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From managing a coffee house at UC Davis in the 1960s, to founding a thriving full-service, two-location company in the San Francisco Bay Area, to co-founding the Non-GMO Project. Bob Gerner, General Manager and founder of Natural Grocery Company, has steered the growth of his company toward a single goal: provide wholesome food that tastes good.
And along the way, he’s blazed the trail on providing products that are free of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Gerner was part of a group that started the Natural Food Works grocery store in Davis, Calif., before opening Westbrae Natural Foods in Berkeley. Westbrae initially sold only granola and granola ingredients. But over time, Gerner grew the store, department by department into a full-service grocery. In 1981, he founded the Natural Grocery Company in Berkeley, followed by the opening of their El Cerrito store in 1988.
Gerner and the Natural Grocery Company were instrumental in launching the first retailer rebellion against GMOs. It all started in 2002, when three employees of the Berkeley store, concerned about GMOs, launched the “We Want to Know Campaign.” As part of the campaign, staff researched more than 700 products and engaged more than 150 grocers in a letter-writing campaign. Soon after, Natural Grocer and the Big Carrot Natural Food Market in Toronto founded the Non-GMO Project to create a standardized definitions of non-GMO for the North American food industry.
Today, Gerner and Natural Grocery continue to lead the way in demonstrating how retail stores can educate consumers about the negative health impact of GMOs and work with manufacturers to find alternatives to GMO ingredients.
On GMOs . . .
Q. When did The Natural Grocery Company decide to take action to protect your customers from GMOs?
A. At our Berkeley store in 2003, a customer asked “Is the soy lecithin in this genetically modified?” That day, we couldn’t answer the question definitively. We believe in the right to know the full story behind the food we eat, so group of staff asked themselves “What can we do?”
Our staff began the “People Want to Know Campaign.” We contacted hundreds of stores, eventually galvanizing 161 grocery stores and co-ops to contact food manufactures regarding their GMO practices. The goal was to let manufacturers know that customers care, and to determine the GMO status of products. In 2005, The Natural Grocery Company and Big Carrot Natural Food Market teamed up to form The Non-GMO Project.
Q. How did your store's GMO education, labeling and purchasing policies and practices come about?
A. Since we opened our doors more than 30 years ago, learning about the process and people behind the products we carry has been characteristic of our company. Our GMO labeling, education and purchasing policies stem from the simple desire to share the full story behind the foods we carry. We see labels for non-GMO (along with organic and fair trade) as tools for telling critical parts of the story to our customers. The expansion of the Non-GMO Project and the increasing demand for non-GMO verified products underscores that people are hungry for information on their food. With educational campaigns and events, like our Non-GMO Celebration Day, we seek to spread the story and encourage people to continue asking questions and learning about the food they eat.
Q. What has been the most difficult aspect of keeping GMOs out of your store?
A. The most challenging aspect has been to balance providing our customers all the items they expect while realizing our ideal of GMO-free stores. We began our process of “flagging” items at risk of containing GMOs after the defeat of Prop 37. We marked items that are verified non-GMO with green shelf tags and highlighted items at risk for GMOs with red shelf tags. We explained the colored shelf tags with notes at each register and around the store. Along with an explanation of our shelf tags, we printed the contact information of several manufacturers, so that our customers could contact companies to encourage them to switch to non-GMO ingredients. We are proud to make this information available to our customers, but unfortunately we have not yet seen a significant change in the buying habits of our customers. One shortcoming we have identified is that customers must learn our color coding system. We seek to improve our signage so that it is more readily apparent whether an item may contain GMOs. We also highlight Non-GMO items and producers throughout Non-GMO Month with promotions, sampling, and educational materials on GMOS and producer practices.
Q. Please share a few stories about your success in persuading manufacturers to remove or replace GMO ingredients in their products.
A. We are often able to work with local vendors on replacing ingredients that do not meet our standards. Through the Non-GMO Project, we have also been able to advocate for the removal of GMOs with larger manufacturers. We helped fund the launch of The Non-GMO Project and served on the Board of Directors until earlier this year. When we come across ingredients that do not meet our GMO standards, we contact the producers to explain why we would like to, but cannot carry their products. For example, we worked with Natural Choice, a mid-sized local distributor, to improve ingredients in a new line of salads. They were able to make the changes within months and the salads are popular with our customers and staff.
