What can you do with 800 square feet and $3,000? When you are fueled by a passion to serve others and the patience to see the seed you plant grow over the years, you can do a whole lot. Just ask Renee Southard, owner of Organic Marketplace (OMP to loyal customers), located in Gastonia, NC. “When I began the store 30 years ago,” Southard says, “I wasn’t aware that the humble beginnings of an 800-square-foot store and $3,000 investment would blossom into a thriving business servicing the health and wellbeing of our customers and community as well as being good stewards of our planet.”


The Early Days of Organic Marketplace

Like many in the natural products industry, a personal interest in natural wellness led Southard to the storefront. “I became familiar with herbs and their uses for my own health, and it didn’t take long to develop a passion for their gentle and effective healing ability. I knew that it was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”  

So, in 1992, Southard opened a small supplement store under the name Nature’s Path, then renamed the store Organic Marketplace in 1993. Southard notes that “organic” was not a catchword at that time like it is today. And while the store had much to offer the community, it took time for locals to recognize the gem now in their city. “There were days in the beginning, with me being the only employee for almost two years, that no one walked in. On those days, I pulled out a trusty card catalog I kept on customers and called to see how they were doing…You make a genuine effort to connect with people, and they will come.”

They did start coming, and soon the store needed to offer customers more variety to meet their needs. “I took two more of my original 800-square-foot spaces and added food,” Southard says. “At the time, mainstream markets did not have the alternatives they have today.” In 2003, Organic Marketplace relocated to a 5,000-square-foot location, and more growth followed. 

“I realized that if food is your medicine, I needed to provide my community with clean, local, and organic foods,” Southard shares. “That was when Sprouts began.” Organic Marketplace’s Sprouts Cafe offers organic foods, juices and smoothies…and Southard knew from experience how important the store and cafe could be to the community. “In 2004 I had a personal crisis of a head/neck cancer, which expanded my journey,” she explains. “I had a few employees by then, and was just getting the concept of the cafe off the ground. I did all of the natural treatments partnered with the allopathic, and a year later I received an all clear! Through the experience, I spoke with people with serious conditions such as the one I had just endured. I knew what it felt like to be where they were in many instances. Back then, the health food stores were known as ‘the last chance clinic.’ It’s a mindset. We wanted to be the health connection for the city, and we did it! Personally, my health was improved and I had a new-found desire to bring a natural lifestyle alternative to my community that didn’t exist here.”

Success fueled more success, as the team expanded the food offerings to affordable bulk foods and produce that was solely organic, plus expanded the selection of personal care products. “We have always been a leader in supplements as that is where my heart has always been, but our offerings for local really grew as well as we kept up on trends.”

Today, Southard shares, “We are housed in an old firehouse we ‘recycled’ for our expansion. It is two levels with the marketplace upstairs and the cafe around back. We have raised garden beds where we grow organically and now plant pollinators to address that need in the environment.” The newly renovated space offers a vast selection of supplements (including the store’s re-branded private label, with seriously eye-catching tye-dye labels), bulk foods, home goods, beauty products, pet products, wine and beer, and more. 

OMP also carries a wide selection of locally sourced products. How many items? As many as they can find, including local produce, cheeses, soaps, and specialty items. And for those with dietary restrictions, OMP provides a variety of free-from foods, including non-GMO, gluten free, wheat free, low sodium, and low sugar options. 

Most important of all, Southard says, “We have the honor of working with the 3rd generation of customers all from those humble beginnings.”

Emily Ehinger sees this as well. She has been OMP's General Manager for seven years, and runs day-to-day operations, doing everything from accounting to purchasing and filling in any position that needs a little assistance. She’s seen and heard it all. “As the manager, I get lots of feedback from people about how our store and staff have saved their lives, helping them get healthier and live more active lives, and in some cases getting them off medications. It has been super motivating and inspiring to watch. Often customers have been coming here for generations and our staff has known them and their families from childbearing years to grandchildren.”  


