Family Dinners, A Family Value

me and my sister, circa '86 or so

me and my sister, circa ’86 or so

People are usually surprised to learn when I tell them that even though MOM’s typical store footprint is about 1/4 the size of a typical Whole Foods store, our average purchase is about 20% higher.  Our customers buy much more per shopping trip.

Why?  Because our customers by and large buy ingredients to make meals for the week, rather than buy the meals themselves.  MOM’s keeps growing, but trends are heading in the opposite direction, as modern culture’s priorities shift and people’s lives become more hectic.

When I was a child, the sounds and smells of an active kitchen were very comforting.  I would sometimes visit the kitchen to see what was going on.  I don’t remember a single instruction from my mother about how to cook, but somehow I learned, seemingly through osmosis.

My family ate together multiple times per week.  This brought a routine to my otherwise confusing and unpredictable childhood.  I learned much about current events.  My father in particular loved to debate with my older siblings at the table, so I learned how to think critically.  Such benefits have been well-documented.*  I was lucky in that my mom had the opportunity to stay home and chose to sacrifice her career and apply her organization skills and good work ethic for the direct benefit of her family.

It is not easy cooking meals and eating together as a family.  It takes planning, time, work, and the courage to say “no” to a world around us that is speeding up.  Today, I admire not only the stay-at-home parents who make such sacrifices, but also the incredible dedication of families with 2 working parents who are still able to pull off this feat.  Food and The Family are such important parts of some of our lives- and I feel that MOM’s has become an outpost for those people whose priorities are becoming increasingly less mainstream.

*[I believe some of these statistics are somewhat unscientific, however… eating dinner together might be more of a symptom (vs. a cause) of a family who has other qualities and values that are beneficial to children- like a 2-parent household, an emphasis on structure, good priorities, working one well-paying job instead of 2 low-paying jobs, etc.]

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Infinite Shades of Grey

The battle against GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) has gained much momentum these past few years.  It seems like the issue really caught fire when this picture went viral on the internet in the spring of 2012.


Kashi was lambasted when their products were found to have GMOs. And consumer activism, as usual, had a big impact, as Kashi took major action to change their ways.

The California Prop 37 to label products with GMOs was fought hard and lost in November, which intensified the battle even further. MOM’s watched closely and financially supported Prop 37.

We hear from our customers almost constantly on this issue- and many want us to pull all products that haven’t been proven to be without GMOs.  And quite a few also want us to stop offering organic and GMO-free products that are owned by large corporations who actively fought against Prop 37.

We won’t do either, and here’s why:

Until there are federally mandated GMO labeling laws, any non-organic product that hasn’t been verified GMO-free could contain GMO’s. Thanks to the Non-GMO Project, many manufacturers have started testing their products to verify (and label them) as GMO-free. And this is great – the more information the consumer has, the better. However, the Non-GMO Project is still in its infancy – and the vast majority of products have not been tested or labeled. Every food retailer in the United States – including MOM’s, Whole Foods, and every other natural grocer – still stocks products that have not been verified GMO-free. It is the manufacturers’ responsibility to test their products. If a manufacturer does not do this, the only way to be sure products do not contain GMOs is to lab test them – continually. It is not feasible for a grocery store to lab test products and police the entire food industry. However, when thousands and thousands of consumers vote with their spending dollars, we see the finest results (as with Kashi).

What we do at MOM’s is put great pressure on manufacturers to get their products tested (or to go organic- as all certified organic products are GMO-free).  For new products, we require food manufacturers to use organic or verified GMO-free sources for ingredients that may be genetically engineered, like corn and soy.

There are manufacturers of clean, organic, GMO-free products who have been purchased by large food corporations who do and sell bad things.  Right here in our backyard, Honest Tea is an example of this.  As a result of the chart above, Honest Tea is hearing loud and clear the discontent from its previously diehard customers.  Some are choosing to stop buying their products.  That is their choice, and I can see why they’d make that choice.

