Happy Trails Natural Foods has been a downtown fixture for four decades

GARDNER — The number of downtown businesses that have been around for more than four decades may not not a large one, but Happy Trails Natural Foods is certainly one of them. By Stephen Landry

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Happy Trails Natural Food proprieter Walter Johnson stands alongside daughter Erin Johnson at their Gardner store.

Proprietor Walter Johnson, who has owned Happy Trails since 1978, said that deciding to run the store seemed like a natural progression 40 years ago because at the time he was driving a truck for a natural food wholesaler to make ends meet.

“That’s generally how I got involved in this business, through all of the connections I was making with other health food stores I was delivering to throughout the Northeast — buying used equipment and getting ideas from other wholesalers — that’s how it started,” Johnson said, adding that he continued his truck driver career for about 15 years even after buying the existing store from a couple named Yonkers, who had opened it a few years earlier. “Her husband had died, and that’s when I came along. I bought it from her.”

Johnson recalled how small the original store on Pleasant Street was, with enough space to stock only a limited supply of bulk cheese, bulk herbs and a small line of vitamins.

“It was tiny,” he said, “and that was in 1978, when things were just starting in the health food industry.” But Johnson said his customer base began growing as the public became more educated about taking better care of themselves and their families. “There was just a lot more insight about what you were putting into your body and putting on your body. That’s how it really began and things started snowballing from there.”

Johnson said he’s seen all kinds of trends come and go in the natural health industry, including a craze for diet supplement products, which he admitted he was never a fan of.

“I was never a big believer in those,” he said. “As far as (losing weight) goes, I always thought it came down to diet and exercise.” He said his most popular products these days include aromatherapy products and CBD oils. “We have a very loyal base for those, and vitamins and medicinal herbs have always been big.”

Johnson’s customers has remained loyal over the decades, even has the shop has jumped from location to location downtown. The store has occupied three buildings on Parker Street — including a short stint in the old Gardner Cinema — before settling into its current address at 43 Parker St., where it has remained for the past 12 years.

“I’ve always had a loyal customer base,” Johnson said. “You know, parents used to come in with babies, and now I’m taking care of those babies with their babies.”

Even though he has no plans to step down any time soon, Johnson said he has been training his daughter, Erin, on how to run the day-to-day operations of the store. Erin, who lives in Westminster, said she is pleased to have a chance at keeping a small store in business in the downtown area.

“Especially today when everybody can just buy most things online, we could easily be out of business, but people just love this store and they really want to support us, which means everything,” she said. “I fell like we’re just going to get busier and busier.”

Erin said she plans on making a few changes to the business, including bringing back a feature her father tried during the store’s early years — a small cafe area, which was probably an idea a little bit too ahead of its time in the early 1980s. (“Gardner wasn’t ready for a natural food café back then,” Johnson admitted. “We used to have live entertainment, it was like a coffeehouse atmosphere, but it didn’t catch on. I was my own best customer.”) Erin said she had just finished updating the store’s retail counter and was planning on expanding the business’s inventory. She said she planned on offering more natural cosmetics, which have become increasingly popular over the years.

“People today are worried about not just what you’re eating but what you’re putting on your skin,” she explained.

Johnson said he attributes his longevity in the health business to providing the best quality products he can to his customers.

“We do our work, we do our diligence to make sure the quality is there, and people feel the difference,” he said.

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