Thursday, July 3, 2008

It's Only Natural Market

After chatting about business with Don Sataline, it’s pretty clear that he loves what he does for a living. Don and his wife Ann Marie are co-owners of It’s Only Natural Market, which is currently at 386 Main Street, and will be moving up to 575 Main Street when the new building (corner of Liberty Street) is ready next Fall.

Back in the 1970’s, the original natural foods store began as the Good Harvest food cooperative, catering to those who were looking for a vegetarian or macrobiotic lifestyle. (Old Middletown lore has it that folk icon Richie Havens came to Middletown and played a benefit concert to raise the funds to get the co-op going.) I remember shopping there as a Wesleyan student in the early 1980’s, and especially trying to figure out how to operate the self-serve peanut-butter grinder (or more accurately, how to stop the grinder once you had it going!) But eventually, the co-op folded, and Ann Marie and Don stepped in to buy the store in 1987, while others purchased the restaurant, thereby creating two businesses in town – It’s Only Natural Market and It’s Only Natural Restaurant – which share a name and many of the same customers, but have entirely independent operations.

In its current location, the market has three major departments – a vitamin and health supplement section, a gift and card shop (including a handy miniature post office), and a full-service grocery store.

On the grocery side, in terms of categories, the ION Market is similar to a mainstream supermarket, and you can find a variety of paper goods, bottled sauces, dairy products, produce. But everything here is vegetarian (except for a few frozen fish items), and chosen with an eye to environmental and fair trade concerns. The tortillas in the cooler are made from whole-grain sprouted corn, and are bright yellow and tasty. The pre-made sandwiches for the downtown lunch crowd include Tofu Salad and sprouts on multi-grain bread (made with our local, excellent tofu from The Bridge on Washington Street.) And there is a whole wall of eco-friendly shampoos, soaps and lotions.

But what’s really different from the mainstream grocery store is that ION Market is also like a boutique food shop, where part of the appeal is that you know that these products were carefully chosen by someone with a passion for natural foods. That level of trust between customer and owner is the bedrock of their business and I think it accounts for their ability to compete in a market that is quite different from when they began.

Don says that when the store started, they were “just a bunch of hippies” and things were different because they knew all their suppliers. These days, natural foods have gone “Wall Street”, and it takes a lot more effort to ensure that the store only offers the kind of foods that his customers expect. The store carries only “certified organic” fruits and vegetables. That makes it challenging to find local suppliers who have achieved the complex organic certification and who can keep up with their demand -- he’s hoping that could change someday, if only there were more local and substantial farms. In the meantime, he sells local organic produce whenever he can, and he’s found another way to support local entrepreneurs.

Over in the gift and card section, Don shows me a rack of beautiful hand-made cards (some of the nicest in the store) that come from two local sources, JK Designs of Cromwell, and a line of cards from Gilead House, a local non-profit. I love to see the work of local artists for sale on our Main Street! Alongside the cards, the market has a great mix of funky trinkets and candles and those trendy tote bags that we’re all using now to cut down on all the disposable plastic. My kids love to come in and shop the button collection, which offers twists on the classics (Make Art, Not War), and the geriatric yet useful (I Know I Came Into This Room For A Reason).

Don says he gets all kinds of people in his shop – and often chats with those who are not regular customers but who come in for advice because they plan to entertain friends and family with special diets or food allergies. I know this one first hand – it’s only been a few weeks since I was diagnosed with Celiac Disease (gluten intolerance), which means I won’t be able to eat anything made with wheat, rye, or barley, including processed foods like soy sauce. I was so delighted to discover that It’s Only Natural Market has a whole section of the store devoted to gluten-free foods, including breads, waffles, bagels, pasta – and I can testify that they taste just fine.

Although it’s been a long time since its birth from the old hippie food co-op in the North End, It’s Only Natural Market is still a pretty groovy place. I hope you’ll check it out – remember, all the cool people shop local.

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