A Heart for Service

The road to the 30-year anniversary wasn’t always easy…but with drive and dedication it was achievable. “I have always had a heart of service,” Southard shares. “I was a teen advisory board member for the City of Charlotte in high school. I got married and had two boys, then started volunteering at my kids’ school. I led the Boys Scouts of America when they were young. As they grew, my desire to help did, too. I sat on the first AIDS council in the late 90s into the 2000s. I was on the EC Board of the Optimist Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and was a finalist in the Chamber of Commerce Business Woman of the Year. I was on our city board Keep Gastonia Beautiful, chairing the Beautification projects in our city, and an active member of Keep America Beautiful for 15 years. I was also SENPA Chairman of Education, evolving to Executive Secretary, and to my current position of President for the last three years.”

Those experiences brought Southard to a place of being able to serve her community. “I consider each and every step a lesson, and my mission from the beginning has been answering the highest calling, making a difference in the lives of the people. During this lifetime of works, my business took many shifts and turns, all ultimately leading it to the thriving pillar of our community known as Organic Marketplace.”

The heart of OMP attracts others who want to serve as well. “My love of helping people drew me to this job, and helping people live healthily and naturally,” Ehinger shares. “I enjoyed learning about how Eastern and Western medicine can work in harmony with each other because I feel food and herbs can also be your medicine.”

To that, Libby Rawlinson, who manages the store's inventory and database, adds, “I’m really proud of the space we occupy in our community as a resource for helping people identify and attain their health and wellness goals sustainably.”


Prioritizing Outreach and Education

“I felt we were there to be a catalyst, a sounding board for those searching for a better lifestyle and a dependable resource for local and clean products to help achieve the level of health we are all hoping to achieve,” Southard asserts. A cornerstone of that has been outreach and education, from in-store learning opportunities to visits to local schools and civic groups. “From the beginning, our lectures in store as well as out in the community set us apart. Brenda Watson [New York Times best-selling author and health advocate] would come and I would have to book the library to hold all of her following!”

OMP also has a monthly newsletter detailing sales for the month, upcoming events, and the store’s “secret loyalty discount word or phrase.” Southard explains: “Years back, along with ECRS, we implemented a customer loyalty program where we let customers create their own sale day. I played with other ways of doing this, but found that giving them the option of making their loyalty sale day one that fits their schedule and needs was the best solution. We now have done this program for years, and people love and depend on it. It’s also how we get them to read the pertinent information we want them to know!”

The staff works to stay in-the-know on all of the latest as well, to ensure that they can best educate and serve the community. “OMP has always been adamant that an educated staff is our greatest asset and that philosophy has yielded so many positive results in our community,” Rawlinson says. “We often get customers who credit the time and individual attention we can give to any concerns they have with positive outcomes in the quality of life experienced by them and their families, pets included. I love it whenever people who’ve ‘tried it all’ and for whom we’re the ‘last resort’ find relief after working with us even if we have to work through several different issues and solutions. There is no greater joy than being a helping hand to those who need it and the belief that there will be helping hands to catch you in your time of need.”

Indeed, it’s not just a job, it’s a passion: “I grew up going to health food stores with my family and I was fascinated by all the different things plants could be used for,” Rawlinson shares. “I was also drawn to our industry’s holistic approach to life in general.”

Southard adds that the team is constantly educating with vendors, keeping the long-standing knowledge OMP has become known for. And that goes beyond nutritional needs. “We keep abreast of national issues that impact our community,” Southard says. “And I have lobbied in DC many times”

Another absolute key has been connecting with the natural products community, including fellow retailers. “We attended SOHO EXPO without fail!” Southard says, of the  trade show, which features carefully curated selections of independent retailers and leading manufacturers in the natural-foods industry. “Even when I couldn’t afford to go, it was an expense that I deemed essential as my education and relationships were all forged there.” 


