You don’t have to be a health food nut to appreciate The Natural Grocery Company, whose Berkeley and El Cerrito stores have been serving their communities since 1981 and 1988, respectively.
Offering natural options for everything from toaster pastries to lipstick, this two-store, multi-department operation has its roots in a desire to make organic and whole foods more accessible — and it all started with granola.
General Manager and company founder Bob Gerner was already into natural foods as a UC Davis student in the 1960s, where he managed the campus coffeehouse, later opening The Natural Food Works in Davis with a group of colleagues before heading to Berkeley for his next venture — Westbrae Natural Foods.
“I found a place on Gilman Street and tried to open it as a granola factory and was told we had to have a store,” Gerner said.
Opened in 1970 at 1336 Gilman St., where Berkeley Natural Grocery is today, Westbrae Natural Foods sold granola and granola ingredients, later expanding its inventory, adding dairy, produce and a bakery.
When Westbrae Natural Foods shifted from retail to manufacturing, importing and distributing, Gerner took over its retail store and opened Gilman Street Gourmet Natural Foods & Delicatessen there in 1976.
“Westbrae was a hippie store,” explained Gerner. “When I did Gilman Street Gourmet, I was trying to put a bridge across to regular people,” he continued. “We had the deli so people could taste the food, and once they tasted it, we started getting a good name.”
Gilman Street Gourmet Natural Foods & Delicatessen was sold in 1980 and, in 1981, Berkeley Natural Grocery, Gerner’s third generation of natural food store in the same Gilman Street building, opened its doors. It proved to be the charm, with El Cerrito Natural Grocery following in 1988. (The El Cerrito outlet at 10367 San Pablo Ave. sits on the Richmond-El Cerrito border, with the building in Richmond and with the front sidewalk and address in El Cerrito.)
Westbrae Natural Foods meanwhile was sold in the mid-1980s and is now owned by The Hain Celestial Group
Employee-owned since 2002, the company is all about the natural alternative. It was the first retail operation in the San Francisco Bay Area to be certified by the respected California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF). Produce departments are 100% organic, and the stores carry numerous organics throughout.
The definition of "certified organic," while complicated and entailing labeling nuances, is consistent.
Organic certification standards are set by the USDA. Paraphrased by CCOF, “Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones.”
The term “natural” is a moving target, however; its use on product packaging is not controlled by law.
“It’s very confusing, because there is no definition,” Gerner explained. “Some people trust it more than organic, but it really doesn’t mean anything on a label.”
For The Natural Grocery Company it means “the least processed as possible,” according to Gerner. “Something that’s more of a whole food.” It’s whole grain versus white flour; honey or maple syrup in place of refined sugar; beet juice instead of red dye #40.
For the last 15 years or so, it’s also been about avoiding GMOs — genetically modified organisms.
Genetically modified organisms and the Non-GMO Project
GMOs are lab-created by genetic engineering techniques to select for certain traits. For example, Monsanto’s Roundup Ready crop line, sold under its Genuity brand, was developed to be resistant to the company’s glyphosate-based Roundup herbicide.
Ongoing debate about GMOs involves not only food safety, but biosafety and bioethics. The pro contingent often argues that GM crops can be nutritionally fortified, that production costs are lower, that yields are higher, and that reduced pesticide use — for example, in the case of pest-resistant types — is a plus. The con group frequently likens them to a sort of Pandora’s Box: once set loose, they can never be called back, with other agricultural systems forever harmed as a result of transgenic escapees.
Avoiding GMOs isn’t easy because the FDA doesn’t currently require manufacturers to disclose the use of GMOs on product labels, and the vast majority of certain US crops planted are GM — soybeans and corn are now at 94% and 88%, respectively, according to the USDA.
Labeling can also be misleading if GMO testing occurs at the wrong link of the production chain. For example, vegetable oil will always test negative. “There will never be any GMOs discovered because there’s no protein or DNA in it because it’s just oil,” Gerner pointed out. “They have to test what goes in to make the oil. “
The Non-GMO Project, the only independent, third-party verifier of its kind in North America, helps. Its seal on a box of corn flakes tells consumers their production was evaluated using current best practices for avoiding GMOs.
