Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Natural health food stores not common in Tuscaloosa

The city of Tuscaloosa has 91,605 citizens and is rated one of the best cities in which to start and grow a business by Forbes and Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazines. However, it has just one natural health food store.

The store Manna Grocery and Deli sits on McFarland Boulevard and serves the city of Tuscaloosa and the entire University of Alabama campus population. Established in 1980, Manna offers a variety of natural and organic foods and health products, along with a deli that serves lunch daily.

Owner Frances Drennen said much of the store’s customer base comes from the University community, but the local Tuscaloosa community still plays a large role. She said the University often brings prospective students, grad students and faculty to the store to show them Tuscaloosa can offer them the lifestyle they live.

“We see a lot of trends come and go, but we are definitely in a time where there is a lot more awareness,” Drennen said.

Amid this food-consciousness, Drennen said she thinks one natural health food store is all Tuscaloosa has the capacity for right now.

“We’ve done research on the demographics and considered opening another Manna, but that might be cannibalizing our own store,” Drennen said. “Tuscaloosa’s not necessarily a market that a store like Whole Foods would come into.”

Drennen said factors such as income level, education level and population density determine where chain health food stores decide to open.

Auburn, Ala., a city of 54,566, had an Earth Fare open for business in 2009. Earth Fare, a natural health food store, has a chain of 30 stores throughout the East.

Brooke Pace, the community relations manager for Earth Fare Auburn, said Earth Fare has similar criteria to a large store such as Whole Foods, looking at age range, general income in the area and population density. She said the difference is Earth Fare generally picks smaller cities as opposed to their main competition, Whole Foods, who picks larger demographics.

Pace said the challenge they did face when opening was that of finding the demand for their products and ideals.

“It’s a lifestyle change,” Pace said. “That’s the biggest challenge I see when I go out in the community.”

Pace said the demand for a natural lifestyle is much stronger in their Northern stores, but she sees the trend growing in the South.

“It’s still kind of trickling down,” she said. “I think the awareness still needs to grow.”

About half the Auburn Earth Fare’s market is students. Traditionally, the target audience would be families or mothers, but the campus plays a large role in their store’s business, Pace said.

She said when Earth Fare opened in Auburn, one local natural health food store was already operating there, which served the campus community.

Pace said she believes it’s a matter of the community adopting the lifestyle to which Earth Fare caters.

“We are more expensive, but it’s the idea that you can pay for your health now or you can pay for it later,” she said.

Outside of Manna, the University and Tuscaloosa community have the option of the Homegrown, Northport or Tuscaloosa Riverwalk farmers markets for natural health.

Mo Fiorella, the director of the Homegrown Farmers Market, said she is starting to see an interest in the natural health food trend.

“I hear a lot of questions about natural foods and about the different vendors at our market,” Fiorella said. “That’s part of our goal, to inform them about those things. I think that people are pretty aware.”

Fiorella said she would like to be able to shop at a store such as Earth Fare or Whole Foods more easily but would always rather support a local business. Fiorella also said she believes with all the local and farmers markets, Tuscaloosa has more natural health alternatives than many realize.

“I think we probably have more options than people would think,” Fiorella said. “We just don’t have something really obvious like a Whole Foods.”

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