Positive Ripple Effects

“Think globally, act locally” is at the center of much of OMP’s efforts. One example: “We have been on board of the Bee City USA movement from its beginning.” Bee City USA provides a framework for communities to conserve native pollinators by providing them with healthy habitat rich in native plants, with nest sites, and protection from pesticides. The organization says one of the most impactful actions any affiliate can take is to encourage others to think beyond the honey bee and recognize the true diversity of bees that sustain our communities. Bee City USA-Gastonia holds an annual celebration each May to promote pollinator habitat plantings and distribute information about bees and the important role they play in our environment. 

OMP also hosts an annual Earth Day event. “And I am proud to say for the last 10 years we have been a bagless store,” Southard says. “We were very early to that position.” 

Of course, being at the forefront of a movement can be challenging, as people don’t always see the need or understand the downstream payoff of their efforts. That was the case with the bags. “It was a rough start,” admits Southard, who says they sell a $0.99 bag when people forget their reusable bag. “But we held our position and it is now effortless to continue to help our environment by not providing plastic or even paper bags.”

Now, the positive effects are apparent. “Being the first store in the area to care about the earth and go bagless has been great to see and feel,” Ehinger shares. “In the beginning, asking everyone to bring their own reusable bags was a tough experience at times, and took some customers a while to fully get accustomed to it. Now, watching other local stores and organizations begin to adopt similar policies has been wonderful to see. Knowing that OMP’s education and outreach are working and people are truly caring about our future generations is wonderful. It gives me hope.”

In 19 years working with the “OMP family,” Rawlinson counts the bagless shift as her favorite of the initiatives OMP has undertaken. “We started off by educating our customers about the environmental impact of both plastic and paper bags,” Rawlinson recounts. “Then we had a program where we offered to reuse/recycle customer’s old bags, but after a couple of years, we rethought this approach because we felt that it wasn’t really reducing the amount of single-use bags—especially plastic—in the world. Now we offer reusable bags and regular gentle reminders to bring your reusable bags when shopping with us.” 

The team at OMP also rolls up their sleeves to pitch in and make a difference wherever they can. “We partnered with Habitat for Humanity to host a Pink Party, which was a women’s’ build we took part of to house women and children in our community,” Southard offers as one example. “It was a perfect fit for a single woman in business to help other women. We also donate to all resources in our county for food and wellness items.”


OMP’s Greatest Resource

“It is my belief that our employees are our greatest resource,” Southard says. “Many have been with the store for 20 years. They are a very cohesive team today, carrying on a tradition we have stood for for years as well as creating some significant strides of their own. They take the lead on our Bee City team and participate with the INFRA group shares consistently. They sit on many advisory boards as well as the ones I have been on.”

Recent years have been difficult, of course. “I believe COVID was one of the biggest challenges, other than moving the store to our new location 20 years ago,” Southard says. “We addressed the sanitation called for in that period of time, and I am very proud to say my staff stayed well throughout our ‘essential worker period.’ They were diligent to be there to support the community that we consider family. It was a difficult time.”

They are there for one another, as well. “One challenge the staff and I have had to overcome is my stepping aside to address the needs of my most rewarding and challenging positions as SENPA President. Many of us do not think about succession until a situation, personal or health, makes us look at something in a different light. INFRA put on a Succession Planning three-day workshop. It was timely for me as I knew I was moving into the position and wanted to have my store and staff prepared in the best possible way I could. I encourage every retailer to look at their staff and their own timeline as to when your apprentices and management staff members take the lead. It’s hard to do, but more rewarding that I can put into words.”

How rewarding? “I get that proud momma feeling when I’m in my store helping on the floor, which is my favorite thing to do in the store, and my customers praise and thank me for having the store there all these years and the employees they have come to depend on. You are successful when the ones carrying on what you started are doing great works of their own on your canvas! There is nothing that warms my heart more than when they are making it their own. They are our most valuable and important resource!”


