Pictured left to right: Shannon Hoffmann, Barb Hoffmann, John Hoffmann, and Matt Murray.
Not long ago, access to natural dietary supplements, gluten-free foods and organic produce in the Midwestern United States was extremely limited. It was here, in an area mainly barren of these options for health and wellness, where Barbara Hoffmann and her husband, John, decided to build an oasis for natural products shoppers.
Their store, GreenAcres Market, based in Wichita, KS, has flourished over its 20 years in business despite the incredible challenges of limited access to brokers, communities that had never before shopped for natural/organic products and competition that eventually came to town. GreenAcres Market’s success as a natural retailing pioneer in the Midwest combined with its dedication to innovative stores and stellar customer service make it the perfect choice for the 2014 WholeFoods Retailer of the Year.
Here is the story of how the Hoffmanns nurtured their little-known one-store business into a successful eight-store chain, and made GreenAcres Market a force to be reckoned with in the retailing world.
Finding Passion out of Pain
The Hoffmanns have long had entrepreneurial blood running through them. Barb, joined by her family, started a greenhouse business in 1975 (which the family still owns today, as Tropical Designs). Heavy lifting led to intense back pain and numerous failed surgeries followed to fix the problem.
“After the surgeries didn’t help, I got into the natural industry looking for some help,” Barb remembers.
|GreenAcres is committed to offering fresh produce, including some from local growers.|
Her search for natural options, and all the hours of research that went along with it, made her a believer in the natural products industry. Before long, she opened her first store in Kechi, KS, to sell natural products. The Hoffmanns went on to buy land in Wichita in a development called Bradley Fair, and moved there with the greenhouse operations on one side and the 4,000-ft2 GreenAcres store on the other.
“We kept adding to the 4,000-ft2 store. It’s now 12,500 ft2,” says Barb.
GreenAcres’s most rapid period of physical growth has taken place since 2008. Six years ago, GreenAcres opened a second location in Kansas City, MO, and then another in Jenks, OK, in 2012. In 2013, GreenAcres acquired Whole Foods Association, a competitor with five locations (three in Wichita, one in Oklahoma City and one in Lawton, OK), bringing the current total of GreenAcres stores to eight.
“We started as a small store and grew from there. We really followed what the communities asked us to do and then we also let our passion push us through,” says Shannon Hoffmann, Barb and John’s daughter and president and CFO of GreenAcres.
A glance at this history without the blanks filled in may make it seem like GreenAcres breezed through the past 20 years. But in fact, this successful growth was well planned and required mountains of hard work.
For starters, bringing a new store into one’s fold—let alone five at the same time—is an incredible challenge. According to Matt Murray, co-owner and store manager, Barb’s leadership saw them through all the changes. “One thing that made us successful from the beginning was Barb’s commitment to putting a structure in place for running the stores,” he states.
So as they opened a first store and then a second store and beyond, the team had a strong foundation to build upon. “We believe you can’t expect people to do good if they don’t know the rules and regulations and have the support structure in place to give them the confidence to do a good job,” says Matt.
|GreenAcres is known for its made-from-scratch deli offerings.|
Regarding the newest five locations for GreenAcres, Matt says before any physical changes were made, the management team carefully examined how they wanted to do business in them. “These places had their own way of doing things and so you had to convert them over a little to how we wanted it to be done,” he states.
Complicating matters further was that each of the five new stores was run differently, and the various locations didn’t have the same product selection. “Each store had a different system, so it was hard to get our arms around them,” says Barb.
Her solution? For two months, every day started with a 20-minute teleconference including all the managers and buyers from the stores. “We’d send out an agenda for what we were going to talk about and get their feedback,” Barb explains. This planning served multiple purposes, from establishing policies to creating mutual trust. “People who were leery of having new people own them began to really buy in and realize they were part of an eight-store chain,” she states.
Similarly, another big step in melding together the two cultures, says Shannon, was getting to know their new employees and how they ran their old stores. With an open mind, GreenAcres’ management went into their new locations with the goal of understanding their methods, what drove them and why customers enjoyed shopping at those stores.
“We were going to learn from them as much as they were going to learn from us,” says Shannon, making the point that the new collaboration wasn’t about conquering with a winner-takes-all approach. “We really believe in empowering the teams. They are the ones building relationships directly with the customers.”
Shannon says having Barb’s structure in place from day one, and establishing a give-and-take relationship with the new stores, was essential. “We’ve learned a lot from them, and brought what works well back into our organization,” Shannon states. “We’ve been able to streamline and un-complicate a few things. And, we’re bringing systems and structures to what they’re doing.”
