Cambridge Naturals:
At the Root of Wellness

Story by Emily kanter
Photos by Ashley Herrin

One of my earliest memories is of tearing up and down the aisles of my family’s natural foods grocery store, spray bottle in hand, looking for unsuspecting prey. The spray bottle’s functional purpose was to keep the organic produce fresh and hydrated, but in the hands of a three-year-old, it was an appropriate tool for eliciting shrieks of surprise from the store’s many staff people, who were like family to me.

Growing up, that family business was always the fourth child. My sister, brother and I knew that vacations could be cut short at any minute if say, the store’s refrigeration system broke down, or a manager abruptly quit. We discussed the daily business at length over dinner every night – analyzing everything from the minutia of customer and staff interactions, to what new trends we needed to be following.

My parents, Michael and Elizabeth, founded Cambridge Naturals in 1974, when they were just 23 years old. They were pioneers in a burgeoning industry, and developed an intensely loyal customer base over the years. We carried everything from organic produce to bulk foods to vitamin C. The store became known for high quality, gourmet and “real food” ingredients that were harder and harder to find in the 1970’s and 80’s. We created a market for local, organic farmers and natural product makers. Julia Child was a frequent customer.

In the late 1990’s – in part due to intense competition – we shifted the store’s model to focus on natural health and wellness products and removed nearly all the grocery items. The pivot turned out to be exactly the right move, and the business continued to grow and flourish. As we grew, we continued to curate our selection – focusing on as many unique, local, artisan products as possible in order to differentiate ourselves from the chain stores. My parents gained significant industry-wide recognition over the years for their success at keeping a small, local and independent business alive and thriving.  

As a young child, I loved the business and all intricacies that came with owning it. The staff members were like family, and the store was my playground. As I grew up, however, it started to become a source of personal embarrassment – everything from the “hippie” food I brought for lunch everyday to the fact that we didn’t have the resources for nice clothes or lavish vacations. So much of our energy and money went back into making the business a success. I withdrew from my roots and focused outwards – traveling across the world to find my passion – anywhere but home.

It wasn’t until 2008, when a friend handed me a battered copy of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, that I truly understood the incredible social and political context that my family’s business fit within – and how my parents were part of a larger, important movement to stem the tide of industrial food and agriculture. Though small in size, the business was an amazing platform for important change.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I would spend the next seven years working my way, across continents and careers, back to Cambridge Naturals. In 2014, my husband Caleb and I moved from our home in Portland, OR to reclaim our New England heritage and transition into ownership of the family business.

If you open any major newspaper to the business section today, the stories focus almost exclusively on two types of companies — giant, multinational corporations, or “disruptive” start-ups. In this day and age, it is a radical thing indeed to return to the city of your birth and work with your parents to grow their thriving, 40-year-old independent business. And yet, every day I am more inspired by the work we do and the opportunity we have to grow the business, increasing our impact over the next 40 years of local, independent ownership.

Our relationships with many of our suppliers go back decades, and I see the way those companies honor our longevity. As the maker movement continues to grow, we are also creating new relationships with dozens of independent businesses to sell their unique, artisan goods – everything from local food items to candles to natural body care. As a business owner, I get to tell the stories of those New England makers to our customers, and tap into each maker’s passion for the products they’ve created. We may be small ourselves, but our connection to our local community runs deep and wide.

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