Tactics: New Seasons Market claims victory for organic food

BrianRohterTHIRTY YEARS AGO, Brian Rohter and his colleagues in the organic food business were widely considered a fringe group.


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FOUNDED: 1999, Portland
STORES: nine, with two planned in 2009
TOP EXECUTIVES: Brian Rohter, CEO; Lisa Sedlar, president


BrianRohter New Seasons CEO Brian Rohter embraced sustainability before it was trendy.


THIRTY YEARS AGO, Brian Rohter and his colleagues in the organic food business were widely considered a fringe group.

“Now you can buy organic food everywhere,” says Rohter, CEO of privately held, Portland-based New Seasons Market. “Some people who have been in organics a long time complain about that, but the way I look at it, hey, we won. It’s a victory.”

Few business leaders are claiming victory in today’s economy, but Rohter has reason to be confident. New Seasons recently announced leases for two new stores to open in 2009, on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard in Portland and at Progress Ridge near Washington Square. That will build the chain to 11 stores with more than 2,000 employees.

New Seasons has pursued a consistent strategy from its debut in 2000 — in Rohter’s words, “create a progressive work environment, focus on customer service, buy local food and give it back to the community.”

If that sounds a tad idealistic, that’s because it is. Rohter and his partners stress a message of pragmatic idealism that sells well in Portland. With “absolutely no plans” to expand outside of Portland or go public, Rohter is free to follow his ideals because his customers tend to agree with them. That support enables him to do things like pull out of trade groups over philosophical differences regarding the minimum wage and country-of-origin labeling, and underwrite farmer’s markets even though they’re competitors. “Putting a face on the farmer is one of the most important contributions we can make,” he says. “Creating that interest and the awareness that there are people behind this food will help develop demand.”

New Seasons is not immune to rising fuel and food prices. But because the company chose to invest early in local farmers, it’s saving money on transport. Its pork comes from 100 rather than 2,000 miles away and its local produce and dairy products are competing better with out-of-state goods because the distribution systems of conventional agriculture are hard hit by diesel prices. This strengthens New Seasons’ position against much larger chains such as Kroger, Safeway and Whole Foods, which recently purchased Wild Oats.

Consumer confidence has taken a hit in recent months, but as Rohter points out, “people still have to eat. Instead of going out to dinner a few times a week they’re making nicer meals at home. We’re benefiting from that.” He’s taking that trend into account in planning the new stores, along with a surge in Internet orders for home delivery among shoppers eager to leave their cars in the driveway, and a general rise in demand for local food.

“We’ve been singing the buy local mantra from Day One, and some people thought that it was quaint or that it was a marketing position or that it was alarmist,” Rohter says.  “But what we’ve seen is this is a food security issue… There is a new awareness of the importance of our regional food system.”                                     


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