(This feature originally appeared in Produce Business magazine. Photos by Kim Long)
By JOHN LEHNDORFF
A giant rooster sculpture crafted from farm tools who goes by “Alfie” greets shoppers at the entrance to Alfalfa’s Market, an independent grocer blocks from the Rocky Mountains in Boulder, Colorado. On a hot Saturday afternoon in June the store is a magnet for locals, many visiting the award-winning Boulder County Farmers Market and a large yoga festival taking place nearby. The store’s downtown neighborhood includes a busy pedestrian shopping district, a public library and park, and the University of Colorado campus.
Musicians play for shoppers in the shaded seating area near a wagon of whole organic watermelons for 89 cents a pound. Cut flower bouquets line both sides of the airy entry to the 20,000-square-foot retail space (which features a closet-sized spirits, wine and beer shop). The nearly 40,000-square-foot building includes offices and a busy community meeting room.
Sweaty shoppers’ first encounter is a cold case that entices with cups of ready to eat cut fruit and berries, bags of cherries, clamshells of freshly whipped cream and whole poundcakes.A bright “Welcome to Summer” sign points them toward the 2,000-square-foot produce department which claims to carry the largest selection of organic produce in the state.
Straight ahead is a pretty table of organic nectarines, black plums and apricots. A nearby cooler features grab-and-go cut fruit, vegetable platters, and containers of vibrantly hued house-made guacamole and mango salsa.
The salad and greens cooler is full with everything from loose spinach and kale to bagged Organic Girl Mache Rosebud, croutons and chilled bottled dressing from Follow Your Heart and Bolthouse Dressings. The greens are freshened by misters using filtered water.
A low table catches the eye with an appetizer array multi-color heirloom local greenhouse tomatoes, along with shallots, several varieties of garlic, avocadoes and a basket of Parmigiano-Reggiano wedges. In sight of the tomatoes are stainless steel tanks of diverse olive oils and vinegars. Alfalfa’s produce department replenishment approach is to touch every table at least three times a day.
A higher table is loaded with yellow, Vidalia, red and white onions along with potatoes and just a few winter squashes. Two shoppers are choosing from a back row of coolers lined with colorful bell peppers, cabbage, boy choy, red dandelion greens and curly parsley. Specialty items range from living butter lettuce, cress and basil to loose horseradish, Jerusalem artichokes, and a hot commodity, fresh turmeric.
Right now only poblano and Anaheim green chilies are stocked. By late summer multiple fresh chile varieties are available along with portable gas-fired roasters.
The asparagus, like so many produce items and products throughout the store, is marked with a highly visible “Local” sign stating that it came from “62 miles away at Golden West Farms.”
Alfalfa’s market COO Paul McLean started working at the original Alfalfa’s Market in the ‘90s, kale was still a garnish. “Now we go through 10 cases a day, a lot of it as juice and in the salad bar,” he said. He had a 15-year career with Whole Foods Market concluding as VP of Purchasing for the northeast region before returning to Alfalfa’s Market when it reopened in 2011.
“Boulder is a very particular market. The people here care a lot about what they put in their bodies so transparency is essential,” he said. The bike friendly city has 45,000 acres of open space and a highly educated, higher income population. The city boasts award-winning restaurants, 20 craft breweries, plus distilleries and the Celestial Seasonings tea factory tour.
“We put a stake in the ground for local and organic produce. That’s what our consumer identifies with the store. Produce is 5 to 18 percent of store sales,” McLean said.
Only 1 percent of the produce used by the store is conventionally grown. “It’s for filling gaps in certain products like asparagus in the early spring,” he said. “Our other main category is ‘Local & Natural.’ In a lot of cases it’s organic, it just hasn’t been certified, which is very expensive for a small farmers.”
Rebirth of a natural foods retailer
Alfalfa’s Market debuted as the tiny Pearl Street Market in 1979 with Alfalfa’s Market launching at the current Boulder location in 1983. With 11 stores in Colorado and the West it was a natural foods icon through the 1990s. Wild Oats Markets, which acquired Alfalfa’s in 1996, was itself acquired by Whole Foods Market. When the original location became available again, some of Alfalfa’s original founders reopened it in 2011. They faced a starkly different retailing environment than 28 years earlier.
