While chris schneider admits he likes millet stew—a dish that to some might represent a throwback to the early days of limited vegetarian cuisine—the stores he runs with his brother Kevin are not typical crunchy-hippie retail bazaars. In the Kingston branch of Mother Earth’s Storehouse, for example, aisles are well lit, clearly marked, and lined with everything from a multitude of brands of herbal teas, natural jams, and packaged goods to bulk products such as organic black-eyed peas and harvest pilaf to vitamins and health products. There are 18 types of granola in large bins, fresh-ground peanut and almond butter, and a special section filled with books and flyers. This is not your grandmother’s food co-op.
Chris, who grew up in the Bronx and in Lake Katrine, started Mother Earth’s in the late `70s after becoming interested in natural foods himself. After spending one year at Ulster County Community College, he dropped out to work for a few years before realizing his dream. “I knew I wanted to open my own business,” he recalls. “There weren’t that many places that offered [natural foods], so I saw it as an opportunity to get what I needed while doing what I wanted.” Three years later Kevin joined him after completing his degree in business at suny New Paltz.
Originally, the store’s clientele consisted of either those of college age or senior citizens, and it certainly didn’t offer the variety it does now. “We were basically doing a lot of bulk food and vitamins,” says Kevin. “There really was no place to find quality vitamins back then.”
But as the natural foods market grew, so did the store, moving from its original location in the Kings Mall in Kingston to two other locations in the same plaza before settling into the site of a former shoe store and eventually taking over the bagel shop next door. Over the years, the operation also expanded to three other stores in the area, though the Kingston site remains the company’s base. “It’s great here,” notes Kevin. “It’s a convenient spot, there’s plenty of parking, and the landlord’s always been very cooperative.”
The increase in popularity of natural foods has actually been a double-edged sword for the company, for though there are now additional products to offer and more people interested in buying them, there are also new avenues of competition. While the initial competitors were other health food stores, supermarkets and pharmacies now present new obstacles. Both brothers acknowledge this, but they view it as a new opportunity. “We offer a different aspect,” says Chris. “We have informative staff who are able to help. They [supermarkets and pharmacies] just open up an aisle, and then if it doesn’t sell, close it down again.”
“I’m not sure it is competition,” adds Kevin. “We’re growing very well, and we still grew at our same rate even when those stores started offering these products. Was it really competition, or were they introducing more people to it and then they come here to get a better variety?”
The increased product choice isn’t as simple as it seems. “As the products become more mass-market, we find ourselves policing them more,” observes Kevin. “There’s a bigger threshold of what’s good and what’s not so good.” One example is the latest low-carb fad made popular by the Atkins diet. Though they carry a number of low-carb products, the Schneiders do not carry those with the Atkins name. “We could make a lot of money selling them, but we don’t because we feel the ingredients are substandard for what we want to carry,” says Chris.
Generally, the brothers read trade magazines, talk to their brokers and sales representatives, and listen to their customers in order to develop the store’s inventory. According to Kevin, vitamins make up about a third of the business, produce and refrigerated goods about 10 percent each, and the rest goes to the packaged groceries. The organization of the store’s items trickles down to the 80 staff members, with department managers in each store overseeing staff and sales. “The department heads are selected because they are interested in those departments,” Kevin points out.
Chris concurs. “We have a good core group of managers and long-term employees, some of whom have been with us for years.”
“That tends to keep the knowledge flow going,” Kevin adds.
Currently, the company is in the process of upgrading the computer system so that all four stores are linked. The next step, says Chris, is to initiate a customer loyalty program to reward regular shoppers, some of whom have been with him since he started.
“I always kind of wanted it to get to a good point,” he says of Mother Earth’s. “It’s taken a long time, but we’ve gotten there.”
One of the ways Mother Earth’s Storehouse tries to distinguish itself is by its “everyday low pricing,” says co-owner Chris Schneider. Having more than one store helps, he adds. “We work with our brokers to get the best deals,” he says. “With the four stores, we really can get better prices.”
After opening the original Kingston store in 1978, Chris and his brother Kevin waited 10 years before opening their Hyde Park satellite store. In 1995, Mother Earth’s Storehouse opened another small store in Saugerties. “We like Saugerties,” notes Chris. “We wanted to put a store there. We think it has a lot of potential.” Then, in 1998, they opened the Poughkeepsie store, which is similar in size to the Kingston store, and includes a deli and eating section as well.
Though customers do come from other places to go to all of the stores, particularly to the larger ones if they are shopping in either city, Kevin says most of them come from the surrounding areas, and tend to use Mother Earth’s as their local store. Because of that, all of the stores offer the same variety and prices. “We want to be well-rounded,” he adds. “Our customers basically come in with a cart.”