-  Natural Grocers looks to educate and partner with customers and growers

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - From left, Cathy Cooke, nutrition coach, and Store Manager Rosalie Wilson stand in the produce section of the newly opened Natural Grocers in Gresham. Fruits and vegetables now come from West Coast distributors whose growers use organic farming methods, but Wilson said the store will carry local berries and produce once the season ramps up.

After months of speculation, Natural Grocers opened somewhat quietly Tuesday, March 18, following an intensive remodel of the building formerly occupied by La-Z-Boy Furniture.

And if lines at the checkout stands are any indication of acceptance, local shoppers are embracing the organic market with open arms.

“The community has really endorsed us,” said store manager Rosalie Wilson. “It’s really been nice to be so welcomed and appreciated.”

The Gresham store is the 80th launched by the Colorado-based company, which made a big splash when it arrived in Beaverton last year. Natural Grocers has a presence in 13 states, with six stores in Oregon and another one scheduled to open in mid-May in Clackamas.

But as one who survives on coffee and pastries, my visit with staff at Natural Grocers was enlightening. It turns out an organic lifestyle doesn’t mean a diet of berries and twigs. It’s more a marriage of food and products with natural ingredients.

Margaret and Philip Isely were trendsetters long before anyone ever heard of the organic movement when they founded the company in Golden, Colo., in 1955. The couple went door-to-door selling Margaret’s whole-grain bread, along with vitamins and dietary supplements and a mission to spread nutritional information to those they met.

“(Margaret) was a big believer in education for healthier living,” Wilson said. “We still believe that partnerships between local growers and community members are the foundation of a healthy community.”

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Natural Grocers bulk foods are prepackaged and refrigerated to maintain freshness. Unlike traditional grocery stores, where organic products are difficult to find, Natural Grocers is brimming with foods and household products that either meet USDA standards as certified organic or are made from natural ingredients. But here’s the eye-opener — mixed in among the organic foods are conventional brands we’ve probably picked up at other stores.

“We don’t sell anything that contains artificial sweeteners, coloring, preservatives or hydrogenated oils,” Wilson said. “You can shop comfortably knowing that, but that’s why you will see some conventional products mixed in — they meet those standards.”

Kettle Chips? Who knew?

The produce section in Natural Grocers is mind-blowing. There isn’t just one variety of apple, there’s four. A fan of artichokes? There are several. Wilson said once the local growing season ramps up, buyers will be able to purchase berries and produce from area farmers. Until then, fruits and vegetables come from West Coast distributors who work with growers employing organic practices. And while prices for produce are comparable to big box grocery stores, how the product is handled differs greatly.

“When you have a blend of organic and conventional (fruits and vegetables), you have to ask if the organics are handled correctly,” Wilson said. “There can be cross contamination between conventional and organic produce. Once conventional hits organic, it’s no longer organic. That’s why we wear gloves when we stock the produce.”

Adhering to its founder’s basic principle of education, Natural Grocers routinely hosts free health seminars and cooking demonstrations, conducted by nutrition experts and designed to help customers refine or begin regaining balance in their diet. One such seminar held immediately after the Gresham store opened featured a dietician who provided simple recipes for fruit smoothies.

The line to hear her presentation, Wilson said, was out the door.

“I see a big hunger for that in Gresham,” she said. “We’re always looking for more community people to do cooking demonstrations, health seminars and growers to partner with us.”

But one of the unique features to Natural Grocers harkens back to the former Nature’s store concept, offering natural vitamins, dietary supplements and body care products. The only difference is that Natural Grocers has a nutritional health coach on site who provides free consultations to those desiring balance in their diet or help with addressing a medical condition. by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - The store stocks a large selection of vitamins, dietary supplements and natural body care products. Customers can schedule a consultation with an on-site nutrition coach to personalize a natural approach for their health.

“We don’t diagnose, treat or cure,” said Cathy Cooke, Natural Grocers’ nutrition coach and a board certified holistic nutritionist. “We want to support the body to come into balance with dietary changes and supplementation if necessary.”

A one-hour consultation with Cooke includes a medical and dietary history, as well as the client’s reasons for seeking a natural approach to his or her health — allergies, eczma, diabetes, etc. “Coaching documents” provide a variety of natural recommendations, which allows Cooke to personalize each client’s plan.

“I try to recommend three dietary changes and three supplements as a general rule,” she said. “We do follow-ups and we can make changes if we need to. But I encourage people to try the changes for a couple weeks and check back.”

Consumer demand for the reduction of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in their food is an issue Natural Grocers has taken to heart as well. The company is in the process of converting its dairy products to those coming from confinement-free dairies.

And while the store carries a limited selection of fresh and frozen meats, all come from suppliers who support grass-fed practices with their cattle and poultry.

Natural Grocers’ foundation of partnering with the community also extends to being kind to the community. The store is “bag free,” encouraging customers to bring their own bags for purchases or offering recycled boxes available near the check stand. And in a quirky twist, store hours are flexible.

“We won’t make you wait outside until 9 (a.m.),” Wilson said. “We will open early and we won’t kick people out at closing. We want to be here for the community when it’s convenient for them.” by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - The stores quirky business hours reflect founder Margaret Iselys belief that convenience for customers is part of serving the community.

Natural Grocers

Where: 407 N.W. Burnside Road, Gresham

What: All natural and organic cleaning products and foods, locally grown produce, vitamins, dietary supplements and natural body care products; on-site nutrition coach; Grab N Go area for ready-made salads, sandwiches and some pastries; Community Room offers free coffee and Wi-fi.

Grand opening: Festivities run through Saturday, March 29, with free samples and prize drawings.

Store hours: 8:56 a.m. to 8:04 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from 9:56 a.m. to 7:06 p.m. Sunday.

Call: 503-465-0130.

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