Q. What customer feedback have you received about your GMO policies and practices?
A. We frequently receive appreciation from our customers for our non-GMO practices and activities. They are proud of our past actions and we partner with some customers on advocacy activities. On the flip side, we also receive comments of concern from customers when items with GMOs are replaced. The spectrum of customer comments underscores our need to continue our efforts to educate on the impacts of GMOs.
Q. What actions can OCA take on behalf of your store and customers?
A. We thank the OCA for recognizing both the importance of right-to-know actions, as well our stores’ activities. We think that continuing to highlight positive examples in these areas will help inspire more action.
Q. What would you like to tell other grocers thinking about taking products with GMO ingredients off their shelves?
A. Instead of simply removing the items, ensure through awareness campaigns that customers understand why the items are no longer carried. And also, highlight alternatives. We found that when the changes are not proactively communicated, some customers ask why the items are no longer available and some simply seek them elsewhere.
On Mission and Values . . .
Q. What makes your store special in the competitive natural foods marketplace?
A. We are proud that since the beginning of our store, organic, non-GMO and local foods have become much more widely available. Our store remains competitive in the expanding marketplace because we hold firmly to our guiding values of seeking out the best producers. Our customers know that the items on our shelves have been thoughtfully researched and held to high standards.
Q. Describe your store’s mission and values.
A. From the beginning, our purpose has been to provide the community with wholesome food that tastes good. We do this by seeking out thoughtful and sustainable producers. Our staff honors the hard work of producers by delivering knowledgeable and helpful customer service in a welcoming neighborhood market environment.
Q. How does your store express these values through your purchasing policies?
A. In the ever-changing natural food world, our purchasing standards have been our foundation. Since our start, we’ve sought to provide wholesome food that tastes good. Because of our standards, we have earned our customers’ trust. They know we have done the due diligence to continually research and procure quality products. Our entirely organic produce department was the first in the Bay Area to be designated as a Certified Organic Retailer (by CCOF).
Q. What are your store's goals?
A. Our goal is connect our community with the highest quality producers and to promote wellness through food. We do this by creating a welcoming neighborhood market environment where our staff provides helpful and knowledgeable service.
Personally speaking . . .
Q. What do you find most enjoyable and gratifying about the retail grocery business?
A. The simple pleasure of connecting people around an essential need --food. We are honored to be part of the cycle that links seeds sprouting in the field to satisfied smiles at the dinner table.
Q. How did you get interested in natural foods retailing, and what keeps you in the business?
A. Our leadership has been a part of the natural food movement from its beginning. In 1970, Founder and General Manager, Bob Gerner, met with other natural foods enthusiasts at Mount Shasta for a meeting of the Organic Merchants. The discussions from that meeting have guided our ingredient standards ever since. Determined to increase the availability of organic and wholesome foods, Bob formed Westbrae Natural Foods. The pleasure of connecting customers with the quality foods ignited Bob’s passion for food retailing and continues to guide The Natural Grocery Company. Jennifer Sandkuhler, our Assistant General Manager, also began in production by working on a CSA during college. Jennifer loved the moment of delivering the farm fresh food to the members. Bob and Jennifer have stayed in the food retailing business because of this passion and they enjoy being continually challenged by the changes in the industry.
Q. What else would you like us to know about your store?
A. We are currently expanding! Our El Cerrito location will soon open a Prepared Food ANNEX where we will offer the neighborhood organic and fair trade coffee, fresh-squeezed juices, organic deli foods & baked goods, sustainable wine & beer, artisan cheese, sandwiches, salads, pizza, hot soups, and more. The ANNEX will also host culinary classes, wine-tastings, and special events. We are excited for the future possibilities with 65 additional staff and a space for gathering around delicious and nourishing food.
Patrick Kerrigan is retail education coordinator for the Organic Consumers Association.