The Local Checkout: Michigan holds top spot for oldest family-owned and operated natural foods store; Illinois eyes independents

Sawall Health Foods in Kalamazoo, Michigan, was founded in 1936 and is now a fifth generation grocer. Illinois Grocery Initiative aims to aid independents.
Independent grocers
Illustration courtesy: Shutterstock

The Local Checkout

Welcome to The Local Checkout, a new weekly Winsight Grocery Business column about independent grocers from Editor Diane Adam. Grocery stores are like people—they come in all different shapes and sizes. And here at The Local Checkout, I’ll be taking a closer look through a wide lens of independent grocery stores. Because just like people—they all matter.  

Five generations and counting

In the middle of the country sits the oldest family-owned and operated natural foods store in the United States. Sawall Health Foods in Kalamazoo, Michigan, was founded in 1936, by Frank Sawall, a biochemist on a mission to aid people’s diets following the introduction of pesticides and herbicides on crops.  

Sawall Health Foods is now helmed by Frank’s great-grandson, Mark Sawall. The store is now a fifth-generation operation with Mark’s kids involved with even talk of “considering expanding” the 22,000-sqaure-foot store, he told The Local Checkout on Thursday.

Sawall Health Foods

The store features grocery essentials in all departments and the store’s key tenets are centered around all-natural and organic products.

Sawall Health Foods has withstood the ups and downs of the last 87 years, and Sawall said even his billion-dollar competitors are known to come in and see what makes this independent grocery store not only succeed but thrive.

Ken Kulifay, general manager for 24 years, credits the Sawall family for the grocery store’s success. “It has been great to work for them. They are honest people, and I like the customers,” Kulifay said.

The connection between the shoppers and the store’s employees is evident. Upon visiting the store, employees were quick to greet and assist. "It’s the kind of place where you see the same customers every day,” he added.

In fact, while talking with the owner about the business, Mark paused to assist a customer looking for a dry wine to pair with dinner. This focus on customer attention encapsulates the catchy theme song of that '80s sitcom "Cheers:" Everybody really does know your name when you walk into Sawall Health Foods.

Tried-and-true model

Michigan’s Midwest neighbor, the state of Illinois, has its eye on independent grocers. As part of his State of the State and budget address for fiscal 2024 last month, Illinois Gov. J. B. Pritzker is proposing a significant aid package for independent grocers.  

The governor announced an investment of $20 million to launch the Illinois Grocery Initiative, “assisting municipalities and independent grocers to open or expand grocery stores in underserved rural towns and urban neighborhoods.”

It's an important mission, Pritzker said, noting that he is looking to return to “a tried-and-true model—one where those communities are served by independent, local grocery stores that sell food grown by Illinois farmers.

No cash register needed

This week’s shout-out that deserves the hashtag #KindessCostsNothing goes to Restoration Marketin Kennewick, Washington. The food bank is designed with all of the standard features of a grocery store—the only things missing are price tags and cash registers. The place is run by Restoration Community Impact, a local non-profit organization. Founders Marlando and Stephanie Sparks work with a range of partners to provide groceries to those in need in a dignified manner.

Thanks for reading The Local Checkout. Got an indie grocery story news item you think I missed? Email dadam@winsightmedia.com




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