Corridor’s natural foods scene evolves with demand

Andrez Reid, a Natural Grocers cashier, stocks salad dressings as Grocery Manager Brandi Carmer works behind him to ready the store for its opening on Nov. 23.  PHOTO/CINDY HADISH


By Cindy Hadish

It’s a season of change for Eastern Iowa’s local foods scene, with a national grocery chain planning four new Iowa stores, a local food co-op closing its virtual doors and one longtime farmers market shutting down.

Colorado-based Natural Grocers is set to open a store Nov. 23 in Cedar Rapids at 931 Blairs Ferry Rd. NE, followed by another in Cedar Falls next month. The company also has plans to open locations in Davenport and Iowa City next year.

“Iowa is a place we’re expanding in,” spokeswoman Krystal Covington said, noting that Natural Grocers’ first Iowa store opened earlier this year in Clive.

The family-run chain launched in 1955 and now operates in 19 states. It offers organic and natural groceries, along with dietary supplements and body care products. Each store also employs a nutritional health coach to answer customer questions.

“We believe the people of Iowa are underserved when it comes to their choices in regards to organic and natural foods, as well as their needs for high-quality dietary supplements,” Kemper Isely, co-president of Natural Grocers and son of the founders, Margaret and Philip Isely, said in an email. “Our unique stores can provide Iowans with a resource to educate themselves about nutrition so that they can make healthy choices.”

Natural Grocers’ Cedar Rapids opening coincides with the closing this month of the Iowa Valley Food Co-op, a web-based cooperative in which consumers could order products directly from area farmers and other local producers.

“It’s kind of sad,” co-op member Christine Kirpes said as she left the last distribution day earlier this month. She said she appreciated the five years the co-op offered the online marketplace, but has found herself shopping more often at New Pioneer Food Co-op, which opened a Cedar Rapids location in December 2014.

New Pi, as it’s commonly known, also has stores in Coralville and Iowa City and sells organic, natural, and local food and products. General Manager Matt Hartz said New Pi supports all expansion of the local foods system and is more mission-driven than focused on market share, “so it’s unfortunate to see the Iowa Valley Co-op close.”

Regarding competition from Natural Grocers, Mr. Hartz said New Pioneer has a good understanding of the chain’s strengths and weaknesses, “and have factored them into our plans.”

He said New Pi’s strength is in providing support to local suppliers, and while sales in Johnson County have declined due to expanding competition, the Cedar Rapids store is proving to be a success.

“The overall natural foods market continues to grow, though time will tell if there is enough room in the market to support new entrants to it,” Mr. Hartz said.

In Linn County, New Pi may be capitalizing on the void left by The Fresh Market, which opened at a former Kmart location in northeast Cedar Rapids to huge crowds in October 2014, but closed this spring, along with a dozen other Fresh Markets nationwide. Store leaders cited the company’s overall growth strategy and long-term financial performance for the closures.

In July 2015, the first Lucky’s Market in Iowa opened at the former Sycamore Mall in Iowa City, where it anchors the Iowa City Marketplace and focuses on local and natural foods, centered around affordable prices.

The Iowa Valley Food Co-op launched in 2011 with a mission to increase the resiliency of Eastern Iowa’s local food system by offering fresh, affordable, sustainably produced goods directly to consumers via an online ordering system. It offered distribution sites in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids.

Lea Olson, board secretary for the Iowa Valley Food Co-op, talks to MArcus Johnson of Buffalo Ridge Orchard at the co-op's last distribution day on Nov. 2.
Lea Olson, board secretary for the Iowa Valley Food Co-op, talks to MArcus Johnson of Buffalo Ridge Orchard at the co-op’s last distribution day on Nov. 2.

Board President Jessica Burtt Fogarty said the decision to end operations was difficult. A letter to members cited a steady decrease in participation by both producers and consumers, which caused sales to drop to the point where it no longer sustainable.

“To revive the co-op, a significant investment in member outreach and producer recruitment was needed, and we ran out of time and money,” Ms. Fogarty said.

The board felt sales decreased, she added, in part because of the greater availability of local foods through other outlets, which offer more convenience than a bi-monthly distribution.

“We are proud to have been early pioneers in creating a market for producers’ products and providing access to local foods in the Cedar Rapids market,” Ms. Fogarty said.

Board Secretary Lea Olson agreed, citing the greater availability of local foods since the co-op’s inception.

“I think we helped to raise everyone’s expectations,” Ms. Olson said. “I see that as one of the successes of the co-op.”

Marcus Johnson, of Buffalo Ridge Orchard near Central City, one of the co-op’s producer members, said that Iowa Valley customers were loyal. Compared to the co-op, Buffalo Ridge sold more fresh produce to grocery stores, colleges and other outlets, he said, “but as far as community, it’s a loss.”

Mr. Johnson said the co-op might continue its work by offering wholesale outlets for the producers at schools and elsewhere.

Buffalo Ridge also will continue to sell its apples at the Mount Vernon Winter Farmers Market, which kicked off its indoor season Nov. 5.

One longtime entity ceasing operations is Ely’s winter farmers market, which began in 2010, but decided against hosting indoor markets this year.

Still, other winter markets, which offer vegetables, eggs, baked goods, honey, meat and more, are continuing in Eastern Iowa, with most operating November through the spring.


Winter Markets List
These indoor markets will be open in Eastern Iowa during the 2016-2017 winter season. Visit for updates throughout the season

Dubuque: Colts Center, 1101 Central Ave.; 9 a.m.-noon Saturdays, November through April. (563) 556-1908.

Davenport: Freight House Farmers’ Market, 421 W. River Drive; 8 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturdays. The Quad Cities Food Hub Market Store, in the same building, is open 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Sundays; 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; and 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays.

Iowa City Holiday Markets: Robert A. Lee Recreation Center, 220 S. Gilbert St.; 8 a.m.-1 p.m. Nov. 19 and Dec. 10.

Iowa City: Johnson County Fairgrounds, Building C, 4261 Oak Crest Hill Road SE; 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Sundays on Nov. 13 and 20; Dec. 4 and 18; Jan. 8 and 22; Feb. 5 and 19; March 5 and 19; April 2 and 23.

Mount Vernon: First Street Community Center, 221 First St. E; 10 a.m.-noon Saturdays, Nov. 5-April 15. No market on Nov. 26 or Dec. 24.

NewBo City Market: 1100 Third St. SE, Cedar Rapids. Regular business hours: 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday.

Urbana: Community Room below City Hall, 102 Capitol Ave.; 9-11 a.m. on the second Saturday of every month, November through April.

Waverly: Vineyard Church, 319 W. Bremer Ave.; 8:30-11:30 a.m. Saturdays on Nov. 12 and Dec. 10. Other dates to be decided in the future.

West Branch: Town Hall, 205 E. Main St.; 9-11 a.m., first Saturday of the month, November through May.

Winneshiek County: Danan Lansing Memorial Building at the Winneshiek County Fairgrounds; 8:30-11:30 a.m. Nov. 5 and 19, and Dec. 3 and 17.