While gaining in popularity across the nation, it's here where natural-food departments and natural-food specialty supermarkets are sprouting faster than wheat grass.
"Natural Foods are growing big time in the Boston area," said one local observer, who noted that most of the growth is coming from upscale bedroom communities along the Route 128 corridor near Boston, and in the more trendy areas of the city itself.
"They are growing in this market because we have an aging population of baby boomers who are now reaching 50, and are very affluent. One of the things that people are most concerned about, especially in that age group, is nutrition. Eating right is one of the key things that affects them," the observer said.
Major chains, including Stop & Shop Co., Quincy, Mass., and Roche Bros. Supermarkets, Wellesley Hills, Mass., have devoted entire aisles to natural foods, while Star Market Co., Cambridge, Mass., has installed a "Wild Harvest" natural-foods section in many of its stores.
Star has cultivated Wild Harvest further by opening two freestanding Wild Harvest stores. They feature a complete assortment of natural and organic foods, as well as an array of traditional grocery products -- from Oreos to Spaghetti-Os -- so shoppers can purchase both their all-natural and standard foods in one convenient location. In addition to newspaper ads, Star has been heavily advertising Wild Harvest on radio.
One of the newest players is Nature's Heartland in the suburban town of Bedford, Mass., a 41,000-square-foot natural-foods superstore that is the brainchild of Leo Kahn, the former chairman of the now defunct Purity Supreme chain, and one of the founders of Fresh Fields and Staples office supply stores. Nature's Heartland made its debut Nov. 8.
Other natural-food players in the market include Bread & Circus Wholefood Supermarkets, Newton Highlands, Mass., a 12-store natural foods supermarket chain that is a division of Whole Foods Market, Austin, Texas. While concentrating on perishables, Bread & Circus also carries a wide assortment of organic canned goods, baby food, packaged grocery, frozen food and household cleaners.
A new entrant to the area is Trader Joe Co., a South Pasadena, Calif.-based specialty store chain specializing in private label and reasonably priced premium-quality grocery items. It now operates three stores in the greater Boston area. Many of Trader Joe's items are all-natural, such as Hawaiian pineapple juice that is canned right at the plantation.
There's also Omni Foods, Gilford, N.H., an independent that operates two stores in the Boston area and one in New Hampshire. A fourth unit is scheduled to open in Watertown, Mass., early this year.
Omni has established a separate 150-foot natural-food aisle containing about 1,200 stockkeeping units of natural and organic products at its Newton, Mass., store.
This store boasts an entire two-sided aisle of bulk foods, with sections devoted to granola, pasta, instant soup mixes, grains, nuts, cereals, rice and natural candy.
Wooden shelf fixtures and an exposed ceiling throughout the store, painted forest green, of course, helps to drive home the all-natural image.
Nature's Heartland stocks 13 SKUs of mayonnaise, though not Hellmann's or Kraft. Instead, it stocks eggless, safflower and canola-based products. A 24-ounce jar of Nayonnaise brand was retailing for $3.39 during SN's visit.
The entire side of one aisle is devoted to salty snacks, and about 50% of that is tortilla chips. Potato chips, most of which are the baked varieties, are merchandised in eight feet.
But Nature's Heartland successfully melds traditional grocery products with their all-natural kin. One entire side of an aisle is devoted to juices. Mainstream brands -- including Libby's Juicy Juice, Welch's, Martinelli's apple juice, Sunsweet prune juice and Ocean Spray grapefruit juice -- stand side-by-side with natural-oriented brands, such as Apple & Eve, R.W. Knudsen and Nantucket Nectar.
In canned goods, all-natural lines from Del Monte, Libby's and Dole are stocked. In the frozens aisle, in addition to the big all-natural players of Amy's, Cascadian Farm and Farm Foods Pizsoy products, national brands such as Celentano, Birds Eye, Green Giant and Minute Maid juices also have their place.
"We have standards on foods that we are sticking to, including no refined sugars, no MSG, no artificial colors, and so forth and so on. We will carry the national brands if they meet our criteria," Kahn, chairman of Nature's Heartland, told SN.
Kahn decided to locate his first store in Bedford because "the demographics are right" and the site became available when Purity was acquired by Stop & Shop and had to divest some stores. He said the store has been meeting expectations and is supplied by several suppliers, including Stone Mill and C&W.
While Nature's Heartland adheres to a strict all-natural policy with its grocery, frozen food and perishables departments, it stocks traditional brands and products in its household cleaner aisle. Brands like Lestoil cleaner, Clorox bleach, Ajax and Comet cleansers, Lysol disinfectant and Liquid Plumr drain cleaner are interspersed with all-natural and organic brands, including Seventh Generation.
"We are not restricting ourselves on nonfoods," Kahn said. "We are going after the customers who want foods with those kinds of restrictions and we don't think that those customers demand restrictions on nonfoods."
Many traditional Star Market stores contain a Wild Harvest department set off from the rest of the store by lower shelving and large, forest green "Wild Harvest" signs. Aisle signs highlight beans, baking needs, pasta, tea, cereal, vitamins and juice.
Books, Seventh Generation and Earth Rite paper products and household cleaners, salsa, rice cakes and all-natural flours are some of the items sold there. The retailer devotes four feet to milk substitutes; eight feet to other beverages, including the Natural Brew and After The Fall brands of soft drinks; four feet to tomato sauce and related products; four feet to pasta; and 12 feet to cereals and cereal bars. Wild Harvest reusable canvas shopping bags are also sold in the department for $8.99 each.
The sections also have two 6-foot upright glass-door freezer cases, featuring such popular items as Putney Pasta, Amy's frozen foods, Celentano broccoli stuffed shells, Cascadian Farm vegetables and the Health Is Wealth line of frozen hors d'oeuvres, including Broccoli Tofu Munchis, Veggie Munchis and chicken nuggets.
"We find that more and more people are looking for organic products," said Suren Avedisian, director of operations for Omni Foods. "We did research and found our customers want a quality store where they can buy everything they need, both in organic and standard grocery products."
One of the biggest obstacles in merchandising natural foods is choosing whether to separate or integrate the mix. Following a positive test in the dairy case, Omni Foods is weighing placing its all-natural and organic grocery items in with traditional Center Store products. Some items, such as Earth's Best baby food, are already sold next to their traditional counterparts.
Avedisian noted the natural and organic section was added to the store as part of its March 1995 remodel. However, when organic milk and yogurt were integrated into the traditional milk and yogurt cases, sales actually increased for the products, as they became easier for shoppers to find and comparison shop.
"My guess is that our initial leaning is to fully integrate," Avedisian said, noting that some categories, like bulk foods, will always remain segregated. He added that the Watertown store, which opens next month, will have its natural foods integrated as a test.
Omni gets its traditional grocery products from the Sweet Life division of SuperValu, as well as the wholesale arm of Star Market Co., which allows it to stock the President's Choice brand. Most of the organic grocery and produce items come from the Northeast Cooperative in Brattleboro, Vt. The retailer also tries to stock as many locally produced natural foods as possible.
In recent months, other retailers in the market have been increasing the amount of space devoted to natural/organic foods. In the Quincy store of Roche Bros,. natural and organic products are merchandised over the frozen food coffin case, along two shelves that run the length of the aisle. Items sold here include raisins, prunes, cereal, rice and soy milk, cereal bars, rice cakes, crackers, soup cups, canned goods, pasta, pasta sauce, and Tiger's Milk and Power Bars.