Seth, who founded Honest Tea, has been a friend of mine for years.  Yet, even though he is still the CEO of Honest Tea, I am now less inclined to purchase those products since the profits ultimately go to a corporation that I think makes the world a worse place (their high-fructose corn syrup sweetened products lead to obesity, they produce tons of plastic waste with their Dasani bottled water, they fight against legislation such as Prop 37, they sell mostly products that aren’t organic- which add chemicals to the environment, etc.).

But should we stop selling products like Honest Tea, Cascadian Farms, and Muir Glen?  No- because we are foremost dedicated to supporting the organic farming industry, more than we are against sleazy corporations (although, it’s pretty close!).  Buying an organic product, no matter who is making money off of it, helps organic farmers and helps the environment.

[As a side note, I am not upset that Honest Tea was purchased by Coke.  Seth can be very convincing and passionate about what he stands for and I am hopeful that he will influence Coke to take baby steps (with huge impacts, given Coke’s monstrous size) towards doing the right thing.]

Of course, the best case scenario is to buy organic products that are owned by ethical companies, which I strongly urge everyone to do, but buying organic products that are owned by enemy corporations falls into one of life’s infinite shades of grey.

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Up For Early Adoption

I’m getting a Tesla S.  There.  I said it.  This feels like a confession.  The nicest car I’ve ever driven was a Ford Fusion hybrid (and it is a REALLY nice car, btw).  I basically despise status and will frankly be pretty embarrassed to be seen driving my new car.  Nice cars, nice clothes, fancy stuff- not into it.

My dad bought his cars at auction.  He would sometimes go out for the day shopping for cars like others would shop for groceries.  I remember one Saturday afternoon he brought home 3 cars from the auction.  Those cars lasted forever, it seems.  One was a retired fire chief wagon.  It had the spotlight on it and everything.  Those cars all got about 10 mpg, btw.

I currently drive a Nissan Leaf.  I really like it, but it will be nice to have an electric car with longer range.  The Leaf is great for every day running around, but there are plenty of times when I have to take a rather long day or weekend trip.

I’ve decided to buy a Tesla because of this article I recently read in the NYT.  Here is an excerpt that sums it up…

Though Tesla’s products are not yet affordable to the masses, this is a car that a lot of people can aspire to, and maybe even stretch their budget to buy. No single new model can overhaul the auto industry, but the Model S, along with its charging network for long-distance travel, suggests that Tesla is playing for keeps. If the car’s appeal can be transferred to higher-volume models, the Model S could become the Model T of an approaching petroleum-free era.

I was in Costco doing some Christmas shopping a few weeks ago.  I noticed that their LED lights have dropped about 50% in price since 18 months ago.  With all of our recent growth here at MOM’s, we ordered about 1000 LED bulbs from them for our stores this past year, paying double the price we could get for them today ($30 vs. $15).  Do I have any regrets?  Not one bit!  As a matter of fact, I’m proud that the price has now come down.  Were it not for the early adopters who are the first to support environmentally friendly technology, such products wouldn’t be available to anyone.

I know I’m vastly over-paying for this car.  I’ll bet in 3 years, there will be a similar option with a price that will be at least 30% less.  I am confident that the electric car industry will take off similarly to the LED light market, though- and those of us who are able, must show our support now!


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A Long Unicycle Ride

One of the bright spots these past few years for the environment has been the awareness and change towards saving seafood species. Greenpeace deserves a ton of credit for this.  Since recently launching their seafood sustainability ratings of retailers, they have had a huge impact.
Screen Shot 2012-12-18 at 10.55.24 AM

Back in 2008 when the ratings included smaller, regional chains, MOM’s was rated higher than any other chain in the US (a score of 8), while all other major chains received a “fail” score.  MOM’s continues to sell only sustainable seafood- from our frozen filets to our fish sticks and canned sardines.

Four years since Greenpeace’s first report, chains such as Safeway, Whole Foods, and Wegman’s have made great strides over the years and, surprisingly, MOST chains have made progress and are now passing.

