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Where there once were few natural and organic grocers in Oklahoma City, now there are a few more. In recent months, Sunflower Farmers Market and Whole Foods Market have opened to record crowds.
But with those openings, Akin’s Natural Foods, a local stalwart in the vitamin and health-food business, is working to keep its customers, and to draw some of the attention away from the new kids in town.Akin’s opened its first Oklahoma City store, 2924 N.W. 63rd, which is across the street from Sunflower,
in 1993. Mary Ann O’Dell is Akin’s nutrition director and daughter of Jim Hinkefent, who purchased the company in 1961. The family sold to Nebraska-based The Healthy Edge Inc. a decade ago, but still oversees operations of the stores from the corporate office in Tulsa.
“It’s a business I was raised in, and it’s something I believe in very much,” she says.
right, Kamala Gamble and son Mason Cornman at Sunflower Farmers Market
While O’Dell says customers have gone to check out new stores, she thinks most will return. This is not the first time a Whole Foods has opened in a market previously held almost exclusively by Akin’s.
“Initially, everyone goes to look,” she says. “We went through this in Tulsa with Wild Oats, which is now Whole Foods. I have no doubt we’ll have the same experience in Oklahoma City.”
O’Dell says what brought customers back to the Tulsa stores was the chain’s commitment to high-quality items, and exclusively organic produce and familiar faces. Many Akin’s associates have been around for years, and go through extensive training to assist customers with vitamins, supplements and natural remedies.
“We tend to have long-term staff,” she says. “Part of that comes from the overriding philosophy of our company, and I think most people will stay with us.”
While Whole Foods and Sunflower are predominately grocery stores, O’Dell says about 60% of Akin’s business is supplements. She calls Akin’s a “natural products store.”
Sunflower and Whole Foods carry organic and non-organic produce. O’Dell says the produce at Akin’s is all organic, even if it doesn’t always have the longest shelf life.
“We essentially introduced organic products to the Oklahoma market,” she says.
Sunflower officials reported the Aug. 29 opening was one of the biggest in company history. Located at 6410 N. May, it has stores around the Southwest, and offices in Boulder, Colo., and Phoenix.
It opened like gangbusters, waned a bit in the days after Whole Foods opened, but has seen its customers coming back.
Steve Black, vice president of marketing and information technology at Sunflower, says he believes there is enough business to go around for those looking for healthy and natural options. And, of course, the opening of Whole Foods came as no surprise.
“By that time, a lot of customers had a chance to stop by Sunflower to see what we were all about,” he says. “They might check out other stores, but we have not seen any noticeable drop in traffic than what is normally expected after a store opening in a new market.”
The Oklahoma City launch went so well that Black says the company plans to open a 30,000-square-foot store in March 2012 at Second Street and Broadway in Edmond.
Austin-based Whole Foods also drew large crowds to its Oct. 13 opening, and, even a week later, parking spaces were scarce day and night.For Whole Foods officials, it came as no surprise that people lined up early to be the first ones into the long-awaited store at 6001 N. Western. While they did not disclose exact numbers, the opening crowds met or exceeded their expectations.
right, Cheese bar at Whole Foods“The store was expected to be well-received, especially since Oklahoma City was the largest city in the country without a Whole Foods Market,” says marketing team leader Sarah Innerarity. “There were guests camping out at 4:15 a.m. on opening day to be some of the first in the store. Since the opening exceeded expectations, we are currently hiring more team members.”
At the Oklahoma Creativity Forum on Nov. 1, Chesapeake Energy Corp. CEO Aubrey McClendon, the landlord for the Oklahoma City store, said Whole Foods officials told him it was one of the top 10 openings of its more than 300 stores in the United States, United Kingdom and Canada.
With more options, it is good for shoppers, but has increased competition.
O’Dell says there are no plans to close Akin’s, and no one is really doing anything different. She was ready for a drop-off when the new stores opened, but says her staff still sees many familiar faces who, for years, have come to trust the store and its products.
“I don’t know that we really had to rethink anything,” she says.
While Oklahoma City welcomed two new grocery stores in August and October, it also lost an old friend at the end of October. Crescent Market, founded on the day of the Land Run in 1889 in a covered wagon, closed up shop at Nichols Hills Plaza, 6409 Avondale Drive.
The upscale grocery store known for its antique furniture, red-carpeted floors and charge accounts, has been owned by the Pemberton family since the early 1940s. It has been in other locations, but has called Nichols Hills Plaza home since 1963.
Owner Robert Pemberton felt the hit when Sunflower Farmers Market and nearby Whole Foods Market both opened, and decided it was time to rethink the store’s future.
While no exact plans have been announced, customers who attest to the store’s tagline, “Good Things to Eat,” may just see the market open in another location. Pemberton says he would like to reopen the store in coming months within a five-mile radius of the former Nichols Hills store.
Photo by Shannon Cornman