July 20, 2011

I love Alfalfa’s. But can I Afford to Support It? ~ Lindsay McClure

I live less than 3 blocks from Alfalfa’s.

Alfalfa’s Market is back in its original location. The store, which originally opened on the corner of Broadway and Arapahoe in 1983, was a beloved Boulder institution, undoubtedly leading the progression of the naturals’ food industry. Alfalfa’s eventually merged with Wild Oats in 1996, and then became a part of Whole Foods’ buyout of Wild Oats.

However, the look of Alfalfa’s wasn’t the only thing vamped up for its opening on April 22, 2001—the prices were through the roof.

Like many here in Boulder, Alfalfa’s opening both excited and drew curiosity throughout the community. We love the mom n’pop stores—here in Boulder, small businesses are hailed and supported. I believe in these businesses whole-heartedly, to the point that I am willing to pay more for their operation. And I’m a college student, like at least half of Alfalfa’s would-be frequent shoppers. But how much more should such support cost?

There’s a significant difference between buying meat at Alfalfa’s vs. King Soopers, Safeway etc. The reason why I shop at stores such as Sunflower and Whole Foods is to support food integrity. I want to know where my food is coming from, who is benefiting and what the company believes in. I consciously know I am paying more at natural food stores than I would at larger corporate supermarkets, and I am okay with that.

But what’s with the price difference between Sunflower, Whole Foods and Alfalfa’s?

All three markets sell identical, if not very similar products. I’ve made it obvious that I consume almond milk; I love it—I can’t get enough. The price of Blue Diamond Almond Milk is different at all three stores, and highest at Alfalfa’s. This is true for a lot of products, making it hard to justify why I would pay more for the same product. Yes, you can say I am paying more to keep smaller businesses like Alfalfa’s above water and yes, that is a good reason.

But if we’re supporting them, can they support us? Can they support my college budget?

If Alfalfa’s is going to be a part of our community again, I feel they should return the support and work with camaraderie to help us, the customers. We are the essential elements for success and if the prices of items are going to constantly stay at an inflated price, I may have to rethink, reinvestigate and re-research.

With so many questions and an honest curiosity for all things food, I turned to Sonja Tuitele, Alfalfa’s PR representative with some questions that were an accumulation from talking with other community members. This is for you.

ele: What was opening day like at Alfalfa’s? Was there a recorded number of purchases/customers?

ST: We opened the store on April 22, which was Earth Day. Given Alfalfa’s history and foundation of sustainability, we felt Earth Day was the perfect timing for our grand opening, as it is our mission to be a zero waste store and to tread more lightly on the planet. Since this is the first store we’ve opened as the new Alfalfa’s, there really is no comparison in terms of “record sales” for a grand opening. The store was packed, we had attendants managing the parking lot because the traffic flow was constant and we receive tremendous feedback from the community that they couldn’t wait for Alfalfa’s revival.

ele: How many community members were hired?

ST: We hired approximately 200 positions for both the company and the store.

ele: How do you, as a company, fit back into Boulder? You buy locally, if so, which farms/producers?

ST: Alfalfa’s is a true Boulder icon. Mark Retzloff was one of the original founders of the Pearl Street Market in 1978, which was the predecessor to Alfalfa’s. He and partner, Hass Hassan, opened the first Alfalfa’s store in 1983 at the Broadway and Arapahoe location. In the 1980s and early-1990s, Alfalfa’s was known as a community gathering place and was the impetus behind several of Boulder traditions, like the Community Food Share holiday food drive, the Humane Society dog wash, Bike to Work Day breakfast, and many more. Those events have since grown outside of the Alfalfa’s parking lot, and have taken on lives of their own. It is Mark and the team’s goal to again be a part of the fabric of Boulder and to support the community through events, donations, volunteer time and celebrations.

Alfalfa’s supports a diverse community and economy by supporting as many locally produced organic and all-natural products as available. From local organic vegetable, flower and herb growers, body care producers and artisan food manufacturers, to Western Slope fruit orchards, hand-crafted local cheeses, Western slope vineyards and Colorado micro-breweries and distilleries, Alfalfa’s embraces the true meaning of local foods and products. We have a long list of local producers, but to name a few: Pastures of Plenty, The Fresh Herb Company, Anne Cure’s Farm, Munson’s, Black Cat Farms, Abbondanza Seeds and Produce, Aurora Organic Dairy, Hazel Dell Mushrooms, Ela Family Farms, First Fruits, Lasater Pastures Beef, Troyer Poultry, Haystack Mountain Goat Cheese, MouCou Cheese Co., Justin’s Nut Butter, 34 DEGREES, Udi’s, BREADWORKS, Spruce Confections, Bobo’s Oat Bars, Boulder Ice Cream, Fiona’s Granola, Boulder Granola, Rudi’s Bakery, Third Street Chai, Simply Boulder, the list goes on …

ele: Since you have been open for a little over a month, how have expectations been met/ or haven’t?

