AmericanFarm.com

Nelson’s attention to detail is what’s in store

By RICHARD J. SKELLY
AFP Correspondent

OCEAN TOWNSHIP (Nov. 15, 2014) — Watching him in action with customers on a busy Saturday morning at Dean’s Natural Foods, it’s obvious that owner Dean Nelson takes a farmer-like work ethic to his role as owner of three natural foods outlets.
He works six, sometimes seven, days a week.
Like a farmer, Nelson wants to make sure his produce looks good sitting on shelves or in the refrigerated areas.
Just like a farmer selling produce from a stand in front of his property, Nelson wants to hear from his patrons.
He opened his first retail outlet in Ocean Township, just outside of Asbury Park, on Nov. 23, 1995, two days before Thanksgiving and it has since greatly expanded.
Nelson, who has no college background, he grew his business by focusing entirely on organically grown fruits and vegetables.
“Both my parents were very health conscious and my mother worked in a health food store. I worked there with her for two years and then I decided I wanted to start one of my own,” Nelson explained.
“It was a local, independently-owned store and not too dissimilar from us. I just felt that we could have served our customers and community better. My own personal philosophy is that in the natural food business we have a responsibility to support the local community,” he added, noting “that vibe just didn’t exist 18 or 20 years ago.”
Nelson, a 1979 graduate of Ocean Township High School, began learning all he could about organic food when he took his first job in the area health food store.
Once he opened Dean’s Natural Foods in 1995, there were some big differences back then, he said, not only in availability, but also in the quality of organic produce.
“Now there are certain farmers who have mastered the art of growing quality organic produce: Two that come to mind for me are Cal-Organic and Lady Moon Organics. They’re both outstanding companies.”
Nelson recalled he began with a 20-foot refrigerated case to hold his organic produce.
That has since tripled in size when you include on-floor displays as well.
“There was not a huge selection 18 years ago, but my passion has always been organic produce. That’s what I wanted our stores to be built around,” he said, “it’s a win for everybody: the environment, the farmer and the consumer.”
Now, Dean’s Natural Foods has more than 170 organic products in stock at his three locations.
A second store opened in 2005, not far from Ocean Township in Shrewsbury, near Red Bank.
Two years ago, he opened a third location in Basking Ridge, Somerset County.
He doubled the size of his first location in Ocean Township in 2009 during the darkest days of the Great Recession, he pointed out, “and that meant a lot to our regular customers.”
All three locations have juice and sandwich counters.
With several years running the businesses and increasing the products he sells, Nelson said he’s not one to rest on past successes.
“I still don’t know if it’s going to succeed. That’s the trials and tribulations of being a business person, there’s always more to learn, always more to do. I’ve never been comfortable from day to day. Natural foods have become so much more prolific and now there are other retailers that carry organic foods,” he said, noting a huge Whole Foods store is 2.5 miles from his Shrewsbury store and a Trader Joe’s is a half-mile from the same store.
And there’s a huge Wegman’s supermarket right across the highway from Dean’s Natural Foods on Route 35.
From its inception, Dean’s Natural Foods has had a nutritionist on-site at the Ocean Township location. Nelson said his longtime nutritionist recently retired and he plans to find a replacement for her, so customers can continue to ask questions and get knowledgeable answers.
All three retail outlets offer film screenings, tastings, cooking classes and demonstrations, lectures and seminars.
Reminded of the old retail rule of thumb to price things at three times cost, Nelson said he’s not anywhere near three times cost.
And he freely admits organic produce is expensive, but customers are willing to pay more when they know the produce is organic.
It’s a lifestyle choice his regular customers have already made, he argued.
“We’re a lot less than three times cost, maybe one-and-a-half times cost,” he said.
Asked if he was planning on franchising stores in the future, Nelson said absolutely not.
“I wouldn’t sell my name for money, but I am looking for additional locations,” he said, before adding, “if they don’t have our values, then forget it.”