Think again. Imagine a 28,000-square-foot natural foods store, with 225 employees, selling everything from bulk organic French green lentils to New Zealand grass-fed beef, from organic eggplant and tofu salad to Sanford 2000 Pinot Noir. Visualize a store that sells 2,000 cases of Health Valley soup on ad and goes through 2,000 pounds of tofu a month in its deli alone.

Santa Barbara’s Lazy Acres is anything but lazy. Boasting $28 million in sales ($538,000 per week) from 20,000 square feet of selling space, the market records a sizzling $26.90 per square foot per week. All this in a city of only 90,000.

Relax and Browse
Lazy Acres Market’s three partners had already succeeded elsewhere in the food business: Jimmy Searcy operated a West Coast distribution company called the Marty Bellman Co.; Irwin Carasso founded Tree of Life; and Hugo Van Seenus owned Hugo’s, a Washington, D.C., retailer. They all shared the same vision for a natural foods market.

“We wanted a store that would offer the best in natural foods and unmatched personal service, says Searcy. “The supermarkets here have not changed with the times; they are selling groceries much like they did in the 1960s. Their look has changed, but their attitude has not.

“Our goal was to create a food shopping experience that was fun; a place where the food and the staff would combine to make the shopper feel special.

Thus, the name Lazy Acres. Searcy continues, “Our market is a place where people can relax, they can touch the food, visit with neighbors and our employees. It is a laid-back, easygoing, relaxing environment. If you slow people down, they are happier. And they buy more.

Opened in 1991 on the site of a small Mexican grocery, Lazy Acres was originally just 11,000 square feet. In 1997, the partners took over the adjacent Patio Shop and expanded to the current 28,000 square feet. The look and feel was maintained throughout. “Rich earth tones and a lot of wood create warmth, observes Searcy. For instance, produce is framed by a massive wooden structure. The floor is dark vinyl, “like Mrs. Gooch’s, adds Searcy. The result: Customer count jumped from 30,000 to 80,000 per month.

Wholesome and Organic
Although Lazy Acres does carry mainstream grocery products and specialty foods, it is first and foremost a natural foods store. The home page of its website says the market is “Santa Barbara’s best source for wholesome, natural and organic foods and products.

The organic nature is evidenced throughout, but particularly in produce, which accounts for 14% of sales, or $75,320 per week. According to John O’Hara, produce manager, 80% of the fruits and vegetables are organic. He says, “Organic is important to all customer segments; to college students, to young families, to the elderly.

Fruits and vegetables are merchandised in wicker and bushel baskets, creating beautiful, hand-crafted displays. When asked whether that boosts labor costs, Searcy says, “People constantly work the displays, and that costs more than having somebody dump a case of peppers in. But we want people on the floor, to talk to customers, to answer questions.

“We view our employees as a competitive advantage, not as an expense. We listen to our people, guide them, teach them and appreciate them. Our employees are our family. I believe that feeling comes across to customers.

“Years ago, when I worked on the assembly line in a General Motors plant, I promised myself that, if I ever succeeded, I would treat my employees as I would want them to treat me. That’s the Golden Rule, and it works in the retail business.

Organic products are featured in all departments. In grocery, organic and natural products represent 60% of sales and are always given the most prominent shelf space, according to Grocery Manager John Santarosa. “You will always see the natural products at eye level. Mass-market brands such as Campbell’s are on the bottom shelf, next to the floor.

Organic products are featured in ads. For the week of February 19, Newman’s Own Organic Pretzels ($1.49/8 ounce), Food Merchants Organic Polenta ($1.99/18 ounce), Spectrum Naturals Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil ($9.99/750 ml), Organica Organic Pasta ($1.49/16 ounce) and Simply Organic Add Meat Pasta & Sauce Mixes ($1.59/8 ounce) were among the specials.

Advertised products are displayed prominently, both through side stackings and end caps. “We are always striving to keep the store fresh and exciting, points out Ahmed Jahadhmy, assistant grocery manager. Grocery accounts for 15% of sales, $80,700 weekly.

Lamb Sausage with Mint
Positioned toward the front, near cheese, Lazy Acres wine department has become a draw by itself. Featuring 1,200 labels hand-selected by Wine Manager Bob Wesley, the wine department differentiates the store from mass-market wine sellers. “We select wines that are exceptional values and that complement food, says Wesley. “We do have high-end wines, but we focus on wines under $15 a bottle, everyday wines that people can enjoy.

These wines are often drunk with meats sold from the service case, which anchors the rear of the store. A lot of prepared items are sold, such as Kai B. Korean- style ribs and Mango Salsa Chicken Legs. The market even manufactures 10 different types of sausage, including Armenian Lamb Sausage with Mint and the best-selling Chicken Basil Sausage. The beef selection features Vintage natural beef and New Zealand grass-fed beef. Efren Reynesa, meat manager, says, “Shoppers want natural meats, particularly beef, pork and chicken.

Organic Tomato, Feta and Basil Omelettes
Not satisfied with controlling the majority of the food retail business in Santa Barbara, Lazy Acres recently expanded its café, an adjunct to the successful deli department. Managed by Paul Shields, a former hotel and restaurant chef, the deli and café account for 10% of sales, or $53,800 per week. Bakery chimes in an additional $21,520 weekly, 4% of sales.

“We do nearly $4 million a year from this kitchen, says Shields. For instance, the market sells 1,000 pounds of grilled tofu salad and 300 pounds of spinach lasagna during an average week.

Lazy Acres’ repertoire includes 400 hot, cold and refrigerated prepared foods. About 40 selections are always on display. As in the rest of the market, organic and natural is important.

The selection in late February included Cajun Crusted Sole, Adobo Roasted Pork Loin, Traditional Chicken Salad, Roasted Beet Salad and Natural Beef Meatloaf. The newest item was Pear Watercress Salad, which consisted of pears, watercress, walnuts, feta cheese, red onion, olive oil, red wine vinegar, orange juice, sea salt and pepper, at $6.99 per pound. Shields explains, “Produce had extra pears, so we developed this delicious salad.

The market’s latest focus has been the Café, a Casual Organic Restaurant. To capture consumers early, a Kids Menu has been introduced; an Organic Mickey Mouse Pancake for $1.99, and Mini Cheese Pizza with Organic Crust for $3.99 are among the selections. Moms and dads can enjoy a Breakfast Burrito, made with either two organic eggs or organic tofu, wrapped in a flour tortilla with organic potatoes, cheese and salsa on the side. Organic kids meals. What will the owners and employees of Lazy Acres Market think of next.