FAMILY BUSINESSEarthly delights

Whole Earth focuses on body, soul via food

By: Diane Landis Hackett
   PRINCETON — On a recent Saturday, I decided it would be fun to have a girls’ lunch out. For a change of pace and menu, I forgo a local diner and take my two elementary aged daughters to the deli at the Whole Earth Center on Nassau Street in Princeton.
   They are skeptical at best as we walk to the back of this natural foods grocery, deli and bakery. In fact, they are complaining so loudly I have to shush them in the aisle.
   Their grumpiness is odd since we eat a lot of organic food at home. In fact, I buy by the case. I shop at the Whole Earth Center, too. But I am not a purist by any means. I just happen to know I can satisfy my cravings for chocolate and salt right here and feel good about it as I chew and swallow.
   My girls tell me they were expecting a treat today, which they don’t immediately spot amid the foods packaged in not-so-flashy boxes and bins.
   When I bring them potato chips (these are made without trans fats or preservatives) and 100-percent natural tangerine Spritzers to go with my veggie sandwich and warmed mini spinach pie, they settle quickly.
   We sit below a rack of magazines with titles such as Earth Island Journal and the National Green Pages, and I ask them what is good about a place like Whole Earth. My 8-year-old notices how calm it is and points out the hand-lettered sign that says, "No Cell Phones."
   My 6-year-old defines the idea of eating healthy for us. "Healthy food is made from veggies and fruit, no sugar. It tastes very good and it is from farms. It is usually organic and organic means it is good for you," she says with confidence.
   While this is not the most exacting description of organic, I’m thrilled she can articulate this much. I look around at the other customers to figure out what brings them here.
   There are a number of older couples who, according to store manager Jen Murray, often have dietary concerns following heart attacks or other illnesses. There are also parents with small children in tow, a family dressed in beautiful saris is perusing the bulk food bins, and a crowd of all manner of people at the produce counters for the unbelievable taste of their 100 percent organic and locally grown fruit and vegetables, a trademark of the store. A number of people have filled their baskets with only produce.
   The impetus behind the Whole Earth Center was born on the first Earth Day in 1970. A group of Princeton residents met that day and shared their upset about the environmental hazards of certain farming practices.
   They decided to act on their worries and open a natural food store. Seeing that they had no capital, they sent a letter out to the Princeton community and raised more than $5,000 to get the store off the ground.
   Whole Earth was originally located at 173 Nassau Street in a 100-square-foot space, a place so small that a board member had to store some products in her basement.
   Today, the store encompasses approximately 5,000 square feet, and it provides everything from bulk foods, such as grains and spices, juices, frozen food, dairy products, cosmetics and vitamins, to locally raised beef, fresh produce and munchies. It also has a small deli where soups, sandwiches and vegetarian foods are made. All of its baking is also done on the premises.
   Over the past 36 years, Whole Earth has developed a loyal following that now even includes the children of some of their first customers, says store manager Ms. Jen Murray, who has been with the store for 20 years.
   "People feel a deep connection to this store. Our customers feel comfortable coming here. In fact, they boast about how many years they have shopped here," Ms. Murray says.
   She adds that she now knows many of their customers personally. She also has developed a friendship with Farmer Ed, a local farmer who provides produce to the store during the growing seasons, but also comes by the store at other times of the year just to see how everyone is doing.
   Just as Whole Earth customers have made certain life choices to shop here, a group of local leaders has driven and molded the mission of this store since its inception.
   Ms. Parmet, a founder and board member for 36 years, has provided countless hours overseeing operations and ensuring the products that the store carries have integrity within the natural foods market. She also does all her grocery shopping at Whole Earth—- except for her cat litter.
   She says of her commitment to healthy foods: "I knew I didn’t want to eat something that contained ingredients I couldn’t pronounce."
   Whole Earth marketing coordinator and Princeton resident Fran McManus, who also writes organic cookbooks, is well-versed in the economics of local farming and how that should integrate with the vision for Whole Earth.
   Ms. McManus, who met her husband through her work at Whole Earth, says she is dedicated to encouraging community business for many reasons, including the importance of keeping money circulating in the local economy. She says she shops almost solely in town and is particularly drawn to the passion that fuels local business owners.
   "When I shop at a locally owned business, I am participating in a dream that an entrepreneur has. It is run by someone who is passionate about what they do," she says.
   Whole Earth is a private not-for-profit that is controlled by a four-member board of trustees. In addition to Ms. Parmet, there is Susy Waterman, who has also been with Whole Earth since its inception; Herb Mertz, who joined in1983, and Laura Huntsman, a member since 1989. The long-term commitment of these individuals brings a continuity to the store which is atypical in many businesses today.
   The store pays taxes, just like any retail outlet, but is unique because 10 percent of their after-tax profits is donated to environmental organizations and projects in the community. The board members are provided a stipend but receive no share of the profits.
   Over the years, Whole Earth has donated money to the Princeton Public Library to buy books on the environment, to Stonybrook Milstone Watershed to train high school students to serve as environmental advocates, and to support a campaign to minimize pesticide use in Princeton, to name a few causes.
   Whole Earth’s most recent community outreach effort is called Random Acts of Community, where they will reward people with a coupon to Whole Earth if they are seen riding their bike around town. Whole Earth already provides customers who ride their bikes to the store with a punch card for discounts at Kopp’s Cycle. You can also receive money back if you use your own bags. Senior citizens are offered a discount, as well.
   The future looks bright for Whole Earth. If all goes well, the store will expand into the space recently vacated by Judy’s Flower Shop, which will provide them a long dreamed of storefront on Nassau Street.
   "We are committed to the town we are in and are very focused on being a community store. Stores like ours make economic sense for the whole community," says Ms. McManus of their continued growth in Princeton. It is time to get on with our afternoon.
   My daughters have warmed up to our outing — especially after recognizing on the shelves some of the products that we eat at home. Our cart is full of pasta shaped like bunnies, cheese crackers shaped like bunnies, yogurt, swiss chard, organic milk, my favorite red licorice and apples.
   While waiting in line, my girls beg me to buy organic chocolate balls decorated with pictures of the earth. I do so happily, and on the way out my six year old unwraps one and says, "Look, I’m putting the earth in my mouth."
   We laugh at the little joke, but I can’t help thinking how grateful I am to shop at a store that cares so much about the earth, our community and also what people put in their mouths every day.
Diane Landis Hackett’s Family Business column appears monthly in Princeton Business Journal.