After bankruptcy and closures, the healthy food pioneer is back to stay
The Earth Fare story is as close to a fairy tale as it gets. For decades, the North Carolina-based network of health food stores set standards in the sale of healthy food, coalescing a loyal group of customers and employers around the idea that clean, additive-free meat, seafood, produce, and packaged goods should be readily available to everyone.
After 45 years of making that philosophy a reality, the innovative company crashed, suddenly shuttering their 50-plus locations in 14 Southeastern states and declaring bankruptcy.
And then they came back. Not in five years, but in five months. Since then, they’ve taken their place in the top 10 of Newsweek and Statista’s rankings of America’s Best Retailers of 2022 in the supermarket category, amongst behemoths such as Wegmans, Kroger, Publix, and Whole Foods.
Their inventory of natural and organic products includes fresh produce, meat, dairy, bakery, a variety of prepared meals and snacks, as well as body care, vitamins, and supplements.
“Earth Fare is truly unique in our goal and vision of making healthy food available to our customers,” said COO Henry Kugler. “It's not greenwashing. It's not a marketing gimmick. It’s dedication to a lifestyle of providing high quality natural organic products that are free of artificial anything.”
Dinner for the Earth, Asheville's first natural food store, opened its doors in 1975. When they changed their name to Earth Fare in the early ’90s, they actualized their food philosophy, and over the next decade ushered in a number of defining firsts: In 1993 they banned the sale of products containing hydrogenated oils; in 2001 they prohibited artificial sweeteners and sucralose; and in 2004 they became one of the first grocery retailers in the country to ban high fructose corn syrup. In 2008, Earth Fare created an ingredient “boot list,” banning over 150 different synthetic and artificial ingredients from their shelves.
It wasn't until 1997 that the second Earth Fare opened, in Charleston, S.C., and the chain grew over the next decade with over a dozen locations. From 2012 to 2020 they opened over 40 more stores for a total of 55 locations, but the pattern of explosive growth in the hotly competitive health food industry proved unsustainable. On Feb. 3, 2020, Earth Fare announced that it was going out of business and liquidating all of its stores.
Blink and They’re Back Again
Earth Fare’s sudden departure from the Southeast’s health food scene caused consternation amongst their loyal customer base and sparked heightened interest from investors who jumped at the chance to revive the groundbreaking enterprise. Five months later Earth Fare got a second chance and reopened a single store. “We're very fortunate that we were able to bring back a lot of really, truly passionate team members to help us along that journey,” Kugler said.
In the last seven months of 2020, Earth Fare reopened 16 stores. They relaunched another six in 2021. “This was all during mask mandates, and lockdowns, and there were unprecedented supply chain constrictions, not just of the product, but also materials such as shelving and equipment,” he explained. “I’m truly amazed at what our team was able to pull off in that really short period of time.”
One of Earth Fare’s most remarkable distinctions is their food philosophy, which guides their sourcing and product selection. It contains a number of standards that every single product must meet in order to be sold in their stores. The food they sell must be free of added hormones, antibiotics, artificial and trans fats, artificial preservatives, colors, flavors and sweeteners, bleached or bromated flour, and the aforementioned HFCS. In keeping with their forthright approach, the boot list is published on their website.
“There's a lot of educational pieces to the food philosophy,” said Kugler. To create a welcome and inclusive shopping environment, the retailer focuses on customer service, training, and employee education. Their internal Boot Camp coaches team members on their impressively lengthy boot list, and educational events in the stores educate both their teams and customers. Published and updated on their website, the boot list is about as far from lip service to trends as it gets.
Kugler explained that when choosing suppliers they consider several different things, including their distribution objectives, availability to serve the Earth Fare network, as well as whether they are regional or local, and whether a partnership will be mutually beneficial. “We always try to base everything on a very shared commitment that it's going to work. We also make sure that they fit philosophically with where we're coming from in terms of sustainability and responsible sourcing.”
When Kugler returned in December 2021, modernizing became an urgent undertaking. Many of the technologies in use prior to the closure were dated, as were most processes, procedures, and systems. “We had to rebuild all that and source new tools. New point of sale, new checkout, new data and analytics,” he said. They moved at top speed, building everything along the way, including developing standard operating procedures, communicating clear expectations, and even rolling out planograms.
He defines Earth Fare’s commitment to operational excellence as continually striving to optimize processes and systems to provide the best possible experience for customers and team members. “This is everything from ensuring our stores are clean and well stocked to providing knowledgeable customer service, to using technology and data to make more informed decisions about what we order and how we operate and schedule.”
In addition to staying up to date on industry trends, best practices, investing in team members and infrastructure, they are rolling out predictive ordering tools to stay on top of the stock assortment. Most recently they launched a customer-focused webinar series.
“All of these different things will ultimately deliver the best possible shopping experience for our customers and also a strong foundation for the long-term success of our business.
“We're guided in that product selection and by our food philosophy. We have tangible guardrails that we can reference that really no one else holds themselves accountable to,” Kugler stressed. “We believe in fresh, local, and organic, sustainably sourced, humanely raised food. We believe in real ingredients and we're not afraid to boot something out of our stores if it doesn't fit those standards. So, you could say that what makes us truly different is what you won't find in our stores.”
Working at Earth Fare is not just a job; it’s about making a difference. That’s because we believe the better you eat, the longer you live. And at the heart of that belief are team members who are dedicated to helping people live happier, healthier, and longer lives. It’s what we’ve always believed, how we’ve always done business. And 45 years later, Earth Fare continues to distinguish itself as the most authentic healthy food supermarket in the U.S.
66 Westgate Pkwy
Asheville, NC 28806
Phone Number: 828.255.2999
Homepage Link: https://www.earthfare.com/