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Portland, Ore., Grocer Sells In An 'Alternate Universe'

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Portland, Ore., Grocer Sells In An 'Alternate Universe'

Business

Portland, Ore., Grocer Sells In An 'Alternate Universe'

Portland, Ore., Grocer Sells In An 'Alternate Universe'

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New Seasons Market, a nine-store chain in Portland, Ore., sells a lot of local and organic produce. Melissa Block/NPR hide caption

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Melissa Block/NPR

New Seasons Market, a nine-store chain in Portland, Ore., sells a lot of local and organic produce.

Melissa Block/NPR

In Portland, Ore., people rave about New Seasons Market, a chain of nine locally owned grocery stores whose motto is "the friendliest store in town."

Shoppers there say it lives up to its motto. As she loads up her car with groceries, Robin Johnson of Portland explains her loyalty: "The staff is great. They're very welcoming, very helpful. It's just fun to go in there."

New Seasons emphasizes local meat, sustainable fish and a lot of local and organic produce, tagged with yellow "home grown" labels. About 40 percent of its products are locally produced.

But this is a market with a difference. "We do lots of things differently," says New Seasons' founder and CEO, 55-year-old Brian Rohter. "It's a little bit of an alternate universe here."

New Seasons has very low employee turnover. The company pays well above minimum wage, with salaries starting at $10 an hour. It offers health coverage for workers and their families. Most employees work more than 20 hours a week, and the company pays 80 percent of their premium. New Seasons pays 50 percent of the premium for employees who work less than 20 hours a week. Workers also benefit from a profit-sharing program: 20 percent of New Seasons' after-tax profit goes back to employees.

One quick glance at the shelves shows you what sets it apart from its competitors, including Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe's. Side-by-side with a wide array of organic and natural products are conventional products, including Double-Stuff Oreos, Skippy peanut butter and Diet Coke.

Rohter says New Seasons wants to avoid the rigid rules that might govern other grocery stores.

"We know that people aren't perfect. We know that people want to eat good food, but they also want their Doritos and they also want their Oreo cookies," he says. "We are not the food police. We want to offer what people want."