This is excellent news and is already having a big impact.  Fish, crabs, oysters- most seafood multiply like insects, laying millions of eggs at a time.  The rebound in populations can be astonishingly quick.  We here in Maryland saw how quickly the blue crab population came back in the Chesapeake after only 2 years of regulations disallowing she-crab harvesting.

I was thumbing through Supermarket News recently and came across this ad.

photo(18)It’s fascinating to me how there is opposition to EVERY good cause.  It’s important to be aware of this.  Activism is like riding a unicycle- once you stop, you fall over.  In the face of opposition, being complacent and not working to improve things is akin to supporting those who are doing bad things, because an oppositional force is always at work.

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Better > Bigger

Our central offices are located above our Rockville store.  This is deliberate.  I never want the leadership of MOM’s to be removed from the day-to-day store operations.  If our Rockville store has an issue, than it’s likely that the other MOM’s stores could have the same issue.

I was downstairs a couple of times yesterday and both times there were customers waiting in line, yet not all 5 registers were open.  At one point, there were 5 customers in line and only 2 registers open.  This really concerns me.  Everyone who works at MOM’s knows that we have a rule here:  “Customers are never to unnecessarily wait in line.”  I.e. there should never be customers in line and unopened registers.

Coincidentally, the below article came into my view.

Screen Shot 2012-12-03 at 12.04.12 PM

2 nuggets:

  • Frank Blake, CEO of Home Depot- “‘We’re fully stored, so why don’t we focus on improving the existing stores that we have rather than growing for growth’s sake?'”
  • It takes guts to stop drinking the “growth or else” Kool-Aid. Starbucks (SBUX) CEO Howard Schultz also had to pull the reins in on his company’s expansion. In 2008, he took over a company that had over-saturated the market with its coffee. One of his first moves was to close 800 stores and lay off some 4,000 employees, then rally employees behind the idea of a more ethical coffee corporation.

And another blurb from a book I was looking at today with a quote from Warren Buffet:   Don’t do deals just to do deals. “We don’t get paid for activity, just for being right.”

The obvious theme to these messages is that quality is more important than quantity.  We’ve had a lot of “quantity” lately here at MOM’s.  To get an idea of how much MOM’s has grown recently, here is a note I recently sent to MOM’s employees:

It is time for some serious back-patting. Let’s allow the accomplishments to speak for themselves. Here is what you have accomplished in less than 18 months:

  • Opened Timonium

  • Renovated and expanded College Park

  • Opened Herndon

  • Moved Rockville store and central offices

  • Launched the new Naked Lunch concept

  • Opened Merrifield

  • Opened Waldorf

    In this time, sales have almost doubled. This is incredible growth, requiring heroic efforts by many. It has required hard work and being smart. If I were in your shoes, I’d take great pride in these accomplishments.

    People will sometimes ask me, “How did you do it?” My reply to this question is- “What makes you think I did it? I have no idea how this happened- you’d have to ask all the good, hard-working, smart people who work at MOM’s. They are the ones who have figured it out and done it.”

    MOM’s has taken on a life of its own, created by all of you.

We are very proud of what has been accomplished recently, but it is finally time to pause and start working ON the business again, rather than IN the business.

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The Grand Illusion

I’ve got to hand it to fellow retailer Nordstrom for bucking the trend…

So, Thanksgiving is upon us.  This is my favorite holiday- there is very little commercialism involved with it.  It remains all about being with friends and family, enjoying great food, and being grateful.

I’m 47 years old.  At 49, my father died of a heart attack while playing basketball.

I’ve been a lot more “present” in my life lately.  Sometimes I’m caught by surprise as I exit what seems like a trance and realize just how incredible (and bizarre) it is that I am alive- and on a planet, in the middle of an infinite universe, that has come alive these past billion years or so.  It all seems very surreal.

