For people who are new to the retail grocery business, the owners of Real Foods Market and Cafe on Winslow Way East have quickly learned what it takes to be successful in such a competitive, demanding business.
Certainly, owners husband and wife, Andy and Lari Seltzer, and Josh Bortman, are committed to working long and hard to make a go of the health food business they opened in February in one of the street-level retail spaces at Harbor Square.
The area and its half-dozen businesses are still relatively new to locals and visitors, who generally drive or walk toward the main business district on Winslow Way when they’ve got shopping on their minds.
But traffic is increasing as more islanders discover the new businesses. In the long term being adjacent to the ferry terminal may prove to be a positive, as will the fact that many condo-dwellers live only a few minutes away from the store’s front door.
Most important, however, it became clear during a conversation with Lari Seltzer and Bortman, a chef who runs the restaurant part of the business, that the owners are determined to learn as much as possible about what their customers and the community in general want out of them and their store.
“We are always conscious of what our customers want,” Bortman said. “We are here for them, so we listen to what they want.
“I had a menu in mind when we opened, for example, but it has changed a lot because our customers wanted other choices. We made it happen. We listen to them and we’ve found that they really appreciate that. And it keeps them coming back, which we like.”
The new store – the only one of its kind on the island – replaced Island Health Foods not long after it went out of business. Lari Seltzer said some people didn’t realize at first what had happened and continued to think the original store was still in place. There are many differences in the stores, however.
“For one, we’re a store that offers healthy food, not specifically health food,” she said. “Those stores mostly focus on a brand of health food, vitamins and supplements. Our stores has a different feel in that it represents our tastes and philosophies, an approach that we consider unique.”
She believes the store’s diverse products set it apart, and she’s got a point. The store is full of items you’ll rarely see on a market shelf. Its small frozen-food section offers Lari’s meat sauce, large pot pies and several of Bortman’s favorite soups (carrot ginger and pollo verde are favorites). Lasagna and a variety of casseroles will hit the shelves in the near future, and everything is made from scratch in the kitchen.
“Take out is a lot of work,” he said, “but it’s a way of using everything we buy. And it’s a good niche product because people really appreciate healthy take-out food.
Real Foods offers only organic dairy and produce, with much of the greens and fruit coming from island farmers. In an effort to keep prices down, they sell all of the local produce at cost, which allows the farmers to make a 100 percent profit from whatever is sold.
“We’re doing that to promote home-grown crops and to move the produce through as quickly as possible,” Seltzer said. “That way it’s always fresh. And we feel good about our customers eating healthy food that is good for them.”
Bortman’s cafe also has received rave reviews, though its number of customers is nowhere near those flocking to hots spots such as the Streamliner Diner. His take-and-bake pizzas are now one of the cafe’s signature entrees, as is the chicken-bacon-avocado panini.
“We’re getting a lot of compli-ments about our food and once the word gets around we’ll do even better,” Seltzer said.
The store also offers the Dr. Hauschka beauty products and a small core of supplements.
The Seltzers (he’s a computer programmer and she’s a nutritionist and health-care professional) and their two daughters moved from Berkeley a year ago and then jumped on the opportunity when the previous store went out of business. Bortman, a UC-Berkeley and culinary school graduate, responded to the Seltzers’ call almost overnight. They spent less than a week painting and stocking the store before opening it.
“We probably opened too fast,” Bortman said, “but we felt that we had to move on it. We probably lost some of the old patrons to other stores. But in a grass-roots way we are gradually growing. We haven’t advertised much, but we’ve gone to a lot of events that promote us. We’re getting a lot of families that way. The word is getting out.”
They admit it’s a grind to keep the the doors open 13 hours a day (11 on weekends), but they’re enthusiastic and committed to the business.
“It’s also very satisfying,” Seltzer said. “Having grown up in Berkeley, what we are doing is close to our hearts. In Berkeley, there is a tremendous amount of choice and exposure to this type of lifestyle, so we feel very comfortable here.”
Mostly it’s about the people, she said.
“People here are warm and friendly and outgoing,” she said. “It’s like we’re family… like they’re close to us. It makes you feel good to serve them. It’s very rewarding. It’s fulfilling a need, like with kids. There’s immediate feedback and we really appreciate that.”