Portland, Ore., Grocer Sells In An 'Alternate Universe' New Seasons, a nine-store grocery chain in Portland, Ore., emphasizes locally grown, organic and sustainable meats and produce. But it also stocks its shelves with Doritos, Skippy peanut butter and Diet Coke. "We are not the food police," says founder Brian Rohter.
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Portland, Ore., Grocer Sells In An 'Alternate Universe'

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

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

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From NPR News, this ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris in Washington.


And I'm Melissa Block, hosting this week and next from NPR West, with a story today about a much-loved local institution in Portland, Oregon, that chain of grocery stores that everybody there kept raving about. Listen to shoppers Robin Johnson, Andy Corr(ph) and Helen Abernathy(ph).

Ms. ROBIN JOHNSON: The staff is great. They're very welcoming, very helpful. It's just fun to go in there.

Mr. ANDY CORR: I used to go to Whole Foods all the time. But I like this place better. They - just because they seem to have better service and selection.

Ms. HELEN ABERNATHY: The people in there are absolutely the friendliest in town.

BLOCK: It's New Seasons Market. And its slogan is in fact: The friendliest store in town.

Unidentified Man #1: What can I get for you?

Unidentified Man #2: Can I get a pound of the chuck steak?

Unidentified Man #1: You most certainly may. How many people are you feeding?

BLOCK: There are nine New Seasons stores around Portland, two more on the way.

Unidentified Man #1: There you go. I'll see you next time.

Unidentified Man #2: Thank you.

Unidentified Man #1: Oh, it's my pleasure.

BLOCK: The store emphasizes local meat, sustainable fish, lots of local and organic produce tagged with yellow homegrown labels. And one thing shoppers will tell you is they like that New Seasons is locally owned. It was started 10 years ago by Brian Rohter.

Mr. BRIAN ROHTER (CEO, New Seasons Market): And we had a great garden this year. We had a...

BLOCK: We meet Brian Rohter at his Portland home. His front lawn has been torn up, turned into a vegetable garden. Out back, there are chickens.

(Soundbite of chickens)

But we don't stay long at the house. Brian Rohter, wearing jeans and a green t-shirt, straps on a helmet and does what lots of people in Portland do, he bikes to work.

Mr. ROHTER: So I'll see you there.

BLOCK: We meet up again a few miles away at one of his New Seasons Markets and start walking around.

Mr. ROHTER: We do lots of things differently. It's a little bit of an alternate universe here.

BLOCK: And on the shelves, you see right away what sets New Seasons apart from, say, Whole Foods or Trader Joe's.

Mr. ROHTER: I mean, this is actually an interesting aisle to go in right here just because it gives you a sense of what the store is all about.

BLOCK: Yeah, I'm standing here in the cookie and chip aisle, and I'm thinking I could be right now in a Safeway. I'm seeing double stuff Oreos on my right, Fritos Scoops on my left.

Mr. ROHTER: Exactly. And then if you move down the aisle here, you'll see that it shifts and it goes into the natural foods brands, the Barbara's and the Newman's Own. And so, that's a lot of what this store is, is that we know that people aren't perfect, and we know that people want to eat good food, but they also want their Doritos and they also want their Oreo cookies. We're not the food police. We want to offer what people want.

BLOCK: So Skippy Peanut Butter, Diet Coke, they've got that along with the Tofurkey.

Mr. ROHTER: We recognize the reality of what people's eating habits are and we offer them lots of fresh, healthy choices. And we find that over time, when they try those things, they end up liking them more and they move in that direction. So we think that we're a positive force for change by moving people in the right direction. But on the other hand, if you like double stuff Oreos, you like double stuff Oreos. And as long as you don't eat the whole box of them and you have a couple of them for treats, there's really no big harm in that.

BLOCK: Eat and let eat is how Brian Rohter describes his philosophy with a few exceptions.

Mr. ROHTER: There's a few products that we say are iconic in their awfulness.

BLOCK: So, New Seasons doesn't sell tobacco products or 40-ounce malt liquor, no industrial-raised veal, and no farmed salmon, which Rohter calls an environmental disaster. We are, after all, in Oregon, Salmon Nation. The prices, you do hear some shoppers complain about that.

