Health Food is More than a Fad: It’s a movement in the food industry

When Whole Foods Market opened with much fanfare in Meridian Township last May, it was already late to a local grocery market fully vested in natural and organic products.

Smaller niche stores like Foods for Living, Better Health Stores and large national and regional retailers like Target and Meijer, have followed — and sometimes led — consumers who recognize healthy eating as a key to health and fitness.

Organic foods alone are a $43 billion a year industry with sales growing at five percent per year according to the Organic Trade Association. It’s one slice of the wellness market that also includes vitamins, minerals and supplements, products whose sales topped $36 billion in 2016, according to Statista, a research data provider.

Entering the Lansing healthy eating market just ahead of Whole Foods, was the regional grocer, Fresh Thyme.

Its 28,000 sq. ft. store, which opened in April 2015 at the location once occupied by Goodrich’s Shop-Rite, straddles the line between a full-service grocer and healthy living products.

Store Director Robert Lajcaj said Fresh Thyme recognizes that it competes in a crowded and competitive market and must focus on customer service and its sprawling produce department to succeed. The company operates on the theory that fresh fruits and vegetables are the foundation of healthy eating. To its customers, Fresh Thyme proclaims, “We’re so passionate about produce that we’ve made it the nucleus of the store.”

Lajcaj said 50 percent of his store’s produce is organic, and when possible, grown by Michigan farmers. He added that because Fresh Thyme now has 48 stores in its Midwest market it has the scale to be the first buyer for locally grown items. Away from the hand-stacked tables of fruits and vegetables are aisles filled with organic and natural products. There are more than 25,000 skews for vitamins, mineral and supplements, a bewildering selection for the uninitiated.

“Not everybody knows to eat clean and healthy,” Lajcaj acknowledged, which to Fresh Thyme is an opportunity. The market hires staff with expertise to help customers find the best products for their health and fitness needs. It reflects the store’s customer service initiative.

Also in the MSU orb is Foods for Living. The 28,000 sq. ft. Meridian Township store sells a full line of natural and organic foods as well as nutritional and body care products. The store is locally owned – employee owned, in fact – explained General Manager Kirk Marrison, which gives it the flexibility to move quickly and find unique healthy products for its customers.

“If someone comes to us with a new chocolate bar that they have made at the Allen Market Place kitchens and it’s something really great, we’ll buy it from them,” Marrison said. “It doesn’t have to go through corporate headquarters.”

Still, he acknowledges that public awareness of healthy eating has lured big food retailers into the market. Niche Foods for Living has been filling since it opened. So lucrative is the market that these larger retailers have developed proprietary organic food brands in addition to stocking national labels, produce and health supplies, broadening their product lines to attract nutritionally conscious shoppers.

Kroger sells a full line of whey supplements, fish oils and special products like cold milled flax seeds. Its produce department has a large display promoting organics: carrots, peppers, assorted herbs, red chard and more. In the grocery aisles it stocks organic dried fruits, products cooked in avocado oil and flavored with Himalayan pink salt.

Target wants the same customers with its displays of protein powders and plant-based smoothie mixes, shelves of natural cereals and organic blue corn Tostitos. Shoppers at Walmart can buy soft-gel capsules of coconut or flaxseed oils. They can choose from hundreds of brand name organic products — snack chips, pancake syrup, gluten-free dark chocolate chewy granola bars or organic tomato soup.

What was once marginal has become mainstream. Foods for Living and the East Lansing Food Coop are competing with Whole Foods Market, just across Grand River Avenue. In Bath Township, Monticello Markets & Butcher Block face fights for customers with the region’s mega food retailer, Meijer.

“We have major competition just 500 feet down the road,” said Margie Potter, who with her husband Doug, owns Monticello. “We are just a tiny store. We need to set ourselves apart.”

It does this by emphasizing fresh and healthy products, many from its roster of 100 small Michigan suppliers.

Reflecting the desire for fresh ingredients, the market recently trimmed its frozen food space from 32 feet to just 12 feet. “Nobody is coming to our store for frozen meats loaded with preservatives,” said Potter.

Shoppers at Monticello are willing to pay more for products that fit their nutritional and health needs. “As long as it’s high-quality and we don’t lie to them, customers are willing pay a fair price,” she said. “We could ask for more, but we don’t.

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Mickey Hirten

Mickey Hirten

Mickey Hirten is an award winning writer and editor. He has been executive editor of the Lansing State Journal, the Burlington Free Press in Vermont, and was the financial editor and a columnist for the Baltimore Evening Sun. He is the current president of the Michigan Press Association. His wife, Maureen Hirten, is director of the Capital Area District Library.

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