There are now 16 major retailers selling food in the city of Boulder for a population of about 105,000 residents. McLean said the roaster includes two Whole Foods Markets, one Whole Foods-owned Ideal Market, three Kroger’s King Soopers plus locations for Safeway, Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market, Sprouts Farmers Market, Natural Grocers/ Vitamin Cottage and Trader Joe’s. All of them offer at least some organic produce. McLean said he sees employees from the other stores walking through Alfalfa’s “all the time.” Ironically, Alfalfa’s Market is now the only strictly locally owned grocer since Lucky’s Market (which has a second Boulder store in the works) expanded nationally with major investment from Kroger.
A team of industry veterans
McClean heads a team responsible for purchasing produce for display, for a significant juicing operation and a large culinary and catering department. The team includes VP for Purchasing, Paul White, Louisville Store Manager Brian Jensen, and Produce Managers Mike Eberly in Boulder and Jeff Hergenreter at the Louisville location. “Everyone on the team has many years of experience in the industry,” McLean said. McLean handles most of the ordering from large distributors out-of-state. “For what we can’t get locally, we get mostly from California and Texas. We partner a lot with Albert’s Organics,” McLean said.
The Produce Managers have a lot of autonomy and the selection may be different at the two locations. “We deal with so many small growers. When the office gets involved the decisions can go into a black hole. A couple of days is a long time in the produce business,” McLean said.
Growers have a habit of showing up at Alfalfa’s back door with surprises. “A farmer had a huge load of cucumbers last summer. We asked a local company if they could pickle a barrel of them. We gave them away with every sandwich,” McLean said.
During July and August the percentage of produce provided by nearby farms can be 40 percent or more, according to McLean. That’s when first 20 feet of the store displays will be all local – Rocky Ford melons, Western Slope peaches, Munson Farms sweet corn, greens and other vegetables.
“We are learning how to source better locally and get out in front of a crop. When we develop a relationship with a grower it’s not for one summer, it is long term,” he said. At least one professional farmer works in Alfalfa’s produce department in the fall and winter.
“We took our team to the Western Slope (of Colorado) to pick some fruit, have dinner with the family and get to know them and hang out,” McLean said.
Alfalfa’s Market’s biggest produce event of the year in the “Local” sale in July and early August. “We put everything locally grown on sale for a month. We have our farmers come in and do sampling and meet shoppers the way they do at the farmers markets,” McLean said, adding that he didn’t think of farmers markets as competitors.
Alfalfa’s supports the Local sale with an active social media presence, email newsletter, local print advertising and inserts and in-store signage. There are only handful of flat screen monitors in the store but a prominent digital sign in produce facing the entrance announces sale items and free weekly wine tastings.
Alfalfa’s COO Paul McLean knows which promotional effort he would hang his hat on. “Last year the Colorado peach crop looked great but we decided to wait even though we could have had a higher margin with the California organics. We made a commitment to stay with it all summer for $2.99 a pound – for a week it was even $1.99. We sold more peaches than ever in the store’s history, 1,000 pounds a week from the Boulder store alone, and shoppers came back week after week.”
Produce in every department
Produce finds its way into nearly every department at Alfalfa’s Market along the perimeter of the store including meat and seafood where peppers fill out kebobs. Juice is a major component. Besides the juice bar, fresh squeezed organic orange juice is bottled daily and available in produce, dairy and Meals to Go. The 48-item olive bar near the Cheese and Specialty Department features house-roasted sweet peppers along with garlic-stuffed olives, balsamic onions and hot crunchy okra.
Every shopper ends up in the expansive area featuring a bakery, large sushi bar, a coffee and tea counter, a salad and hot foods bar, and juice bar. Executive chef Zack Guard overseas a counter dishing prepared foods including sweet potato salad, a build-your-own woodfire pizza spot, and a hot sandwich counter with extras such as a grilled avocado half. “Culinary is 25 percent of our store sales. The customers want to eat clean, delicious food and they want it quick and convenient,” McLean said.
The salad bar is constantly replenished with everything from greens to sliced cremini mushrooms and tri-color quinoa. “The salad bar is the No. 2 selling item in the store day in, day out,” he said. The breakfast bar includes berries and cut fruit. Meals to Go coolers merchandise ready-to-eat salads, vegetable trays, and wraps packed to show off the fresh Romaine and carrot matchsticks inside.
