Retailer Profile: Welcome to the Neighborhood
By Jennifer Strailey
It began as "a crazy idea," New Leaf Community Markets Founder Scott Roseman says of his start in natural food retailing.
Roseman had come to Santa Cruz, Calif., as a student and subsequently joined Our Neighborhood Food Co-op, a local community market, where he worked for three years before being diagnosed with leukemia.
A year later, Roseman had recovered, but his neighborhood co-op was struggling to survive. He purchased the store, and on Oct. 20, 1985, opened the Westside Community Market.
"Surprisingly enough it worked," Roseman says of his idea, which as it turned out, wasn't crazy at all. Today, New Leaf Community Markets, which has operated under that name since 1990, is a thriving seven-store chain and a pioneer in natural food retailing, revered for its history of social and environmental responsibility.
Talk of the Town
In the beginning, this meant cash donations and sponsorships, but the giving got more sophisticated in 1993, when New Leaf launched its Envirotoken program that sought to conserve resources and support local non-profits working to protect the environment.
A revolutionary idea at time, (other retailers had yet to adopt shopping bag refund policies) New Leaf led the charge, donating 5 cents for every bag saved to a local environmental group. Today, when customers use their own bags, they receive tokens worth 10 cents each for charity.
Here's how the program works: Each May, New Leaf publishes a ballot and customers vote for their top six non-profit organizations. Each store elects its own non-profits based on the votes at each particular location. At checkout, customers are given a paper token that they can then deposit in the non-profit box of choice. To date, the program has donated more than $216,000.
"Our customers really love it," says Roseman, whose store also hosts Community Days six times a year during which New Leaf donates 5 percent of the day's sales to a local non-profit.
New Leaf employees are also encouraged to give back. The retailer pays its full-time employees to work at a local non-profit two days a year. Part-time employees are paid for one day of charitable work.
Beyond the value derived from contributing to important causes, the paid non-profit day encourages employees to get more involved in the community, observes General Manager of Operations Rex Stewart, who has been with New Leaf since 1993.
"We're not just a store in a town, we're a part of that town," says Stewart. "What's made us successful is our ability to relate to the communities in which we reside."
His hypothesis about the importance of connecting with one's community was recently proven. "I was working an event at our Half Moon Bay store, and a woman came up to me and said, 'I just wanted to let you know that New Leaf is part of the conversation in our community,'" he recalls.
"How great is that?" continues an excited Stewart. "To be synergistic with our community – that is our goal."
When Employees Benefit
"I'm committed to the people who work for me," says Roseman, who offered employees health insurance from day one, and added dental, vision, a 401K plan, extended vacation and a profit-sharing plan over the years. "If the company is successful and makes money, all of the employees get rewarded for the good work they do. They help to generate profits, so they deserve to share in the profits," he asserts.
The longevity of the New Leaf staff is a testament to the retailer's team commitment. "Many of the people here have been working for us for a long time," notes Roseman. "We're very proud of that because it means they love what they're doing." One employee has been with the retailer since opening day; another was employed six months after the store opened; and numerous employees have been with New Leaf for 15 years or more.
"Our stores are really gourmet," says Nancy Kelly Weimer, New Leaf's foodservice director. An impressive 90 percent of the natural food retailer's deli and prepared foods are made in house, and 90 percent of everything in the deli/foodservice area is organic. "That's what sets us apart," she notes.
From heart-shape beet burgers made with quinoa and toasted seeds to a spicy tempeh noodle salad to roasted mushroom and Swiss cheese panini with spring onion jam, Weimer and her staff create a mouth-watering and nutritious menu for the New Leaf stores.
The menus are on a seasonal rotation and reflect fresh produce availability. Every store follows the same rotation. "We do branding as much as we can," says Weimer, who promotes products such as Smart Chicken, kale from a farm four miles away from New Leaf, local jams and cheeses, and many other brands her customers find meaningful.
"Our menu is a mix of comfort food and healthy food trends, and everything is made with the best products on the planet," Weimer declares. Some of her hottest sellers at the moment include a meal deal ($5 for lunch and $9.99 for dinner) that runs Monday through Friday. At lunch, the deal includes a hot sandwich or wrap like a turkey burger and a bag of chips or an organic apple. Dinner includes an entree, such as a vegan cutlet, and two sides.
The meal program began at the Half Moon Bay store, which on a recent Friday sold more than 200 tri-tip sandwiches. It's been so successful that the other stores in the chain are adopting it.
Another of New Leaf's most sought-after prepared items is a layered salad in a to-go cup. The salad feature layers of quinoa, chopped kale, other veggies and toasted seeds, all of which are visible through a clear plastic juice cup that is priced at $3.99.
"They have been really popular," Weimer says of the cups; she has found other applications for the concept. "This summer we did strawberry shortcake and peach shortcake in those cups and they were flying out of here. People want the ease of grab and go."
Other fresh items at New Leaf include pizza and calzones from the Chef Station, a bevy of crisp veggies at the self-serve salad bar, soft-serve ice cream, a juice bar featuring a variety of organic fruit and vegetable concoctions, and a cheese department that carries a full range of local, domestic and imported cheeses.
Within its limited amount of in-house baking, New Leaf has carved out a niche with its house-baked pies. After searching for an organic fruit pie that was tasty and affordable and coming up empty, Weimer's baking team began peeling their own organic apples and baking four different varieties of apple pie with crumb topping.
Lay of the Land and Sea
Roseman, who notes that Safeway recently adopted the sustainable seafood program New Leaf started, admits, "It feels good to be leaders on areas of food concern because we truly believe in selling food that supports the planet."
New Leaf was among the retailers that supported Prop 37, the failed California ballot initiative that would have require mandatory labeling of GMO foods.
New Leaf's meat department is equally committed to sustainable, certified humane and organic. "We've always been very picky about who we work with," says Roseman, who explains that all of the store's meat is "never ever," meaning none of the meat has been treated with hormones, antibiotics, nitrates or other chemical additives.
Knowledgeable and committed employees help guide customers with everything from never-ever meat to rennet-free cheese for vegans to air-chilled chicken. "We hire people who are also really committed to these ideals," says Roseman. "They're vigilant because they truly care."
While New Leaf's meat, seafood and deli departments are top of the line, like many natural food markets, produce is its crowning achievement.
"Where we really make our mark is in the produce department," asserts Roseman. "We have a great relationship with the local farming community, and I think that shows when people walk into our stores and they are really taken with the quality we offer."
Designed for Comfort
When it comes to the look and feel of the store: less is more. "The design and décor of the store is very deliberate in being somewhat understated," explains Stewart. "We want people to feel comfortable and be here for a while, but they don't really know why."
Through color, merchandising and lighting, New Leaf has created a subtle backdrop that allows the food to take center stage. "Our design mantra is to make food the star, which means we don't get carried away in building some kind of Taj Mahal," jokes Stewart.
All of the stores have indoor and outdoor eating areas that draw customers in to sip on organic fair trade coffee, nosh on New Leaf's gourmet-inspired natural cuisine and chat with friends. Many a customer has been known to spend the better part of the day enjoying the outdoor fireplace at the Westside store.
"We're not about so much of a wow factor, as much as creating a feeling of 'I'm comfortable here,' " observes Weimer. "We want customers to feel that we're making great tasting food, and that it's warm and welcoming here."
570 Lake Cook Rd, Suite 310
Deerfield IL 60015
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