ST: It has been meeting our expectations with very little marketing. We wanted to get a few weeks under our belts before we determined the most effective way to invite customers into the store to check it out. There was so much pent-up demand, we wanted to let our staff settle into their roles and see what the shopping patterns were before we ran advertising or engaged in other marketing opportunities. So, now that we’ve settled into the store and it is summertime in Boulder, we will start engaging our marketing programs both in-store and in the community.

ele: How does Alfalfa’s stand out from Whole Foods and Sunflower Farmers Market? Why should Boulder choose Alfalfa’s?

ST: Alfalfa’s is truly a local market. Our shareholders are from Boulder and Colorado, in fact 91% of our shareholders reside in Colorado. Our management has been in and around the local natural foods industry for decades and we understand this community and its needs. Our focus in on education and service. So, we engage our customers and share stories about the unique, local and artisan products we feature in our store. We believe this sets us apart from other retailers. Additionally we are just one store, which makes us nimble and able to work with smaller producers who can’t meet the volume requirements of larger chains, so you’ll see more innovative, local and seasonal products in our store that you won’t find any place else.

ele: Do you have competitive prices? Can you price match for same brands sold at other markets? Why/why not?

ST: We have a Sustainable Value program that includes more than 100 items that are priced at or below other Boulder grocery stores. These are everyday items that customers buy in their weekly basket. Items like a half gallon of local organic milk, a loaf of Rudi’s organic bread, a dozen cage-free eggs from a local egg producer, a pound of single grind all-natural beef, brown rice from the bulk foods area, a cup of locally roasted OZO coffee, etc. This allows our customers to shop with confidence that they are getting competitive prices on these grocery mainstays. Beyond our Sustainable Value items, we try to be as competitive as we can on identical products, and we have hard-to-find items like imported olive oils, specialty sausages and cheeses, which are more special occasion items.

ele: It’s no question that Boulder as a community is behind Alfalfa’s, how is Alfalfa’s going to equally be as supportive? (to families, college students, tourists etc.)

ST: We are so appreciative of Boulder’s support of the Alfalfa’s revival. [It[ truly has been a joy to remodel our original location and try to make is as fabulous as we can for the people of Boulder. As I mentioned above, Alfalfa’s has always been known as a true community market and we plan to reclaim that position in this community. We have specific programs to reach out to various niches within the community, such as college students, seniors, and young moms and families. We are on all the Boulder tourist maps and already have heard from customers that they bring visitors to the store to see it when they come to Boulder to visit – much like they did back in the day when Alfalfa’s was one of the first supermarket natural foods stores in the early 1980s. Part of this outreach to Boulder’s various communities, like seniors, is to offer a discount and special shopping services. We will also support our community’s non-profit organizations with fundraising events, volunteer time and donations.

ele: Is there any chance of expanding Alfalfa’s into a chain?

ST: While we don’t have anything to announce at this time, we would be interested in growing the Alfalfa’s brand again outside of Boulder. We are on the lookout for locations that meet our need for having an urban sensibility with access to great quality locally produced natural and organic foods. At its height in 1996, Alfalfa’s was 11 stores in two U.S. states and British Columbia, Canada. While we don’t want to think in terms of that scale, there may be an opportunity or two along Colorado’s Front Range.

This interview, in its short and sweet sense, was very educational to me. At first I was hesitant to find the reasoning behind paying more for the same product, who doesn’t? If a new pair of trail running shoes is cheaper online than in a store such as Dick’s, I probably would simply pay for them online. I would do this because I am not connected to the vendor. With Alfalfa’s, I have concluded that I will vote with my dollar. It’s a strong statement and a loud expression; the need for a connection is key. I feel connected to Alfalfa’s now because they are trying to work for me, be my local market. They took some time off but are coming back full-force, for us and that is obvious in my interview with them.

Alfalfa’s is not a chain— it’s simple business, they need to support their local buying habits by adjusting their prices. You are paying for Alfalfa’s, a re-vamped version of Mark Retzloff and Hass Hassan’s original brainchild, as well as peace of mind which is the bigger issue… right? Buying quality organic products from a local natural foods market.


Lindsay resides in Boulder, Colorado where she is studying Journalism and Environmental Studies as an undergrad at the University of Colorado. Lindsay spends most of her time with her best friend, a 5-year-old Siberian Husky/wolf mix, Nanuk. They can be seen climbing, running, and biking the paths of Boulder. She believes in environmentalism, jelly beans, green tea and you. Follow her on twitter.

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