At the 100 percent organic juice bar fans order drinks juiced from a stack of bins packed with beets, carrots and bananas. Bright green shots of fresh wheatgrass are available as well as drinks like the Cuke Crisp with cucumber, dandelion greens, apple, lime juice and coconut water.
“When the store first opened it was more about the supplements in Wellness. Now a lot more people are drinking their nutrition,” McLean said.
Many shoppers sit down in the sunny café that has fresh bouquets on almost every table, free WiFi a chair massage station and a farm-inspired quilt hangs over a gas fireplace.
Cutting waste to zero
Most of the produce looks perfect on display and Alfalfa’s generally doesn’t offer markdown produce. The integrated use of produce throughout all departments in both locations means that less-than-pretty fruits and vegetables are used elsewhere. “We buy No. 2’s for juicing. Culinary cuts smaller No. 2 bell peppers for the salad bar,” McLean said. Leftover edible food at both locations is donated to Community Food Share and other community organizations. Boulder Food Rescue picks up and delivers donated food using bicycle-pulled trailers to nonprofit organizations across the city.
The corporate sustainability philosophy includes using recycled building materials, energy-saving and water use reduction systems, and making a car changing station available. “Last year 97 percent of all waste in the stores was diverted to recycling and composting. We give whatever is left to our farmers for their chicken and pigs and coffee grounds go to gardens,” McLean said.
Boomers, Millennials are dedicated regulars
McLean said that both locations have a large Baby Boom demographic and account for about 30 percent of sales. Low prices don’t top their list of concerns. “They are looking for organic and are big customers in the Wellness department,” he said. Millennials demanding transparency about sustainability, animal and labor welfare, and sourcing compose more than 25 percent of Alfalfa’s shoppers.
Fully 5 to 10 percent of Alfalfa’s sales comes from University of Colorado students and staff including catering. “The morning of CU’s commencement this spring I was g having coffee in front of the store and students were bringing their parents in to see ‘their’ store. It says a lot,” McLean said.
“A number of local chefs shop here for special ingredients when they don’t have to buy in large quantities. They always get 10 percent off,” McLean said.
Regulars talk about Alfalfa’s Market as if they have a contract with the store.
“I like to get my produce here because I don’t have to think about it. Almost everything here is organic which I like to get,” said Jenna Petersen, a Boulder mom with two kids. She had bok choy, lacinato kale, and enoki mushrooms (from Colorado’s Hazel Dell) in her basket. For college student Frank Stillar, Alfalfa’s Market is appealing for wellness and convenience since the store is open 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. “I hit the juice bar and the salad bar a lot. For me it just has to be quick … and better than the burrito places,” he said.
Alfalfa’s personal, community approach has seen it through ups and downs in the industry over the years and is now seen as a pathway to profit.
Across the street from the Boulder location is Presbyterian Manor, a senior living tower. “Many of the residents wanted to come in but couldn’t get here physically. Our employees came to us and said: ‘Can we do something for them?’ We started a meal card program and we send food over,” he said.
Since it reopened Alfalfa’s Market has given seniors 10 percent off at the store on Tuesdays. The retailer’s second busiest day of the week is now Tuesday, following after Saturday, he said.
Looking to the future
Come into Alfalfa’s any weekday and Alfalfa’s next generation of customers from nearby Boulder High School is in line. “We get about a hundred kids in here at noon and another hundred at 1 p.m. every weekday for the salad bar, juice bar, prepared packaged and culinary,” McLean said.
Alfalfa’s second store is a 28,000-squre-foot location in the growing town of Louisville (Loo-iss-vill), where the grocery environment is equally competitive including a Wal-Mart Supercenter. The 1,500-squre-foot produce department includes many of the same features as the Boulder store but tailored for the nearby residents.
Careful growth is called for in the crowded Denver metro area environment. McLean said he was ready to announce the opening of a third Alfalfa’s Market in 2017 in the northwest Denver town of Edgewater.
John Lehndorff is the former food editor of the Boulder Daily Camera. He hosts Radio Nibbles on KGNU-FM. Food trend blog: johnlehndorff.wordpress.com.
1651 Broadway, Boulder 720-420-8400
785 E. South Boulder Road, Louisville; 303-335-4200