Outside it’s a frigid January morning in Southern Ontario, but inside Goodness Me! the atmosphere is warm and inviting. Decked out in a fire-engine red blazer, Janet Jacks smiles widely as she moves through the store making herself both available and easily identifiable to customers who she stops to chat with, offer recommendations to, and share her vast knowledge on healthy living. It’s something Jacks is completely comfortable with—it’s been part of her routine since opening the first Goodness Me! in Hamilton nearly 38 years ago.
On this day, we’re at the newest Goodness Me! Natural Food Market, a 16,000-sq.-ft. location, which opened its doors in late November on a busy commercial strip in Cambridge, Ont. The bright and meticulously tidy store has the distinction of being the 10th in the natural food chain’s network.
Jacks admits she never envisioned the brand would one day expand to 10 stores. Neither herself, a teacher, or her husband Scott, a banker, had any grocery experience when they plunged into the business all those years ago. “We had no expectations or plans—we thought it would just be a little business our family would run.”
While still a family business—son Mike is now the owner and Jacks herself remains heavily involved in the educational areas of the business—it’s not such a “little” operation. The 10 stores are dotted around Ontario’s Greater Golden Horseshoe serving cities like Barrie, Mississauga, Waterloo, and Hamilton, where it is based and from where the online business also operates. And at a time when some retailers continue to struggle, Goodness Me! is looking to expand, potentially doubling its current store count over the next five years. “We’re continuing to look for locations,” says Mike Jacks. “It’s certainly our intent to grow as the market demands and supports.”
According to Nielsen research, growth at specialty stores, including ethnic and health food stores, is outpacing that of conventional grocers. Recognizing growing consumer interest in health, grocers of all stripes have sharpened their focus on serving health-conscious consumers over the past few years, but at Goodness Me! it’s the raison d’être. Jacks’ passion for nutrition was spurred early on by a desire to keep her young family healthy, and she spent years educating herself on how to make smarter food choices. Through Goodness Me!, Jacks found a way to share the knowledge she was amassing.
Helping educate consumers on how to eat and live healthier is something the company has taken seriously since day one. Today, most stores are equipped with a classroom where classes and workshops take place every day of the week on topics ranging from gut health to vegan cooking to kombucha brewing and how to kick sugar. Jacks’ own Lifewatchers healthy eating program, which she launched 20 years ago, is also offered. Today, the Cambridge classroom, which seats 80, is at capacity with customers travelling from as far as Toronto (about 90 minutes away) to take in a free class on eating and living well led by author/holistic nutritionist Joy McCarthy. While the classes are a big investment in terms of time and energy, Jacks says they’re critical. “There’s too much information out there today and a lot of conflicting information so people do not know how to find their way. Our goal is to help.”
Also to help customers along their “health journey,” the stores offer things such as “keto crawls” where Goodness Me!’s experts walk customers through the stores highlighting products that work with the diet. It also has specialized staff including nutritionists (which it calls Healthy Living Advisors) at each store to help customers navigate the world of natural health. Other efforts to educate consumers come via Goodness Me!’s free magazine Nourish, as well as the Honest to Goodness podcast where Jacks and daughter Emily serve up health and lifestyle advice each week. “Our purpose is to help people live longer, happier lives,” explains Jacks. “In everything we do, that has to be the purpose—so in the staff we hire, the knowledge that we want them to have and in the products we carry.”
Jacks says Goodness Me! “walks the talk” when it comes to its product offering. Signage in the store proclaims “If it’s healthy it’s here.” This means everything is 100% certified organic in the produce department; meats sold in the store are responsibly-raised from local producers (it has just struck a partnership with VG Meats of Simcoe, Ont. for its new Goodness Me! private-label meat line, for instance); the seafood on offer is sustainable; and prepared foods contain no “funny fats” or nasty ingredients. With packaged goods, a team is tasked with scrutinizing product labels ensuring the items meet Goodness Me!’s standards.
“The No. 1 thing that differentiates us is our standards,” says Mike Jacks, admitting that the rigour with which they apply them can sometimes frustrate vendors. “We won’t take on products, even products that could be viewed as natural health products, if they don’t meet our ingredient standards. I think for the customer it creates simplicity, clarity when they’re in the store, where they can have confidence about what they’re purchasing.”
While not the easiest path for a grocer to take, the uncompromising approach is working for the retailer, which has held its own when up against tough competitors both from traditional grocery as well as other natural food stores.
“When we opened Goodness Me!, my husband said to me we will run this business with integrity or we will close the doors,” says Janet Jacks. “And that has been our purpose. It means treating your suppliers right, always telling the truth to your customers, and it means not being there to sell them something, but to serve them.”
This article appeared in Canadian Grocer’s February 2019 issue. PHOTOGRAPHY BY MIKE FORD.