Healthy Living Market and Café’s newly opened 20,000-square-foot store in Williston, Vt., marks the third store for the company, with existing stores in South Burlington, Vt. and Saratoga, N.Y. CEO Eli Lesser-Goldsmith has described Healthy Living’s growth plans as “sustainable but aggressive” for the coming years, with a fourth store under construction in Shelburne, Vt., and a fifth, as-yet-to-be-named, location in the works. Founded by Katy Lesser, Lesser-Goldsmith’s mother, in 1986, Healthy Living pioneered natural food stores within Vermont. The company now employs 320 team members across its three locations. WGB conducted the following interview via email. It has been edited for clarity.
Jennifer Strailey: You have said that Healthy Living Market & Café’s approach to food shopping is different from most. How is it different and what makes Healthy Living Market so unique?
Eli Lesser-Goldsmith: Healthy Living is hospitality driven. We put the guest experience first and foremost. We believe that guests are looking for an amazing shopping experience each and every time they walk through our doors.
We [offer] the opposite of what we call ‘mindless grocery shopping,’ where people push carts down straight aisles [grabbing] boxes of food full of preservatives, while stale elevator music plays. And they never see a staff person until they reach checkout, which actually might be a self-checkout. So, in the end, they may interact with no people at all. People are looking for more than that. They are searching for joy and happiness, and amazing food can give them that, [which] Healthy Living delivers.
You have also said that Healthy Living Market and Café aims to be the leader in midsize natural foods grocery in the Northeast. How is Healthy Living positioned to make this goal a reality?
Grocery is regional. Awesome brands like New Seasons, Fresh Thyme and Sprouts are aspirational for us and they operate in specific regions in America. The Northeast has a lot of towns that have been asking for our stores for years, and our goal is to serve those communities one by one. We have a very sustainable, methodical plan for growth.
This is your third store and your second in Vermont. What do you look for in a location for Healthy Living?
Our three stores are all in vibrant communities. We believe great grocery shopping helps build great communities, and we are proud to play a small role in that. A great grocery store is something most people want. It’s something realtors talk about in their listings. What stores do people visit most often in a week? The grocery store. Might as well make it a great grocery store. Our guests want the freshest, best-tasting food, and again, our stores deliver that experience.
Where are the two additional stores in development located? In which states and cities do you plan to focus your expansion?
Our fourth store is planned for Shelburne, Vt., another growing, up-and-coming community that has been asking for our store for years. The Shelburne store is now over two years into planning and development. Our fifth store location is still under wraps, but we’ll be announcing it shortly.
Who are your main competitors in grocery and what is the competitive landscape of Williston?
The answer is everyone and no one. For years, the natural foods industry had very little competition. Then more retailers entered the space and tried to do what we do. But while more retailers may be able to enter the market, Healthy Living has authenticity and real history in the space. We’ve been doing this since 1986. We know what guests are looking for, both in product and in experience.
It sounds like your retail foodservice program is exemplary with a James Beard-nominated chef at the helm. Have restaurant-quality prepared foods become more important to Healthy Living since the pandemic? If so, why do you think this is the case?
With Matt Jennings on board as VP of culinary, the quality of our house-made food has improved dramatically. The ingredients are clean and fresh, and the tastes are legit. People have been raving about the quality, the taste and the prices. These programs will only expand, and we are thrilled with the early results.
While research shows that most consumers still prefer a brick-and-mortar grocery shopping experience, online shopping has surged since the pandemic. How significant is Healthy Living Market & Café’s online presence? Do you offer delivery and/or curbside pickup? If so, have these services become more important to your business and do you expect that to continue as you expand?
We offer both click-and-collect and delivery through our Healthy Living to Go service. People love it, and it helped thousands of guests, both during the height of COVID when people were most nervous to enter a store, and still today. But they love shopping in our stores more. We believe the future of in-person grocery shopping is bright, because more than ever, humans are seeking joy and happiness in their lives, and great food brings that.