October 17, 2002

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O.G. owners say store struggling

Organic Grocery owner Maria Thorton-Bunkley

While the Organic Grocery has provided Yellow Springs with wholistic foods and products for 34 years, the store’s owners, Maria Thornton-Bunkley and Ras Shaggai, have recently struggled to keep sales up and stock their shelves. They say they are now open to considering potential offers to purchase the downtown business.

“This past year has been harder than ever with sales being very unpredictable,” Thornton-Bunkley said. “This summer was particularly challenging.”

Competition is an issue business owners in any location must face. Other grocery stores in town have gradually increased their stock of natural foods, and larger chains near Yellow Springs, such as Kroger’s and Meijer, have done the same. The increased availability of health foods is a positive thing for the population at large, Thornton-Bunkley said, “But it’s killing the mom and pop stores.”

Name brand whole foods that got their start in the independent health food stores are now being sold by their distributors to mega stores with buying power, Thornton-Bunkley said.

“Kroger’s can sell stuff at a lower price than what I buy wholesale,” she said. “People think they’re saving money, but if village businesses go under, I think they’ll realize that’s not really what they wanted.”

Throughout the year the Organic Grocery has tried to focus on its strengths and expand the services it does best. The store has doubled its juice bar and smoothie menu and widened its selection of prepared foods. Thornton-Bunkley and Shaggai have also offered more vegetarian and vegan catering for parties and community events.

But the bottom line is getting shoppers to come through the door.

“We need more localists, people who are willing to come here first and spend just a dollar a day,” Thornton-Bunkley said.

There are customers who are trying. Antioch College staff member Maryann Ullmann likes supporting a small local business that sells organic food. She and Bryan Felice, also an Antioch staff member, often come to the O.G. for lunch to get their favorite curried tofu sandwich.

Ullmann said she usually goes to the O.G. before she shops at Tom’s Market, “But it’s so hard when you want to support the local organic grocer but you don’t have much money and you know it’s a dollar cheaper across the street.”

The Organic Grocery has come through many hard times in the past. When the store’s former owner Stacy Arnett bought the store in 1990, he was open just a year before deciding he wanted out. He put the business up for sale, but there were no good offers.

“I closed up the store one night after exhausting all my [options] and realized there was a formula to this thing,” said Arnett, who sold the business to Thornton-Bunkley and Shaggai in 2000. “You don’t ever want to be seen as a competitive capitalist, but if you scrape off the layers of every successful business here, you see they watch every penny.”

For the next 10 years the O.G. thrived by focusing on personalized service, catering to its customers’ needs and specializing in supplements and bulk foods. But it was never an easy road.

“It’s hard to be financially at risk from month to month and put all your personal investment on the line,” Arnett said. “And you’ve got to totally be doing it all the time, even when you don’t want to or you’re not going to make it.”

Thornton-Bunkley and Shaggai have two children and a traveling reggae band they are both very committed to. The band, Ras Shaggai and the Unifires, has four gigs this month, including a performance coming up at the Nite Owl in Dayton.

“The band is definitely a big part of our lives,” Thornton-Bunkley said. “The O.G. has been a labor of love, but it’s becoming too all consuming. I am open to making changes and talking to potential buyers.”

Thornton-Bunkley and Shaggai have thought of many alternatives for the store, including turning it into a reggae cafe or a juice bar with limited grocery and snack items. They have considered holding an O.G. fundraiser or a rally to help supplement flagging sales.

Thornton-Bunkley wants what is best for her family and for the community. “I’d be interested in hearing what the community thought about it,” she said. “Th
e O.G. has always been a special place for people to connect, and it’s important for the whole town.”


—Lauren Heaton