How does a local businessowner remain relevant through decades of cultural, environmental and political change? By always listening to his customers, of course.
“We see ourselves as a small market that caters to the locals,” says Jon McElroy, owner of Grass Roots Natural Foods Market in South Lake Tahoe.
Grass Roots first opened in 1973 in a small blue building on Dunlop Street by the intersection of State Route 89 and U.S. Route 50. At the time, it was the only market in the region that offered 100 percent organic produce, a wide selection of supplements, a bulk food aisle and a variety of products that catered to health.
In 1978, McElroy was a recent high-school graduate looking for something to do. Forty years later, he’s still in the aisles doing what he loves.
“When I started working here, I was interested in taking care of my health,” he says. “I was a customer first. They had an opening. It was a fun place to work. As time went by, I learned more and more.”
It was 1985 when the opportunity to become the owner presented itself.
“I was in my mid-20s with no business training, but it was a field I was interested in,” he says. “They wanted to sell and I’m still learning to this day.”
In 2012, McElroy moved into his expanded current space up the street, which used to be a Blockbuster. As technology has changed making video cassettes and DVDs obsolete, a steadily increasing public interest in holistic health has been slowly passing up processed foods.
“Back when I got into it, health food was a fringe thing,” says McElroy. “There was an alternative crowd, but most people just ate a normal American diet. A small percentage of people even knew what organic was. Now it’s almost to the tipping point where it’s becoming mainstream. That’s what we’ve been waiting for all along — for organic to become the new normal.”
This unbroken rise in health-food sales over time helps McElroy to stay calm about the Whole Foods Market 365 contracted to break ground in South Lake Tahoe later this year.
“My customers are way more upset about the Whole Foods than I am,” he says. “The good news is we are in an expanding market. We have to maintain our slice of the pie, but overall the pie is always getting bigger.”
McElroy believes Grass Roots will be able to weather the competition by focusing on customer service and special orders.
“I’ve talked to other small markets that had Whole Foods move into town,” he says. “It affects their sales for a year or two. Then they bounce back. I’m sure I’ll see our customers over there. People will shop both places.”
It is the ability to work personally with the community that sets Grass Roots apart, allowing it to maintain a loyal, local customer base that shops there throughout the year.
“Eighty-five percent of our customers are local, which is unusual for a town like South Lake,” says McElroy. “There are a lot of different versions of what natural is and theories on which health foods to eat. Different things work for different people. We cater to the full spectrum. We get to know our customers and interact with them. They trust us and they know we’re going to carry what they want. In the long run, we are here doing something that helps people and I can feel good about that.” | grassrootstahoe.com