A multifaceted non-profit, the Non-GMO Project has its roots in The Natural Grocery Company. Starting in 2002, three employees at the Berkeley store become concerned about “hidden” GMOs. A flurry of activity followed, including researching some 700 products and a letter-writing campaign. In 2005, the company combined forces with a Toronto market to form the organization.
While The Natural Grocery Company currently gives a little leeway to manufacturers of long-carried product lines, new products with highly GM ingredients that aren’t certified organic or verified by the Non-GMO Project are not carried. Ultimately, though, grandfathering will end.
Eight buyers for the company translate shared values into action. “We buy organic, when possible,” said El Cerrito store grocery buyer and 17-year company veteran Shunda Harris, “and verify statements on packaging and check out ingredients.” Trans fats, corn syrups, artificial colorings, artificial preservatives, antibiotics, hormones and GMOs are all on their verboten list. Small, independent producers are given preference, and buyers visit manufacturers and farms to witness production practices first-hand.
Relating a trip to check out the Judy’s Family Farm brand of organic eggs, Timothy Pickett, El Cerrito store dairy/frozen buyer, pointed out that egg production, even in nonconventional scenarios, is “not what most people would think.”
“It’s about shadings,” Gerner explained. “Some people think free-range and cage-free are the same — they’re not. Cage-free just means a big barn and that they’re not in cages but they’re inside. Free-range means they have to have x amount of space outside and access to that space.”
Currently, pastured eggs are their hottest selling eggs by volume, according to Gerner. Hens roam about in cow pastures pecking through cow pies for fly larvae, spending nights in coops.
Pickett pointed out that the company considered transitioning to all-organic dairy departments, but because some customers rely on affordable, non-organic products, it still carries some — like milk. Gerner affirmed that this high-quality conventional milk is from hormone and antibiotic-free cows that are mostly grazed.
Cheese is another stumbling block. According to Pickett, they’d have to discontinue non-organic European selections, as well as cheeses from local manufacturers that can’t afford to go organic, and be left with what he called “a much smaller and much less varied and robust cheese selection.”
Produce and the meaning of “local”
With almost 30 years’ experience — 10 at The Natural Grocery Company — Tim Kilkenny is well-qualified to run their 100% organic produce departments. Depending upon season, some 50% to 90% of what he carries, based on volume, is California-grown. Whether or not that’s all “local” is open to discussion, and when asked how “locally-grown” is defined, Kilkenny answered, “Nebulously.”
“Some people like the 100 to 150 mile radius, and Buy Fresh Buy Local maps with this, but many think local is the whole state of California,” he explained. “A number think it’s Northern California to Fresno, and some would say California, Oregon and Washington.”
Buy Fresh Buy Local is the Community Alliance with Family Farmers program that The Natural Grocery participates in.
“Our nine-county region,” according to Kilkenny, “is roughly 100 miles from farm to fork.” This includes Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Solano and Sonoma counties. “Food-ship counties around highly-urbanized counties also count,” he continued, which adds another eight. “That’s roughly 200 miles from farm to fork.”
Only produce from these two contiguous regions qualifies for use of the Buy Fresh Buy Local sticker.
Like the other buyers, Kilkenny is proud of what he offers. “For as small a department as we are,” he said, “we have a lot of little weird things that aren’t always seen in every produce department.” He credits what he called “the tolerance of management to have a large amount of variety in a small amount of space,” a philosophy apparent throughout both stores, and a reflection of its founder’s vision.
“We’re a place that provides an alternative,” said Gerner. “I feel we’ve taken a great part in making that alternative available in many stores. 40 years ago when I started there were not many places you could buy organic foods, and now you can buy them at almost every supermarket. That’s something that wouldn’t have happened except for stores like ours.”
Corrections: The original version of this story gave an incorrect address for the Berkeley Natural Grocery. It should be 1336 Gilman St., not 1136 Gilman St. A photo caption also gave the incorrect first name for an employee. It is Jacob Lockaby, not Jacon Lockaby. The story and caption have been corrected.