’re very expensive and very high-quality. I don’t want to sell them at a loss,” Lavine explained.

It’s no secret that organic food items are revered when it comes to quality and nutrition. These foods are often grown with natural fertilizers, use disease-free housing for animals, and are hand-tended crops.  Moreover, if farmed or harvested locally, they also serve as a more eco-friendly option to that of conventional foods.

Holy Cow Café has two locations, one on the university campus and the other on Willamette Street, pictured here.

“In addition there are far fewer environmental costs associated with a natural food. There are fewer chemicals and fertilizers added to them, fewer transportation miles and carbon costs associated with whole foods,” Kempka said.

Sam Friedman, 24, a resident of the Friendly neighborhood in Eugene, has decided that natural foods are not cost effective, and therefore he sticks to a regular diet. “During the economic struggle, it didn’t make any sense to spend four dollars on a jar of organic peanut butter when I could get Safeway brand for only two dollars,” he said.

“I didn’t know much about organic, natural, and even healthy foods until a year after moving to Eugene. I still don’t have a desire to commit that much of my budget to buying those products,” Friedman said.

The cost of organic products has been a major deterrent for many Eugene locals, as well as nationwide citizens. A survey of students aged 18 to 26 years old across the country revealed that 94 percent of the respondents would choose to buy more organic food items if they were less expensive. Additionally, 47 percent of respondents said that organic restaurants and natural food markets are easily accessible for them, but they choose not to shop or eat there due to steep prices.

One thing remains true, Kempka said, and that is, “If people are conscientious about prolonging their life and preserving the integrity of the planet eating a plant based, chemical-free diet is surely the way to go.”

Sidebar 1: Profile

Vegetarian and Thriving: How One Student Took on the Challenge of Living a Healthier Lifestyle

Carter Asmann, 21, is a student at the University of Oregon who underwent a transition into the vegetarian lifestyle about a year and a half ago. In this video, Asmann explains the benefits of choosing a natural foods diet and gives insight on how to be a successful vegetarian. Watch as he navigates the Market of Choice and dines at Laughing Planet in the Friendly Area Neighborhood of Eugene.

Sidebar 2: Photo story behind Sundance Natural Foods

Fresh, organic produce lines the walls while their revitalizing aroma permeates the air.

“Our wine shop tries to select and promote a large variety of wines with an emphasis on Oregon Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. Purportedly we have the largest selection of Oregon Pinot Noir in the state,” Kempka said.

“We strive to keep the money in our community and support our local farmers and manufacturers with the products we carry,” Kempka said. At Sundance, bioregionalism is at the forefront when choosing products to sell to customers.

Price tags for products are uniquely labeled with hand-drawn art. They are also tagged with the state they are from and whether it is local or organic, allowing the consumer to know exactly what they’re eating.

Not only does Sundance host a variety of produce options, but it also provides more eclectic products such as organic dishwasher soap and organic tahini.

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