I started wondering more about small businesses and whether a small business can be sustainable from the start and still be successful in the long-term. I realized that it is indeed possible as I started to think more about the organic food markets and how the market has evolved in the States, in particular in the Washington, DC/Maryland region.
In the States, natural foods started to gain popularity in the late 1960s as part of that era’s “pop” culture. In the late 1960s and 1970s, small businesses began to appear as individual natural foods stores started up. These were small standalone “mom and pop” shops that were not always at convenient locations, and many failed because the stores were poorly managed and unprofitable. However, one such store in Washington, DC was the Yes! Organic Market (http://www.yesorganicmarket.com) that was first established in 1970. This has now grown into 7 locations throughout the local region (in Washington, DC and Maryland). Another chain of stores which I hadn’t even noticed until recently was My Organic Market (MOM) (now re-branded as Mom’s Organic Market (http://www.momsorganicmarket.com)). MOM’s was established in 1987 as a single location, but this business has blossomed into 11 local locations in Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Interestingly, MOM’s larger locations even provide “re-fueling” charging stations for electric automobiles in the MOM’s parking lot. In 1991, the local Fresh Fields market was founded, and it grew into a larger chain with locations in the Maryland/Washington DC area, Philadelphia, the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut region, and Chicago. However, in 1996, the Fresh Fields chain of stores was acquired by Whole Foods Market, the most successful natural foods market in the States today.
Since most natural foods markets seemed to start as small businesses, it was interesting to learn about the growth and success of the Whole Foods Market. Whole Foods started in 1980 as a successful local natural foods supermarket. The business continued to grow by building new locations, but also by strategically merging with and acquiring of other already-established and successful natural foods stores throughout the States, including the acquisition of the Fresh Fields chain in 1996 for $135 million as noted above. Having acquired its closest rival Fresh Fields for these markets, it does not appear that Whole Foods will acquired other local chains in the same region. However, Whole Foods Market continues to identify other business opportunities and markets for expansion and continued growth.
When I was last in London, I was surprised that I could only find one Whole Foods Market shop. I naively attributed that to organic foods being more common in the United Kingdom. Therefore, I thought that a US-based business like Whole Foods Market would not be as successful competing in the international markets. However, I later learned that Whole Foods Market did indeed “go international” in 2001 in Canada, and even acquired seven Fresh & Wild stores in 2004 in the United Kingdom. Currently, Whole Foods Market has over 350 locations in the States, 8 locations in Canada, and 8 locations in the United Kingdom. They also have plans to open another location in London, so the international market continues to grow.
This made me realize the naiveté of earlier thinking, that is, that small businesses would always need to sacrifice its sustainability standards in the short-term to achieve sustainability as part of its long-term goals. Although it may be partially dependent on the specific circumstances of the small business and the specific field, the organic foods market has shown that small businesses can indeed be sustainable from the start and still achieve national and international success and prominence if done with the proper business expertise and acumen. Sustainable small businesses require all the skills required of any successful business, including proper business planning and management, as well as commitment, strategic thinking, and knowledge/insights of the markets. Operating sustainably may be more challenging in the startup phase for a small business, but depending on the specific circumstances and business field, it could be achieved.