Supporting Independents

“The one consistent thing I have done throughout my business is participate in what touches the Independent Natural Products Retailer,” says Southard. “I go to the trade shows to not only get new and exciting products in my store, but more importantly to build the relationships with my fellow retailers, find out what’s going on in their stores, what new ideas I can use, or what company I need to know about. We are each others’ BEST resource! My relationships I have built by being a part of SENPA as well as INFRA are pivotal to the success I have had in my business.”  

Southard really can’t stress the benefits of that involvement enough. “I am not sure how a retailer can exist without the support of those who came before them. I first joined NNFA [National Nutritional Foods Association], and I went to my first SOHO EXPO in the early 2000s. I was like a kid in a candy store! The show was at the convention center in Orlando. I was new to the industry and had no idea of what I was going to encounter. I am thankful and look back now like it was just the logical thing to do. I found myself in booth after booth of exciting companies I had never seen before, meeting people that to this day I still know. I have lobbied with them in our hallowed halls of the Capitol, an experience that still gives me chills…I have cut my teeth listening to our full day of education, which is the foundation of a solid store. That education led me deeper on my own but had it not been there for me, I’m not sure I would be where I am today. However, I will say my relationships in this industry have a foundation that I nurtured by being everywhere I could to interact with my fellow retailers and teachers in the supply side of the industry. I always wanted to be a part of this wonderful community.” 

Southard dove in, taking on more responsibility in SENPA over the years as her team took on more of OMP’s day-to-day. “I was the education chair at SENPA when Road Shows were created, as a grassroots effort to literally go out to our membership, to their stores, and put on education events near them for their benefit. It led to me going on the executive committee and eventually becoming the President. I have many loves in my life and beyond my faith and family, SENPA is the family I choose. Nothing brings me more pride and pleasure than when we all gather at one of the shows we produce and reconnect as family! A reunion of sorts, like-minded people serving and giving of their skills, time, and expertise. Today SENPA, a non-profit association, supports every part of the Natural Products Industry. Our membership includes not only retailers but suppliers, manufactures, affiliates, and associates, with its whole reason for being to support you and your business. Consider running for the board and bring your special skills to this meaningful organization.”

SENPA has a new initiative that Southard is particularly proud of: Emerging Leaders. “As you all know, we have younger retailers coming into the space. We also have many second- and third-gens coming that need a place to grow and thrive. We are cultivating a group of brilliant new leaders to carry on and make this industry we all love brighter and even better than they found it! Stay tuned to this beautiful marriage that Nourishes the Human Connection, our ethos.” 

It was through SENPA that Southard connected with INFRA. “I remember when Dot Peck and Lindy Bannister were at SOHO and I first heard of the idea behind INFRA. It was taking retailing to another level,” she recalls. “I saw over the next couple of years the growth and how those stores were doing so well in retail. A friend who not only recruited me but I’m sure many of the INFRA members, Marie Montemurro, simply said to me at a dinner one night, ‘This is a no-brainer—you have to be a part of this group!’ If you know Marie, you know she’s going to steer you straight! I joined after that dinner and to this day, 10-plus years later, I wish every Independent Retailer would look into membership. Marie was right: I am a better retailer because of my relationship with INFRA and the family of members I have come to know. We are a family. INFRA has taught me some of the most important factors concerning how I run, manage, and grow my business. It’s not just the discounts we all make possible as a community, but also the sense of belonging that comes when you are in a group of like-minded individuals. I have so  many valued friendships and business alliances by being a part of INFRA! Look at us if you haven’t, and if you have, what are you waiting for?”


Looking to the Future

There is a lot to celebrate for the 2023 Retailer of the Year, having accomplished so much since opening that 800-square-foot store 30 years ago. But there’s also still work to be done, and ways to improve—both for Organic Marketplace and for the industry as whole. “I would like to see my store grow more in executing our standards where choosing the product we carry is concerned,” Southard says. And to everyone reading this, Southard encourages: “We need to get behind movements of Advocacy. I want to be diligent where organic and non-GMO products continue to grace our shelves. Let’s embrace the Regenerative Agriculture Movement and preserve the family farms. I know this industry will continue through the hard work and motivation of people like me and you!” WF