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Icons of Sustainability: Mrs. Gooch

by Bruce E. Boyers

Like many others on the West Coast, the first time I set foot in a Mrs. Gooch’s health-food store, I thought I’d come home.
The fruits, the vegetables, the grains, and many other items—I knew that in sgoochevery direction I looked, the products were safe from chemical additives and other unhealthy elements. It was the earliest health-food supermarket of its kind, offering an unprecedented variety. And it was an enormous success. In its time, Mrs. Gooch’s operated stores in seven locations, all of which were finally purchased in 1993 by the then burgeoning Whole Foods Market.

Breaking Ground

The company was founded by a retired schoolteacher named Sandy Gooch in 1977—as the result of a health-related near-death experience. “I was very ill due to an allergic reaction to an antibiotic, tetracycline,” Gooch told Calmful Living.“It really wiped me out. I couldn’t function. There was no pharmaceutical drug that would help me. And the only thing that my father, who was a research biologist and chemist, deduced was that I needed to improve my own health, my body, the cells, through eating good wholesome, healthy food—food that was real and unprocessed.

“In the 1970s, that was a challenge. There were tiny little health-food stores here and there, and tiny little farms. So I literally drove from Santa Barbara to San Diego to find everything that I thought would be good and healthy, and that took a long time. It was an arduous job. Along the way I was asked to give many lectures on this topic—health and good food. The people I would lecture to would say, ‘What you’re saying is really great! I would love to eat better food than I’m eating. Where do I go?’ And I said, ‘Well, you can go from Santa Barbara to San Diego.’ And they said, ‘Why don’t you open up a store?’ I went home one time and I thought, ‘Hmmm, why not?’ Long story short, I took my teacher retirement money and savings and opened up the first Mrs. Gooch’s in January of 1977.”

Gooch credits her success partly to an increasing consciousness among consumers and partly to her own business model. “I do believe that some of it was being in the right place at the right time,” she said. “The first store was in West Los Angeles. The people in West Los Angeles were well educated, informed, had discretionary income, and they too would go to different farmers and be looking for health and so on.

“I also think it was because we were a full-service market, the first of its kind—in other words, we had a meat department, fish, chicken and produce. We weren’t a pill shop. We were everything from books on, and we had décor. We were known for producing ‘eat-ertainment’ and ‘edu-tainment,’ and for the West Los Angeles crowd, who were often in the film industry, this really tickled them no end.”

Premise of the Promise

Another reason that health-conscious individuals flocked to Mrs. Gooch’s had to do with her strict standards for products—from which she would never waver.

“What we would not carry would be any food items that had artificial flavor, artificial color, additives, preservatives, refined white flour or refined white sugar,” Gooch related. “Down the line, we also wouldn’t carry irradiated foods or genetically modified organisms using DNA technology.” This is worthy of note—hardly anyone had heard of GMOs when Gooch instituted this policy.

“Some now might say, ‘Gee, that was pretty narrow,’” Gooch continued. “But through the research I had done, I felt that none of those aforementioned unmentionables promoted health. In fact, to one degree or another they promoted disease. It was a matter of health and a matter of ethics; I had promised my clientele that this is what I would do. They bought into the premise of the promise and I could not disappoint them.”

Customer Education

Education was always part of Gooch’s operation. “I had been a schoolteacher for many years, so I knew how to inform and educate people,” she said. “I incorporated that information into my new classroom, which was Mrs. Gooch’s. There were informative signs, articles, brochures, newsletters, and knowledgeable employees who were always trained. There were demos that were going on all over the place. Our staff would demo products, as well as people who would be selling their particular wares. We had wild stuff—for example, Gypsy Boots would come in with his truck full of Medjool dates and offer them to people.”

Industry Changes

Certainly in part as a result of the vehicle Gooch created, the natural products industry has seen massive growth. “Well, it certainly has changed!” Gooch exclaimed. “The offerings available to the general public are incredible, no matter what stores people go to. Who would have thought that Safeway would have its own organic private label, ‘O’? If you had told me in the early eighties, ‘Sandy, this is what’s going to happen,’ I would have said, ‘Where have you been?’

“There are also privately held supermarkets, such as Wegmans, that really do a good job of featuring organic products within their mix. And then, who would have ever thought there’d be fantastic stores such as Whole Foods Market and other major chains that would feature as many organically grown products as they do? And of course now it’s not only coming from the West Coast, it’s coming from all of the United States, Canada, and many other countries. The consumer has wonderful, fabulous choices.”

Part of the change in the industry has been Big Food companies acquiring natural products and incorporating them into their lines—which Gooch sees as a double-edged sword. “I think that there is the yin and the yang there,” she said. “Some of the good aspects would be that because these companies have so much money, it affords the opportunity for these products to get into the hands of many consumers who ordinarily would not be able to buy them. That would be due to lack of distribution in the past, or just not having a market that would carry that type of product. So that’s positive.

“The negative, in my observation, is that for the most part these major conglomerates don’t get the heart and the soul that initially went into the development of these products, and that’s lost. Mostly it’s about the money rather than the concept, which changes the entire energy of the product and how the consumer may feel about that product.”

A Natural Progression

Not surprisingly, Gooch sees continued education as the key to incremental positive change. “Much of this will be consumer driven, because the population will continue to get better informed,” she pointed out. “This is happening in school settings; there are so many nonprofit organizations now, such as GrowingGreat, which is right here in Southern California, informing and educating students, teachers and parents on eating locally sourced organic food, growing, harvesting, and all of that. As this knowledge builds and expands, people go out and try to find all this wonderful stuff that they now know about.

“Cities will also help. The cities know—and the government knows—we cannot afford the ill-health that our people have now,” Gooch concluded. “There’s not enough money in the world to follow the projections that are there in regard to what it is going to cost in 2030 and 2040 if we keep on going down this road. We can’t. Cities know that. So they are making deals with companies such as Whole Foods Market, saying, ‘Please come here. Your rent will be lower; we will help; we will get people to come into your store.’ So that’s going to happen as well.”

As these changes come to pass, we’ll always be thankful to Sandy Gooch for helping set the wheels in motion in such a big way.