This is a story about renewal; about one women’s steadfast passion for serving her community.
For over a decade, Gwen Schmidt owned and operated SLO Fresh Market on Laurel Lane. Schmidt managed more than just a small neighborhood grocery store–she ran a center for the community. “I love my customers,” Schmidt said. “The store became my life; the customers my family.”
It was here that Schmidt greeted every customer that walked through her doors, stocked shelves with local wines and produce, brewed coffee and poured wine during the store’s happy hour. She had a strong band of loyal customers.
Then to the surprise of many, the neighborhood market doors closed. “I was heartbroken,” Schmidt said. “No one is there to take care of my customers.” Many regulars were seniors in the nearby retirement village who are unable to drive. Other stores in the Laurel Lane center have felt the loss, she said. Its heart has gone out of the shopping center.
As the old adage goes, when one door closes, another door opens. Schmidt did not look too long and regretfully upon the closed door before she saw an opportunity to once again help her community.
“The Universe was telling me it was time to move on and knew I wouldn’t do it myself—I had to be forced out,” Schmidt said.
As the store was slated to close, it was her customers who told her about a new opening at the Natural Foods Co-Op of SLO. She applied and got the job as General Manager.
The new job was a natural fit for Schmidt, especially when both she and the Co-Op share the same philosophy: To support the local community by incorporating as much healthy and organic products from local farmers and vendors as possible.
“I feel blessed,” said Schmidt, “I like the people and the great energy. This is what I’m supposed to do.”
The leadership change is not the only thing that is new at the Co-Op. So is the location. The move, while not far (only 637 feet away), provides nearly four times the space as the old store. Schmidt explains that the new, larger market will continue to be warm and inviting with that same neighborhood feel as their old location.
The old location on Francis Street is a bit hidden. Its existence is buried behind a liquor store, automotive repair shops, and other light industries. Inside customers are welcomed with the sounds of bells that are hanging on the door. The light is mellow and the workers, friendly. Each inch of the store is packed with healthy, organic foods many of which are unfamiliar. Varieties of spices and herbs in mason jars remind of old-fashion markets.
Russell Hodin, the project manager of SLO Natural Foods who helped build the first Co-Op on Pacific Street in the mid-1970s, agreed that the change is a good one. “People want the Co-Op, and the model is good,” said Hodin while installing wooden columns by a cash register, “but there was the perception of the old place as being too small. This new store is easier to maintain.”
The new location will come with a new name, SLO Natural Foods. Leaving the word Co-Op out of the new store name was both a strategic and perceptual change. The Co-Op model of equity ownership and decision-making by membership still remains the same but the new name lets the public know that anyone is welcomed, not just paying members.
“The name change to SLO Natural Foods reflects the need to expand beyond our traditional member base, said Aimee Wyatt, Board President. “Yes, we’re still a member owned co-op and there are plenty of benefits for members, but anyone can shop at the new store.”
On a recent weekday visit, volunteers were seen pushing shopping carts full of groceries from the old to new store. The scene was understandably chaotic—with the grand opening scheduled for July 13th, a date that Schmidt and the team know will creep up quickly.
As volunteers were helping to move to the new location on Victoria Avenue, Hank Williams played discreetly in the background speakers of the old Co-Op:
So pack it on over (move it on over)/
Tote it on over (move it on over)
It’s a move that is natural and healthy.
The grand opening is scheduled for Saturday, July 13 from 10am – 4pm. Local food vendors and musicians are scheduled to attend. For information email firstname.lastname@example.org; call (805)544-7928 and visit the website: www.slonaturalfoods.com.
SLO Natural Foods is now located at 2494 Victoria Avenue in San Luis Obispo.