PHOTOS BY KATIE NOBLE
When Valerie Mata left her job at Boston Edison in 2000, after 20 years there, she had no idea what she was going to do next. She only knew that, she explains, “I was not inspired when I got up in the morning.” The best part of her workday, she says, was sitting in the lunchroom talking to her co-workers about health supplements. One day in her local health food store, Natural Food Exchange, Mata overheard the owner saying that his plans to sell the shop had just fallen through. With “no background in [retail] or in business at all,” the former electrical engineer suddenly knew what she was going to do next.
“It was a big leap,” she says. “God bless my husband. We took out a second mortgage on our house” to buy the store in 2001. In addition to what its name suggests, Natural Food Exchange sells health supplements and body care products, with revenue split about 50-50 between food and the other products.
Seven years after buying it, Mata relocated the store from Stoneham, where she lives, to a larger, 2,750-square-foot space in Reading. In March of this year she completed a major renovation and revamp of her offerings, with a full commitment to non-GMO (genetically-modified organism) products.
The renovation was largely driven by need. In 2013, Whole Foods opened several new stores, including two – in Lynnfield and Melrose – that bordered on Natural Food Exchange’s customer service territory. Mata’s business dropped by 15 to 20 percent. And it didn’t bounce back. “I had to ask, are we still relevant to our community? Is this a death knell for us?,” the business owner recalls.
In December of that year, Mata’s lease was up for renewal. “I felt like we had to re-up our game a little bit,” she says. “For the first time I thought about just creating what I would want to be and being really authentic, forgetting about the business and the numbers. Then it became what I wanted to do.”
What she really wanted to do was:
- Get all GMOs out of the store. The issue of genetically modified food had been “eating at me,” Mata says. “The store is an extension of me. I’m not going to ask people to take a position on it. My goal is just be one little place where people can go to buy non-GMO products.” Use of GMOs is highly controversial. Those opposed maintain the use of these agents is harmful to our health and the environment, and they have science to back their claims. Proponents say GMOs can improve agricultural sustainability; increase crop yields, to feed starving populations; reduce the need for pesticides; and make farming more profitable. Since Natural Food Exchange eliminated GMOs, Mata says some customers have asked why she no longer carries certain products. When she responds that, “It didn’t make the GMO cut,” sometimes she has to go further and explain what GMOs are. She always offers to special order the product(s) but says that in most cases once the customers have heard her reasoning they don’t want the GMO-containing products.
- Build relationships with some local farms. “I knew that some of my customers were driving to New Hampshire to get chickens and different places to get dairy,” Mata says. So she identified sources whose principles and products matched her own high standards and is now selling items from some of those farms, like meat from Springdell Farm in Littleton. “It felt like those are the luckiest animals in the world,” says Mata of her first visit to the fourth-generation family-owned farm. “We feel really good about carrying their burgers.”
- Offer quick prepared foods. “I was frustrated not being able to get a quick lunch and not knowing that it’s GMO-free,” says the store owner. Now Natural Food Exchange has a grab-and-go cooler stocked with GMO-free soups, salads, juices and smoothies.
- Redesign the store to make it more comfortable, attractive and welcoming. While the store’s basic footprint remained the same, in addition to the prepared foods cooler there is limited cafe seating along the front window, where customers can enjoy snacks and drinks.
Natural Food Exchange has always carried only gluten-free products and now has gluten-free fresh bakery items as well. “The diagnosis is such a shock for families,” Mata says of celiac disease and gluten intolerance. “We wanted to be an easy place for families to shop, where they didn’t have to read labels.” Mata, who is gluten intolerant, is always looking for new products to keep the gluten-free grocery selection – and the store’s selection in general – up-to-date. She belongs to the Sustainable Business Network and says she frequently finds suppliers at the group’s annual event.
Several of the shop’s fresh bakery suppliers were customers before launching their own businesses.
Bittersweet Bakery in Woburn, provides gluten-free pastries and, since the renovation, gluten-free, non-GMO vegetable tarts and salads that are available in the grab-and-go cooler.
Customer reaction to the store’s improvements has been overwhelmingly positive. And since starting her business, lack of inspiration has not been a problem for Mata. Now, she says, “My best part [of the day] is walking the floor and talking to customers.”
Natural Food Exchange - 343 Main St, Reading naturalfoodexchange.com
Food writer Andrea Pyenson is a suburban empty nester finding creative ways to fill her extra time and closet space.