An example of a meaningful change was the incorporation of some fundamental aspects of the GreenAcres shopping experience, like presenting the grocery offerings in a prominent and aesthetically pleasing fashion. The newest five stores were heavy on supplements. Says Shannon, “It’s been kind of fun to see the feedback from customers. Some have said, wow, you’ve brought in grocery. Really, the grocery was there before. It’s all about how it is merchandised.”
GreenAcres’s Standout Characteristics
GreenAcres Market and Deli’s core mission is to provide:
• Quality education,
• Dedicated customer service,
• Fresh, natural and organic products, and a
• Unique shopping experience.
“The last line of our mission is what we always go back to. We’re here to make a difference in people’s lives, to help them take control of their health, and you can only do it one person at a time,” says Barb.
How the GreenAcres team puts its best foot forward in each of these areas explains why the eight-store chain has become a leader in its market, and why the stores are here to stay.
Education. Customer education is a strong focus at GreenAcres Market, perhaps because of Barb’s journey to health and her search for information about natural alternatives. “We saw how important that educational component was in everything she developed as we got started. It became timeless. That educational component is still here today,” says Shannon.
|From potpies to gluten-free pastries, the GreenAcres deli does it all.|
For six years, GreenAcres had a nationally syndicated radio show that was aired on 50 radio stations nationwide. “We had an incredible amount of speakers participate in our radio show,” says Barb, like educator and omegas expert Stuart Tomc, health authority Michael T. Murray, N.D., the Diva of Digestion, Brenda Watson, and many, many others. The fun, fast-paced Health Talk Radio show was also parlayed into in-person lectures at the store. Several hundred shoppers would often attend these educational events. “One time for Jordan Rubin, founder of Garden of Life, we had 1,700 people show up,” says Barb, adding she had to rent out a hotel conference room to fit the crowd.
Within the past four years or so, the store has had to modify its educational outreach a bit, since people these days are more accustomed to having information at the ready. “There’s so much out there on the Internet that people aren’t quite as interested in coming to hear big speakers,” says Barb.
One program that remains popular is “Breakfast with Matt.” Matt says, “We bring an educational speaker in once per month for a Saturday morning breakfast. I call in a holistically minded healthcare practitioner and we do a Q&A session with that person. We come up with a theme and then we interview them and ask them questions. That’s hugely popular.”
Customer service. The customer is king at GreenAcres, says John Hoffmann, GreenAcres’s CIO. “We know our customers, we love our customers and we learn their names, even as we grew and have several hundred through the door every day. We still try to know who that person is who comes into our store and what their needs and desires are.”
Two key characteristics Matt says he looks for in employees are friendliness and efficiency. “We’ve got to be warm and inviting and very helpful to our customers. We’ve got to be able to greet customers in a manner that helps them understand things and make product choices,” he states. He also works with staff on helping shoppers efficiently, since customers are often in a rush.
In addition, Matt says the team must be committed to the industry and the store. In return, he states, “We believe in investing in our staff, training them and working with them to the Nth degree so that they become our true advocate with our customers—every single person that comes through the door.”
John follows up by saying that part of this training includes having key staff pay a lot of attention to where the market is going so that the store can offer new items to shoppers and be knowledgeable about them. “They expect us to have knowledge, and we enjoy being their knowledgeable source,” he states.
Despite having a small budget in the beginning, Matt says the store always sent representatives to tradeshows to build their understanding of natural health and inspire ideas that could propel GreenAcres forward. “That was a huge competitive advantage over small, local stores,” he states. “In the long run, that investment really paid off for us.”
Fresh products and unique shopping experience. GreenAcres is a hub for all things natural, from supplements to specialty foods to local products to beauty aids. But one standout area for the chain is its prepared foods.
|The needs of special diets shoppers are met storewide.|
GreenAcres created a centralized deli in the Wichita area that supports all its stores. Signature items include gourmet sandwiches, potpies, bierocks, burritos and more. Says Barb, “We bake everything in our deli from scratch.” Then, the goods are distributed fresh to all locations.
A key focus is dealing with special dietary needs. “We do a huge amount of gluten free because that is so, so popular. We have one baker who doesn’t do anything but gluten free, and she packages it for all eight stores,” says Barb.
Shannon says this aspect of their business highlights the strength of the relationships that GreenAcres Market built with its vendors: “My mom built a really great relationship with Pamela Giusto-Sorrells, president and founder of Pamela’s Products. We’ve brought her out to speak and we’ve learned a lot about how she came up with her gluten-free baking mix and the importance of offering gluten-free baked goods. So, that’s what we use in a lot of our baked goods...We believe in partnering with our vendors.”
John agrees, adding the store actually considers its vendors to be customers in a sense. “We’re not just receiving from them, but we’re also giving to them as much as they’re giving to us,” he states.
