The Heart Of The Natural Grocers Experience

Margaret Isely, co-founder of Natural Grocers, and her son, Kemper Isely in 1962, in front of the first store front on West Colfax Avenue in Lakewood, CO.

Originally printed in the December 2022 issue of Produce Business.

It might surprise some to know that Natural Grocers, Lakewood, CO, with a current nationwide store count of 164 locations, started 67 years ago with one woman’s quest for health empowerment.

In 1955, shortly after the birth of Margaret and Philip Isely’s second child, Margaret became ill. When conventional approaches did not provide adequate relief, she turned to the nutrition education mavericks of the time. With the implementation of eating nutrient-dense, natural foods and taking dietary supplements, she saw remarkable benefits. This became the foundation for a dream: that everyone should have access to nutrition education and live in a healthy, regenerating environment.

Borrowing $200 to help feed the family and put gas in the car, Margaret and Philip went door-to-door in Golden, CO, lending books on nutrition and distributing samples of whole grain bread. They would return a week or so later, discuss nutrition and take orders for supplements, bread, and other natural, nourishing whole foods. This passion spread throughout the community and the original store opened.

Margaret’s zeal continues, as Natural Grocers seeks to empower healthier communities through knowledge, access and top customer-service all over the United States. Additionally, women continue to have a strong leadership presence within Natural Grocers. The company grew organically from their visionary beliefs and has been nurtured by Margaret and Philip’s children and grandchildren — new generations with the dedication to the same ideals and values.

“We care deeply about the health and wellbeing of our neighbors, our family, friends, community and planet. And we believe that everyone should be able to afford health and live in a thriving, regenerating environment,” says Katie Macarelli, manager of public relations.

Regarding produce, much has changed over the years. “Back when we first started with produce, we only sold what was farm fresh and locally grown. This meant our produce was very seasonal. For example, we used to buy all the carrots that one of our customers would grow and once those carrots ran out, we simply didn’t have carrots anymore,” says Macarelli.

In 1989, the company remodeled one of its original stores in Lakewood, CO (Mission Trace) and put in its first produce rack. Margaret and Phillip’s daughter, Heather, managed the produce department. At that time, the company decided to sell only organically grown or transitional organic produce that was certified by independent certifying agencies. (The U.S. Department of Agriculture didn’t start certifying organic produce until 2002.) As such, Natural Grocers has been selling only certified organic produce since 2002, but adhered to this principle of quality long before.

Today, the company is run by second and third generation family members. When you include spouses, nieces, nephews and cousins, it’s quite a family operation, notes Macarelli. The company is committed to its founding principles, including nutrition education, quality, affordable pricing, community, and to its employees.

Going forward, the company plans to continue growing at a sustainable pace for the foreseeable future, with approximately six new stores per year and two to three moves of older stores per year.

Produce remains at the heart of the Natural Grocers experience. “Produce is one of the key items we sell in our stores, so we put it at the front near the entrance to our stores. Since we only sell certified organically grown produce, our departments are smaller than conventional grocery stores, but easier to shop for the committed organic shopper and those who may be interested in converting to organic but aren’t sure where to start or if it will be affordable,” says Macarelli.