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Julia O'Malley: Natural Pantry supersizes but will remain a family operation

Julia O'Malley
Natural Pantry co-owner Vikki Solberg stands near the salad bar and hot bar on Tuesday, March 11, 2014, in the new 45,000 sq. ft. organic food store on the southeast corner of 36th Avenue and A Street in Anchorage.
Bill Roth
Natural Pantry owners Rick and Vikki Solberg on Tuesday, March 11, 2014, plan to open their new 45,000 sq. ft. organic food store this Spring on the southeast corner of 36th Avenue and A Street in Anchorage.
Bill Roth
Julia O'Malley, ADN columnist, portrait in the ADN studio on Friday January 7, 2011 with a white background. 110107
Bob Hallinen
Natural Pantry owners Rick and Vikki Solberg on Tuesday, March 11, 2014, plan to open their new 45,000 sq. ft. organic food store this Spring on the southeast corner of 36th Avenue and A Street in Anchorage.
Bill Roth

Inside the soon-to-open Natural Pantry last week, it felt familiar and exotic all at once, a little like being inside a fancy natural foods store in Seattle, except I'd never left Midtown.

Notice I didn't say it reminded me of Whole Foods, though you're probably already making that mental comparison. Whole Foods rumors have been haunting Natural Pantry's owners, Vikki and Rick Solberg, since they broke ground on the new store at 36th Avenue and A Street. The natural foods giant is not a part-owner. Anything else you've heard about Whole Foods and Natural Pantry is also not true.

The new, $23.5 million store may be big enough to rival a Safeway, with 33,000 square feet of retail space -- twice what they are operating now in the University Center. But to the Solbergs, it is still a family business. Six of their children will be working there. They are still going to manage the day-to-day operations, as they have since they started the business 37 years ago, with strong department managers and a little bit of prayer.

"We're growing into this one, like we've grown into the last one," Vikki said.

And they will continue to be closed on Sundays. They are hands-on people, they said. If the store were open, they'd end up working there, and they need a day off, they said.

"It's just a time that our family has been able to get together and just kind of let that other part go," Vikki said.

The Solbergs want to open the store in April but they are still filling some important positions, including workers with expertise in supplements and a gluten-free baker. Hiring has been one of their biggest challenges, she said. Once it's operational, Natural Pantry will have between 90 and 100 employees.

Natural Pantry's roots are in the Solbergs' longtime connection to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Vikki told me as we walked through aisles with empty shelves. Most members of the LDS church keep a supply of extra food on hand at all times in case of natural disasters or other emergencies, she said. In the 1970s in Anchorage, when the business started, it wasn't easy to get bulk wheat, oats, honey, beans and rice at a decent price. The Solbergs began ordering it, and then church members and others joined them. Soon they opened a little shop selling bulk goods and some other whole foods. Over time, the shop grew. (Along with their family. They have 11 children. The last one graduates from West High this year.)

The store has cultivated a customer base far more diverse that you'd find in your average Whole Foods store Outside, she said. The new space is designed to cater to several distinct types of shoppers. First, there are the preppers. In Alaska, a lot of people, church people and otherwise, keep bulk supplies on hand. The new store will have a generous bulk section, offering everything from honey to shampoo to No. 10 cans of freeze-dried foods.

They also serve a large pool of adults and children with serious food allergies, a group that keeps growing.

"People will come in the store (after being diagnosed with a food allergy) with a list and blank look on their face," she said. 'We try to sell things to help them go back to at least a somewhat normal (dietary) life."

The facility will have a dedicated gluten-free bakery and kitchen. It's an investment, with its own ventilation system to keep baked goods from being contaminated by wheat in the air. Some people say gluten-free is a trend but the Solbergs said their experience is that a segment of people stop eating wheat and feel better. They don't tend to go back.

"You know something real is going on when Betty Crocker is making a gluten-free cake mix," Vikki said.

Supplements, body care and housewares each have big followings and take up a lot of real estate in the store. And, for chocolate lovers, there will be a 36-foot wall of fancy chocolate bars.

Another distinct group of customers: workers looking for lunch. The store will have a bakery and a large deli with a big salad bar and a hot case for daily lunch specials, which include gluten-free foods. The attached "Hydration Station" (named by her youngest daughter, Rachael) is a juice, smoothie, tea and coffee bar with a fireplace and lots of windows so people can eat in.

As the new space was being designed by the Anchorage firm Spark Design, the Solbergs talked a lot to regular customers, asking for suggestions. Customers wanted the new store to be really clean, they said. The Solbergs have hired two full-time custodians. Customers wanted lower prices. The larger retail space allows them to order larger quantities of some items, Vikki said. That will bring some shipping costs down, and the savings can be passed on.

The dairy and meat cases have doubled in size. There is also more room for produce. All of this is meant to accommodate the city's insatiable hunger for organic food. I showed Vikki a photo that I'd taken of the organic produce section at Fred Meyer on a recent Sunday. All that was left were a couple of heads of cabbage and some sad zucchinis. That kind of scene happens sometimes in the existing Natural Pantry too, she said.

"That's my biggest fear, besides not finding employees; it's meeting the demand (for organics)," she said.

The Solbergs have been looking at the possibility of buying an organic farm in the Valley to try to increase the supply, Rick said.

The new store has caught the attention of competitors, the Solbergs said. After construction started at the new store, they noticed some unfamiliar shoppers (Rick calls them "shirts and skirts") coming through, paying close attention to what they were selling. They don't have any secret formula, Vikki said, other than customer loyalty.

"We have a wonderful bunch of customers that support local," she said. "We're a local business. That's who we are."

Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Reach her by phone at 257-4591, email her at jomalley@adn.com, follow her on Facebook or Twitter: @adn_jomalley.

 


Julia O'Malley
Anchorage