In addition, some locations have regular farmers’ markets. “We have a lot of local partners, and we work with them closely,” says Barb, adding that they are even featured on store signage. The farmers’ market she hosts in her Wichita parking lot every Tuesday creates a wonderful sense of community with foods sampling, live music and buffalo and lamb burgers on the grill, all while highlighting the local farmer.
In Kansas City, Shannon says the farmers’ market shows their “commitment to give back to the community, to give people the chance to interact with farmers directly and form relationships with them.”
She is undaunted by any potential competition from the farmers. “Customers still shop with us inside. They still shop our produce. They still come see us on days that the farmers market isn’t going on. We see it as a win–win all around,” Shannon says.
GreenAcres Market Quick Facts
Founders: Barb Hoffmann, CEO, and her husband John
Year founded: 1994
Number of locations: 8
Store sizes: 4,500–23,000 ft2, averaging about 12,000 ft2/store
Locations: Wichita, KS (four stores); Kansas City, MO; Jenks, OK; Oklahoma City, OK; Lawton, OK.
Mission: Offering quality education; dedicated customer service; fresh, natural and organic products; unique shopping experience to improve the health of the community one person at a time.
Within the past two years, GreenAcres has had several big players enter their local area, like Vitamin Shoppe, Natural Grocers, Fresh Market and Whole Foods Market (to open soon). Yet GreenAcres—which paved the way for natural products in these areas—is far from shaking in its boots. Instead, it made waves by standing tall and evolving.
“It was a great test for us because we hadn’t had to deal with a huge amount of competition,” says Barb. “The incoming competition made us get really sharp about defining our niche. We are about supplements and education, and we’re about making incredible food in our delis. We just upped our game and really made our niche even stronger.”
Shannon believes the competition fueled GreenAcres Market’s growth as a top Midwestern natural products retailer. “As competition came into the Midwest, we decided to stay right at the forefront,” says Shannon.
Barb negotiated hard with vendors to secure volume discounts, the stores lowered prices a bit to stay competitive and, of course, they acquired stores. They also added a points-driven customer-loyalty program that Shannon says has established a strong connection between GreenAcres and its customers.
The team also started promoting the store even more on social media and online, highlighting what makes GreenAcres special. “We really started focusing on the stories of our business, whether it’s our vendors’ stories, GreenAcres’s stories, stories about our team or stories about our delis,” Shannon explains.
She points out that success on social media differs for each store. “We have one store that does a lot of posts, another that does steady posts, but not as often. Both get followings and both get likes,” says Shannon.
Social media, to a certain extent, is also filling the gap for shoppers that aren’t interested in pre-established learning times, like listening to a speaker in a seminar. “People no longer have set times that they interact with you. They want to interact with you when they’re ready to interact with you,” Shannon states. “That’s a really integral part of how we’re moving forward at GreenAcres.”
Social media may be the gateway to help reach even more Americans who don’t know what’s available in world of healthier holistic living. “That creates endless possibilities and opportunities,” says Shannon. “There’s a huge segment of the population that we still want to reach.”
Another key aspect of dealing with the competition is GreenAcres’s attitude about being successful. Says Matt, “We believe in putting out excellence in everything we do. If you want to be mediocre, you will have lots of competition. But if you strive for excellence, you probably don’t have many people knocking at your door.”
|Store events draw shoppers from near and far.|
Determination and the drive to excel is something the Hoffmanns have done since day one. Even as a one-store business, “we never knew we were small,” says Barb.
“We always ran GreenAcres as a business we wanted to grow,” Shannon adds. “We knew we wanted more stores and to reach into more communities.”
Barb says since natural/organic products didn’t have much of a presence in the Midwest, they created their own norm, and “we didn’t know any different. We thought we were mighty.”
She knew the store needed attention and co-op ads, so they went out and built a newsletter. “It built a whole foundation for us. Our newsletter now is an incredible part of who we are,” she states. This was done at a time when brokers were hesitant to work with GreenAcres because they had little interest in driving 250–300 miles just for one store.
“We lived by the motto, ‘Gracious persistence,’” says Shannon. “We wouldn’t take no for an answer. Whatever we wanted, we went after, but we did it with grace. And we never gave up.”
This can-do attitude will surely sustain 20-year-old GreenAcres in the coming years, as it has its sights set on remodeling some stores, adding delis to others and adding—yes, adding!—even more locations one day. Says Barb, “I never thought we would, but it’s been so much fun to bring these five on. No matter how Barb and her team decide to expand in the future, it’s blue skies ahead for GreenAcres. WF
Published in WholeFoods Magazine, July 2014