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The Natural Grocery Co. — 30 and Going Strong

Providing natural alternatives since 1981, The Natural Grocery Company wants to do your body good.

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.

History

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

Values

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.

Buyers

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.

Barbara Post September 16, 2011 at 02:44 PM
ANOTHER INTERESTING AND INFORMATIVE ARTICLE ABOUT THE LOCAL FOOD SCENE. THE INFO ABOUT GMO'S OPENS OUR EYES TO WHATS HAPPENING IN THE FOOD INDUSTRY AND TO OUR FOOD SUPPLY. THANKS- BARBARA POST
Renate Valencia September 16, 2011 at 05:09 PM
Thanks, Barbara!
Eric Riess September 16, 2011 at 06:01 PM
I don't think your comments about GMO foods are entirely accurate. Plus you give a very one-sided pro-GMO view without even mentioning the possible health risks of GMO food. Please don't let people think that soy or canola oil made from GMO products is acceptable. I shop both 'Natural' stores all the time and support their stand. You should also note the effort to put a GMO labeling requirement on next year's California ballot.
Dorothy Coakley September 16, 2011 at 11:56 PM
Beautifully written, thorough and accurate, Renate! EC Nat is my main store as Pierre, Lucia, Kay, Yoko and a host of other clerks will tell you. Why? Its spitting distance from my house. Five minutes downhill on a skateboard. Not to mention the yummy food, cheerful owner-employees *and* the solar panels which deliver enough energy to keep the place going. Oh, and short checkout lines. Thumbs up for the Nat and for your article, Renate!
Betty Buginas September 17, 2011 at 01:39 AM
Dorothy, exactly how often do you skateboard to EC Natural Grocery? I've got to get a photo of that!
Ira Sharenow September 17, 2011 at 02:33 AM
Great story! I am a regular shopper. As a vegetarian, I appreciate the fantastic produce. The employees are very knowledgeable and friendly. The store is very well run.
Toni Mayer September 17, 2011 at 05:37 AM
Excellent article! I appreciate the level of detail and the historical information about this and other local stores.
Renate Valencia September 17, 2011 at 04:36 PM
Thanks for the comments! I agree that everyone at TNGC is friendly and super-helpful. It's really amazing how much thought and research are involved in what they carry. I have yet to skateboard to either location, though it's not a bad idea :-)
Kyrsten Bean September 19, 2011 at 06:03 AM
Nice Job Renate! I didn't know most of these facts, just that I like many of the products offered here and come regularly to the EC Natural as well as Giovanni's.
Renate Valencia September 19, 2011 at 07:59 PM
Thanks, Kyrsten! It's nice to be able to shop so close by!
Amy March 24, 2012 at 10:21 PM
I love this store. How about an update? What is that thing hanging over the parking lot? Are they building an addition next door?
John Stashik March 24, 2012 at 10:52 PM
There will be an annex in the former paint store. The trellis under construction atop the driveway will be a base for solar arrays.
Toni Mayer March 25, 2012 at 05:37 AM
Thanks, John. We were wondering about that.
Dorothy Coakley March 25, 2012 at 06:06 AM
Yes, the folks at the Nat told me that the store will be named "The Annex" and that it should be opened in 2013. I was there last week just as a "field trip" of store workers was visiting the site. I think the employee/owners are as excited about the progress as we are!
Amy March 25, 2012 at 02:17 PM
Thanks for the update. What is "Annex" going to become?
John Stashik March 25, 2012 at 08:43 PM
Here is my comment that appeared in the El Cerrito CofC Byline for January. From The Natural Grocery Company, Jennifer Sandkuhler reports that they are expanding into the former paint store building next to El Cerrito Natural Grocery. They hope to open in January 2013. Still in the planning stages, the firm is focusing on food service; possibly beer, wine and pizza. Input from the community is encouraged and comments can be sent to project coordinator Robin Low; robinvalerielow@yahoo.com.
Local Mom March 25, 2012 at 10:21 PM
That is SO exciting! More good food options are definitely needed in EC. Plus that empty building is such a blight on that busy intersection.

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