New Earth Market’s arrival part of Chico’s broader health food movement
When explaining his motivation behind opening a natural foods store in Yuba City, Kevin Cotter tells a specific story.
“When my daughter was younger, she had an asthmatic cough that lasted 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he said. “First she was prescribed Singulair, then we moved on to a steroid, but I thought, ‘We can’t give this 4-year-old a steroid the rest of her life.’ So we found a homeopathic doctor, and it was the weirdest thing. He just looked at her and said, ‘I think I know what’s wrong; take dairy out of her diet.’
“We did that, and her asthma went away,” he recalled. “She’s been off meds for 13 years.”
That experience was the catalyst for major changes in Cotter’s own life—namely, a new diet and a complete career shift. Formerly in the trucking business, Cotter says he used to be a “fast food junkie—overweight and unhealthy.” After seeing the effects of eliminating dairy from his daughter’s diet, though, he began thinking differently about the food he put into his body. He quit his job and opened New Earth Market, a full-service natural foods grocery store in Yuba City, under the mentorship of John Swann, owner of Greenlife Grocery in Asheville, N.C.
“He educated us on what should and shouldn’t be in the store, and we’ve modeled our business off theirs,” Cotter said.
This spring, he and his wife, Kelli, are opening a second location in Chico, on East Avenue next to Walgreens. But Chico’s already home to two other health-conscious and locally owned grocers—S&S Organic Produce and Natural Foods and Chico Natural Foods Co-op—which raises the question: Is the market for health food in Chico strong enough to support all three businesses?
The short answer is yes. “Competition is a good thing,” said John Campbell, manager of CNF. And Rich Stewart, co-founder of S&S, adds, “The population of Chico can handle another business like this.”
The consensus is that the growing popularity of health products and stores reflects a simple, positive change in the community: a desire to eat and live better. “We’re seeing a shift in awareness relating to health,” Cotter said. “I think people are starting to connect the dots between what they put into their bodies and how it affects them.”
Dylan Tellesen, CNF’s marketing manager, agrees. “When we opened in the ’70s, this kind of lifestyle was considered alternative,” he said of eating fresh and organic food. “Then it became aspirational, and now it’s more mainstream. Everyone wants access to it.”
Today, Chicoans have more health food choices than ever before. Nearly all major conventional grocery stores have a health, wellness or organics section. But the word “healthy” has become quite a broad term, and so have others. Tellesen warns that marketing can be misleading to customers.
He offered an example: “Take the term ‘local.’ There’s a health benefit to shopping local, and it’s good for the environment and economy, too. But the word doesn’t have a strict definition. What does it mean? What relationship do you have with local producers?”
With such vague terminology thrown around, having some parameters is important. For New Earth Market, that means having a list of more than 100 banned ingredients that simply aren’t allowed on shelves, including various artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame and maltitol, and food preservatives like sorbic acid.
CNF uses purchasing guidelines to prevent certain ingredients like MSG. And when receiving products containing any one of the eight crops most likely to be genetically modified, the store requires the farmer or distributor to prove it’s non-GMO.
For Cotter, research on the industry is continual. “I’m always educating myself,” he said. “Before going into the business, I knew about some of the health [dangers], like preservatives, but there are so many hidden terms.”
While S&S, CNF and New Earth Market are arguably competitors, each store has its own niche. Cotter is excited to share his store’s extensive food-service program. “We’ll have 40 to 50 salads prepped, and a hot food bar and sandwiches and sushi.” New Earth Market also has just been registered for a 5-acre organic farm next to its Yuba City location, which Cotter hopes will supply both stores with fruits and vegetables starting next spring.
For CNF, the “local” element has always been a fundamental part of the business’ ethos. “Most of our local ingredients and foods come from within 50 miles of the source,” Tellesen said. “We’ve done an incredible amount of work to make it a real business practice.” He also takes pride in the store’s co-op model as an important part of its business. “We’re owned by the community.”
Unlike the other two, S&S operates a full-service butcher shop, offering an extensive selection of meats from California, all without hormones or antibiotics. All in all, each store has its place. “We welcome more people like us,” Stewart said.
“It’s more about complementing than competing,” echoed Cotter, adding that he’s just happy to see the growing interest in health food. “It’s hard to tell someone how good it feels. … But, man, when you eat well and you have that energy and you’re alive, oh, it’s off the charts!”