This Midwestern natural foods mini-chain thrives in rough economic times by providing value with a
huge dose of consumer education.

Serial entrepreneur Barb Hoffman launched many businesses, including a successful interior landscaping company, before starting Green Acres Market in Wichita, Kansas. But this wasn’t just another business for the self-professed Type A-business woman. It was sparked by a health problem that wouldn’t go away.

“I’d developed chronic back pain and traditional medicine wasn’t working,” says Hoffman. She finally found relief through alternative treatments, nutritional supplements and diet changes—and thought others might want to learn what she and her family had discovered through her own journey towards better health. To that end, she and her husband John opened Green Acres Market in 1994, and later brought on daughter Shannon to help expand the business, including a second branch in Kansas City.

The store first focused on vitamins, supplements and grocery staples but expanded into a full organic and all-natural foods grocery five years ago, not only providing the products but also teaching customers how to use them to better their health. The education-driven model was so successful that it led to the second store opening in 2006. Last year, despite the recession, the stores’ experienced their highest level of sales. “We stayed true to our core business model, and we place a high value on partnering with customers to give them what they need,” says Shannon, president of Green Acres-Kansas City.

Early Marketing and Growth…Like many new businesses, one of Green Acres’ initial challenges was creating a customer base in its small Midwestern city. One of the owners’ innovative solutions was developing a radio show about health as a way to illustrate their knowledge and authority and entice customers into the store. For six years, Shannon, along with Matt Murray, the Wichita store’s manager (and eventual co-owner), co-hosted the show HealthTalk with Matt and Shannon, bringing in authors, natural foods product manufacturers, doctors and leading experts. The show was syndicated nationally to 50 stations but took so much energy and effort to manage, they finally chose to end it. “It helped put Green Acres on the map and created awareness for our store out in the Midwest,” notes Shannon. “But now as the industry has evolved, and gourmet and specialty foods has been a part of it, it’s become more of a lifestyle.” About five years ago, the owners expanded the Wichita store to 10,000 square feet (8,500 square feet of retail space), with the Kansas City store having a similar footprint.

“In the beginning, we were considered an alternative to regular grocery shopping,” explains Shannon. The Wichita store was located across from the highest-grossing food store in the area, and initially customers came into Green Acres for the add-on purchase. “Over time we evolved our product mix and added meats, deli, a lot of specialty foods and baked goods, but still stayed true to our original rules—no refined sugars, pesticides, chemical preservatives, hydrogenated oils, etc.,” says Shannon. As the natural and specialty foods categories became more integrated, Green Acres became a shopping destination for many consumers.

Customer Base…“It’s ever-evolving—we used to say female 35-55, because they were the ones who made the health decisions for their families. But in the Kansas City store, we’re seeing younger customers—single women and new moms who want to feed their babies clean, whole foods and make changes for their family at that stage. We’ve also seen a huge growth in the Baby Boomer category,” explains Shannon.

Product Offerings…“We have a full line of groceries and natural foods, refrigerated and frozen items, a bulk section, vitamins and supplements, gluten-free, fresh produce, specialty cheese, specialty foods and even biodynamic and sustainable wine in Kansas City,” says Shannon. Best-selling categories include vitamins and supplements as well as bread, eggs and milk. Gluten-free is also expanding fast.” Each store offers about 10,000 SKUs.

Product Sourcing…“In both stores, 80 percent is national, 15 percent local, 5 percent is international. Being in the Midwest, I would say we have a smaller representation of international foods. Our mission is to be as organic as possible, especially in produce. But we recognize that people won’t pay $6.99 a pound for butter even if it is local, so that’s when we’ll bring in conventional items. We say that we will bring in organic when it’s affordable. We label everything organic, natural or local. We organize farmers’ markets so we can give local farmers a chance to sell to our customers,” says Shannon.

Best-Selling Items…“The Organic Valley Milk for $3.79 is popular. Our Campolindo eggs sell like crazy in Kansas City; in Wichita, it is Phil’s Fresh Eggs. We sell quite a bit of our Kombucha Wonder Drink,” says Barb.

Surprising Sellers…“Elderberry concentrate, for cold, flu and H1N1, is big,” notes Shannon.

Store Design…“When we expanded from the smaller format in Wichita to around 10,000 square feet, we wanted to create a shopping experience, with room for education and sampling. My mom has a background in design, and we worked with the design firm who’d helped us create our logo to come up with the layout,” notes Shannon. “I pretty much duplicated it at the Kansas City store but changed a few elements here and there. In my store there is a stronger specialty food customer, so we have a larger cheese case.”

Pricing…“We are not the cheapest, but not the most expensive. We believe in creating experiences so we partner with our vendors to create special programs and events. For example, we have a free holiday meal tasting so people can learn about options for their holiday meals and know what to order. We have live music on the weekends, farmers’ markets and a huge focus on education and classes, bringing in national speakers. This speaks to the two main focuses of our business: alternative health education and creating a shopping experience where people can find clean foods and clean produce,” says Shannon.

Number of Employees…Wichita store, 32 (16 full-time, 16 part-time); Kansas City, 27 (16 full-time, 11 part-time).

Community Outreach…Green Acres hosts classes once a week with industry experts. “Because education is so integral to our store’s focus, we have a whole internal marketing program and develop newsletters. We also partner with our vendors to create a tabloid we insert in papers that has education and information,” says Shannon. “I did a huge women’s health series on adrenal fatigue, bioidentical hormones and energy balance, partnering with four other professionals around town. We built a whole girlfriend getaway around it,” she adds. “Longevity will be a big theme for next year.” The stores also host a tasting fair, an anniversary celebration, a dog wash to benefit local animal charities and other events.

Future Plans…“We’d like to have a nice small chain of stores that we keep this size and with this model. We want to go into medium-sized markets predominantly in the Midwest and serve a category that larger stores can’t,” explains Shannon. |SFM|

Meghann Foye is a freelance writer specializing in food and travel.