A Natural Success
How Nature’s Emporium went from a 5,000 square foot store to becoming one of North America’s largest natural and organic retailers
By Carlos Weigle
Photography by Julie Broadbent
There is something awe inspiring about turning a 5,000 square foot store into a retail space 10 times that size and surviving the experience. Then again, if the owners are the D’Addario family, failure is not an option.
The first visionary was Angelo D’Addario, who tapped into the bulk foods trend in the early ’80s and opened a store in Pickering (PGA Foods), soon to be followed by another two in North Toronto.
The family-owned company continued to grow by following a very simple rule: giving customers what they wanted. At that time, that meant increasing the offering of natural products. However, very few can escape a deep economic recession unscathed and the one that plagued the early ’90s hit the D’Addarios hard, forcing them to close their Toronto locations.
Then fate showed its ugly side when a fire destroyed their flagship store in Pickering. That series of very unfortunate events could have had a devastating effect, forcing them out of the business and making them look elsewhere for business ventures. As it turns out, it had the opposite effect. “While we were waiting for the insurance papers to clear, a space became available in Newmarket. That’s when we started talking about rebuilding,” recalls Teresa who, along with her father-in-law, Angelo, and her brother-in-law, Joe, founded Nature’s Emporium in 1993.
Opening a new store under a new name gave them the chance to have a slightly different profile, one that accompanied the times. The experience they accumulated, on the other hand, allowed them to tap into some tried-and-true strategies while avoiding some of their mistakes.
Even though the 5,000 square foot store initially featured a large bulk food section, refrigerated products and two aisles dedicated to natural food products, this time around it also included “a nice aisle of supplements.”
Product selection and variety is key in making any business succeed, they say. “We had really good relationships with suppliers, so we could bring in small units versus large cases, to try out new products when customers requested them,” explains Teresa.
Personalized, knowledgeable customer service is what makes customers come back, according to the D’Addarios. That was very clear to them right from the start. As Teresa puts it: “With all the competition around, we just started working harder on bringing in what customers wanted and focusing on customer service. We’ve always been very hands-on, and I think people like that.”
The other key aspect to any successful business is, of course, the ability to adapt. That factor has also been a constant on Nature’s Emporium’s shelves. Within the first few years in operation, the bulk segment of their business shrunk to 40 per cent of their revenues, supplements grew to 25 per cent, and the balance was refrigerated products and HABA (health and beauty aids). Nowadays, supplements still account for 25 per cent of the revenues, but grocery has grown to 25 per cent, fresh produce to 15 per cent, HABA is 7 per cent and bulk foods only amount to 5 per cent. These figures alone showcase their ability to change with the times, as the market requires. “Currently the fresh produce is the fastest-growing department,” says Joe.
The produce department’s success is largely attributed to Joe Tavernese, who joined the team as a partner in 2009. Says D’Addario: “He gets up bright and early every morning to personally inspect and buy all the produce we sell. He has been a major factor in our amazing growth. His brother, Cosimo, has also joined us. He has an accounting degree and runs our office.”
The changing times also brought new ways to communicate with their customers. In that respect, Nature’s Emporium embraced the online experience to great results. Not only do they have a very comprehensive website, they also have a strong social media presence on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs and forums. Everything is done in-house by a team of three, led by media director, Andrew Muto.
The reasoning behind the social media expansion is quite clear to Joe: “We already have the baby boomers in our store, we need to reach a younger audience.” The efforts are certainly paying off. Joe says it’s common to have people come in talking about something they saw or read on one of their social media platforms. Some of their videos have had between 5,000 and 10,000 views on YouTube, which is remarkable.
Young blood is also making an appearance behind the counters and in the offices. Joe’s oldest son is almost a full-time employee, while two of Guy and Teresa’s kids have also embraced the family business. “My dad would be proud,” expresses Joe. “His legacy lives on.”
Without a doubt, the first few years are key in any business, and they can break even accomplished and well-respected business people. Teresa notes that “it took about three years for us to see if the store was going somewhere or not. Then, the pace started picking up and everything shifted.” Indeed, according to Joe, “every year has been a record one since we opened in 1993. I’d say we average about a 20 per cent growth, year over year.”
The continuous change in product selection, with the increase in natural grocery products and supplements, made an expansion imperative. Luckily, they first managed to expand the store to 15,000 square feet (in 2002) and then to 20,000 square feet (in 2006). As Teresa explains it, “there was so much demand for variety from our customers that we couldn’t address because we didn’t have the space. The expansions provided a great opportunity for us to create a full-service natural market.”
The first expansion allowed them to focus more on groceries (which became 40 per cent of the store’s revenues), the addition of a natural café/juice bar, and the expansion of the HABA section from 15 to 32 feet of wall space. The second expansion, on the other hand, meant even more dedicated space for supplements, as well as the addition of homeopathic remedies, including professional lines.
Even so, those expansions involved, as much as possible, calculated risks. Now, more than doubling your store area … Well, that’s a different beast altogether, one that can easily get out of control and run any successful business to the ground. Still, Joe sees the experience in a different light: “It was the easiest expansion we’ve ever done. It just made sense and came to be naturally. We’re also better prepared now, since we have a team of people to help us out and not everything depends on us.”
Opportunity knocked on the D’Addarios door – literally. It so happened that Weston Produce, a large independent grocery store that was Nature’s Emporium’s neighbour decided to close their location in 2009. Despite having a large-enough space already, the company still found itself pressed for room. There are always new products coming into the market, be it organic produce, prepared foods or supplements.
However, the idea wasn’t an easy sell: the jump from having a 20,000 square foot store to one that measured 50,000 square feet would certainly make anyone pause. In spite of that, expanding had become increasingly alluring and, in the end, temptation was too great and they gave in.
The decision wasn’t abrupt, and expanding into the new space wasn’t either. In fact, the planning process took over a year. There was too much to consider, from product variety to changing almost every aspect of their business. Construction then took a few more months, until everything was finally ready.
With the expanded space came also better lighting and design overall, as well as the opportunity to offer products such as raw food, and expand already existing products such as artisan cheeses. It also allowed the owners to turn a 3,000 square foot mezzanine into a community room. As Joe explains it, “it holds up to 200 people, and its primary focus is teaching and education. We’ll even have a kitchen where we can teach people how to cook holistically.” They’re also building a naturopathic clinic, so that Nature’s Emporium becomes “a truly holistic experience.”
The result is twofold. First, it turned Nature’s Emporium into one of North America’s largest natural and organic stores and, second, it proved once again that, despite economic downturns such as the one experienced in the last few years, the public’s appetite for living a healthier, more balanced life is almost limitless. If anyone ever thought the natural products industry was merely a fad, success stories such as this one clearly show it’s not. Moreover, it signals a bright future for those who invest in the business. At least for those who do it as well as the D’Addario family.