New, existing health food stores aim to meet area's fast-growing demand

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Posted: Tuesday, April 30, 2013 12:00 am

Ten years ago, while in her late 20s, Kelli Eggers acquired a new reading interest: food labels.

After seeing one too many products that listed sugar and fat as the mainstay ingredients, Eggers, now 38, changed her and her family's diet, a switch that also altered where she shops. “I have four children and I try to be a good influence on them by what I eat,” said Eggers, whose children are ages 1, 5, 9 and 11.

Shopping for organic and natural foods, which typically don't contain artificial colors or flavorings, has gotten a lot easier for Eggers and other Omaha consumers.

In the past two months, two health food chains, Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage and Akin's Natural Foods Market, have opened stores in Omaha. And another store is on the way, with a second Natural Grocers set to open this summer at 78th Street and West Dodge Road.

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That's in addition to a Whole Foods Market, which has operated an Omaha store at 10020 Regency Circle since September 2005, a Trader Joe's that opened at One Pacific Place in November 2010 and local supermarket chains that have expanded their natural foods sections.

Since the opening of Whole Foods, the family that owns Hurley's No Name Nutrition Markets at 2032 N. 72nd St. and 14469 West Center Road has been kept on its toes, Todd Hurley said. The Hurleys have seen plenty of changes since buying the business in 1976. “For years and years, there was just us and Jane's Health Market in Benson.”

Despite the coming and going of competitors, Hurley said No Name's sales have continued to climb.

Both of the newest chains say they're confident the market has room for more.

Natural Grocers, which is based in Denver and operates 66 stores in 13 states, describes Omaha as home to a growing health-conscious population that is ripe for “alternatives to Main Street markets,” company spokeswoman Nancy Flynn said.

And Akin's president and chief executive, Eric Hinkefent, has said the Omaha market is underserved when it comes to natural food stores. “We've had countless requests to open an Akin's in Omaha,” he said.

The 78-year-old chain, which currently operates nine stores, opened its first Nebraska store in Lincoln in 1989. Akin's parent company, Amcon Distributing Co., a publicly traded wholesale distributing firm, is based in Omaha.

Nationally, small health food chains and independent organic grocers are expanding their square footage, said Erica Schulte, spokeswoman for the Independent Natural Foods Retailers Association, which has 103 members with 154 storefronts.

Interest in eating healthier, supporting the “little guy” and buying locally grown foods has prompted a growing number of consumers to seek grocery stores that carry gluten-free, dairy-free and low-sugar, low-sodium products, along with vitamin, mineral and herbal supplements. That new group covers a wide swath — 20-somethings, young mothers, baby boomers, parents whose children suffer from food allergies, and millenials in their 20s and 30s who have developed a habit of reading product labels, Schulte said.

In the past decade, many conventional retail grocers have added organic and natural foods to their shelves because, according to grocery experts, organic and natural foods are the fastest-growing food sector.

In 2011, sales of organic foods, beverages and other organic products topped $31million, with sales up 10 percent over the previous year, outpacing the 4.7 percent growth of conventional foods during that same period, according to the Organic Trade Association.

While Omaha's conventional grocery market is saturated, opportunities exist for specialty retailers that focus on natural and organic products, said Jon Springer, associate editor of Supermarket News, a trade publication.

“Natural and organic food sales are the fastest-growing percentage of the grocery industry,” Springer said. “More people are paying attention to what they eat, and special diets have found their way into supermarket aisles. It's happening everywhere. There are opportunities in towns big and small.”

The arrival of Natural Grocers and Akin's could point the way for Sprouts Farmers Markets, a rapidly expanding Phoenix-based chain, or for Whole Foods to expand its Omaha presence, Springer said.

Locally, the Whole Foods Market and Hy-Vee Supermarkets, which pack a selection of natural foods into the “Health Market” sections of its stores, have been the larger go-to grocers for the area's health-conscious shoppers, many consumers say.

Hy-Vee, which opened natural foods departments in its supermarkets 12 years ago, has seen whirlwind growth in the past five years, company spokeswoman Ruth Comer said. “They're the fastest-growing department in our store, in terms of percentage growth from year to year.”

The West Des Moines-based chain, which operates 235 stores, would not disclose the amount of sales derived from natural and organic food products. With product selection and demand rising, the chain is expanding the square footage of its Health Market sections, Comer said, adding shelf, refrigerator and freezer space. “Gluten-free and frozen and refrigerated organic foods and entrees are a real growth area.”

The 13,000-square-foot Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage opened at 180th Street and West Center Road in February, offering natural foods, USDA-certified organic produce, antibiotic-free and hormone-free meats and health and beauty products.

“My husband drove by and saw the sign,” said Eggers, as she wheeled a shopping cart filled with organic peppers, potatoes, chicken, beef and bottles of Kombucha, a fermented drink, toward the store's exit. “We shop at Whole Foods, but this is so much closer.”

Ditto for Leah Wall, 46, of Omaha, who said she turned to organic and natural foods, fruits and vegetables and whole grains 10 years ago as weapons in her battle against cancer and multiple sclerosis. “A friend told me about a diet that reduces inflammation,” Wall said. Now her son, 18, and her daughter, 16, are on the road to eating healthier.

Earlier this month, an Akin's Natural Foods Market, which specializes in nutritional supplements and special diet foods such as gluten-free and dairy-free, opened a 9,000-square-foot store at 8409 West Center Road in the Canfield Plaza Shopping Center. Akin's also sells health and beauty products, organic produce and naturally raised meats and its own brands of supplements, Akin's and Paragon.

“A friend told me about it,” said Laura Jansen, who was perusing the store's offerings on a recent morning. “I really like what I'm seeing.”

Andrew Binderup, 29, who was checking out the new Natural Grocers store, said he currently divides his food budget between Hy-Vee and Whole Foods, but he was glad that Natural Grocers had moved in to the neighborhood.

“When I was growing up there weren't many organic food choices in Omaha, but things are changing,” he said.

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