Mr. ROHTER: We're trying to make this a shopping experience that's affordable for all sorts of people. We're trying to democratize quality, local foods.

BLOCK: You think that's true, you don't think there would be people on, you know, a tight income, who would say, there's this incredible special at Safeway this week that New Seasons just can't match?

Mr. ROHTER: No, I don't think that's true at all. One of the things is that that may be that Safeway may have a special this week that New Seasons can't match for some products, and at the same time, New Seasons Market is going to have a special that Safeway can't match. People might spend more money here because they get tempted.

BLOCK: Besides what's on the shelves, New Seasons prides itself on its customer service. More than two people on line, they'll open up another checkstand. Don't like something? You'll get your money back even without a receipt. You're a senior or in the military, you'll get a discount once a week.

Mr. ROHTER: I think that our favorite one, though, is our Special Request Policy, and it's just the word yes. And so basically, we'll just do what people want.

BLOCK: Which could mean opening up all the jars of chocolate sauce for a customer to taste, so he can decide which one he wants.

Mr. ROHTER: True story, absolutely happens all the time. There's a lot of stories like that.

BLOCK: As for the workers, there's no union. Brian Rohter says there's never been a request for one. Pay starts at $10 an hour, that's well above the state minimum. If you work at least one shift a week, you and your family get health coverage. The company pays 50 percent of the premium if you work under 20 hours a week. It pays 80 percent if you work more. And New Seasons does profit sharing with employees, 20 percent of after-tax profits go back to the workers.

Mr. ROHTER: Hey, my friend.

Unidentified Man #3: How you doing?

Mr. ROHTER: Good. How you doing?

BLOCK: As he walks through the store, Brian Rohter greets a lot of workers by name. Many have been here from the start. But as the company has grown from one store and 70 people in the beginning, to nine stores, 1,700 workers and 25,000 customers a day now, it's harder to stay connected. And that's why if a customer sends an email to New Seasons, Brian Rohter will read it.

Mr. ROHTER: I learn things about what's going on in the company that I wouldn't know about if I didn't read these things.

BLOCK: Rohter is 55, and his connection with food goes way back to soon after he left home at 17.

Mr. ROHTER: So I graduated from high school at seven o'clock and I left Chicago at 7:30.

BLOCK: Hitchhiking. He was pulled west by a book.

Mr. ROHTER: My brother had given me a copy of Ken Kesey's "Sometimes a Great Notion." And I read that book. And Oregon was like a beacon of hope for me as I made it through those last months of school. And so I ended up wandering out to Oregon.

BLOCK: To a little town outside Eugene, Oregon, where he did what people did in the early '70s, started a communal farm.

Mr. ROHTER: And it was called Mud Farm. About all we knew how to do was create a bunch of mud.

BLOCK: But eventually, they figured out the farming thing. Brian Rohter moved on to start a natural meat market, run a grocery chain, and then started New Seasons. Rohter is interested in the politics of food. He believes maintaining local agriculture is important to community security. About 40 percent of New Seasons' products are locally produced. He thinks linking responsible rural producers and interested urban eaters is good for everyone, and that even in this economy, it can pay off.

Mr. ROHTER: It's 2009, it's the worst economic conditions that I've ever seen in all my years of being in business. And we're going to have our best year ever. And so I think that our business model is strong and sustainable. And the fact that we've made it through 2009, we haven't laid off one staff member, and so it's working.

BLOCK: Working. And he hopes a model for communities everywhere.

Mr. ROHTER: We don't want to be an alternative grocery store. We want to be the new mainstream grocery store. That's really what we're working towards. And I would imagine that almost anywhere, people want to go to a store where the people working in the store are having a good time, the people shopping in the store are treated respectfully, there's local quality food for sale, the prices are affordable, and what's not to love about that?

What've you got going on today?

Unidentified Woman: Oh, making some homemade chili in this hot weather.

Mr. ROHTER: Yeah, just wasn't hot enough...

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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