I was reading a very good book recently.  An excerpt:

“I took care of a guy named Seth in a nursing home. Time’s winged feet had had their way with him. But despite his circumstance, he was consistently cheerful, not one to go on about his needs or discomforts. One night, his milky eyes looked into mine, and he said more by observation than complaint: “It goes so fast; so, so fast. Never forget that it goes by very fast. One minute you’re sitting there, just like you, a young man, big and strong, and the next you’re lying here just like me, all dried up and almost done. I have memories, but my life is mostly gone.”

That might be depressing for some people to read.  For me, it’s a nice reminder to be thankful for what I’ve got, right down to every breath.

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Check It Out

As long as I am at the helm of MOM’s, something you will never see in any of our stores is a self-check out lane.

I have watched through the years as other grocers have installed them and sometimes later de-installed them. The reason why grocers want them is to cut down on front end labor.

The front check-out experience is the ONLY guaranteed interaction we can have with a customer.  It is our main chance to be friendly and efficient and to leave the customer walking away with a warm, fuzzy feeling about MOM’s and our staff.

To forfeit that experience in an effort to cut a small amount of costs is as short-sighted of a strategy as I can imagine.  Not only does is take away a grand opportunity to impress the customer, it actually makes more for a negative experience for the customers- as it takes them longer to check out and it’s more work for them.

I scratch my head wondering how these leaders of large corporations with their Wharton and Harvard Business School degrees can lack such foresight, focusing only on the very short-term, rather than the not-too-distant benefits of a customer’s positive shopping experience.

I think that it’s quite easy to compete in the retail business, not because MOM’s is so great, but because others are so bad!

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On Tap

I was in DC a few weeks ago and saw this truck.  It made me think about how we in the US have been duped by corporate interests into thinking that tap water is unsafe.  I don’t think people realize how fortunate we are to have such easy access to clean water.

If you have the time, watch this 8 minute video.  It is a real eye-opener and was the impetus for removing bottled water from our shelves a couple of years ago.

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The Absence of Negatives

A reporter recently called to ask me about the recent Stanford study which claimed that organic foods are not more nutritious than conventional foods.  I told him that while there have been studies indicating that organic foods are more nutritious than conventional foods, I really don’t know for sure which claim is accurate.

I went on to explain however, that while many in the conventional foods industry will undoubtedly be happy to see the results of Stanford’s report, they’re missing the point.

What IS important to those of us who choose organics is the absence of negatives…  the absence of the health risk of chemicals (pesticides, herbicides), the absence of GMOs, the absence of irradiation, the absence of animal cruelty, the absence of water pollution and eco-system disruption, the absence of chemical exposure to farm workers, the absence of antibiotics and hormones, etc.

And what else is great about organic foods?… the presence of a much higher quality product and the support of mostly small farms who aren’t owned by huge agri-businesses.

Once again, those who live in the conventional world simply don’t understand our worldview and why we value organic farming.  We’re progressing- and their views are slowly becoming outdated and stale.

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Natural Foods- Progress, not Perfection

I was recently offered membership to Natural Products Association.  I declined.

Natural products are better than the usual junk foods that people eat, but given all of the synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides used in the growing process (and the likelihood that such products are GMOs), they still don’t hold a candle to organics.

At MOM’s, we carry natural products, but funny as this sounds, we try not to!  After all of these years, the organic industry is still catching up to demand.  For example, our snack aisle consists mostly of natural non-organic products.  I recently inquired about this with our grocery department and was told that the ingredients are in short supply and generally not available.  Organic potato chips, for example, are generally non-existent in our industry due to a perpetual shortage of organic potatoes.

Basically, if it’s organic we will carry it.  Organic products receive top priority at MOM’s.

While my general belief is that anything that isn’t grown organically is substantially hurting our environment (and health), I try not to be overly zealous about organics.  I doubt that people go from drinking Coke and eating Twinkies, Pringles, and Lucky Charms to eating organics, as it is a process (not an event) to become an organic consumer- and natural products serve a purpose as they can act as a stepping stone from conventional foods to organic foods.  The way I see it, natural products are a kind of necessary evil- progress, not perfection!

Posted in environment, food, GMOs, MOM's Organic Market, nature, organic foods | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments