"When we all got into it, the last thing we ever thought we’d do was make money,” Donnie Safer says, recalling the seedling days of Sunshine Grocery. “We just wanted to do this thing, to give voice to what we saw as our mission. We didn’t want to lose money, but making money was definitely not our focus.”
As longtime Nashvillians well know, Sunshine Grocery was the natural foods market that opened on the seedy fringe of Music Row in 1972, moved to more spacious digs on Belmont Boulevard in 1989, and was purchased by the Denver-based Wild Oats company in 1998. To the great dismay of neighbors and loyal customers, the Wild Oats/Sunshine store on Belmont ceased operations this past Saturday at 6 p.m.
In spite of themselves, the original owners of Sunshine Grocery did end up making money, and will continue to make money from the remaining nine years of the lease arrangement that Wild Oats intends to honorat least for the time-being. But personal wealth was not the real payoff for the 25 years that Safer and his partners devoted to the market, its employees and its legions of devoted shoppers. Had they taken the route chosen by the original Wild Oats ownerswho turned their first market in Boulder into a 100-store national chain and an extensive product linethey might have become multimillionaire grocery moguls too. Instead, they remained true to the youthful idealism that sparked their original mission, measuring their profits by more altruistic accounts: friendships made, good deeds done, a mission accomplished.
“Our mission was to bring natural products to Nashville, to educate and encourage people to eat pure and clean,” Safer explains.
The roots of Sunshine Grocery go back to a food co-op formed in 1971 in the basement of one of the buildings at the Scarritt-Bennett Center; products were limited, though the enthusiasm for the idea was sound enough that the co-op took commercial space in a building at the corner of 16th Avenue South and Grand, naming the store New Morning. Shortly after, two couples who shared an organic gardenBruce and Ruth Mitchell and Catherine and Joel Playerthought they could make a go of it within a more traditional business structure. They purchased the fixtures and inventory, and took over the space that had been vacated by London Bridge Boutique at Lyle and Broadway, naming the small store Sunshine Grocery.
Within a year, the four sold their interests, and the partnership eventually evolved into the three couples that would take Sunshine Grocery through the next couple of decades: Lin and Cam Cameron, Tom and Phyllis Salter, and Donnie Safer and Libby Legett. “Two other health stores stocked mostly supplements,” Safer recalls. “We decided we would focus on food, which was actually pretty difficult at the time. There was so little product back then, we had minimal inventory. At the time, the only place in Nashville to buy yogurt was Zager’s Deli downtown. There was no place to buy tofu, and no one had heard of bean sprouts.”
Everyone worked in the store, concentrating their efforts on their areas of expertise. “Tom loves produce, so he did that department. Lin was a scratch cook, so she managed the deli. Cam is great with numbers. I did ordering and customer relations. We were fortunate to be able to build a superb staff around us. It all worked.”
The business grew, even if space was cramped; on Saturdays, the owner-employees would have to restock shelves as many as three times.
A natural foods community grew up around Sunshine, with the opening of several vegetarian restaurants in the immediate area: Laughing Man, Slice of Life, Country Life and Everybody’s were all within blocks of the store.
By 1989, the business had outgrown the building, and though the partners hoped to move to Hillsboro Village, there were no vacancies available at the time to suit their needs and budget. A space opened up on Belmont Boulevard, in a small strip of commercial buildings next to the 440 overpass. “We were a little uncertain about that location,” Safer says. “We didn’t know how we would do there; it was still sort of unproven at the time. But friends familiar with the area thought it was viable, and people who lived in the neighborhood seemed enthusiastic, so we took the plunge.”
One of those friends and neighborhood residents was Sandra Shelton, who had begun shopping at Sunshine nearly as soon as it opened. “I was a hippie and a vegetarian,” she says. “I liked the store, but it also became a social thing; I was always running into friends there.”
Just a couple years before the relocation, Shelton opened her store, Pangea, in the bottom floor of an old house on the far north end of Belmont Boulevard. “I had always told [the Sunshine owners] that if they moved to a bigger store, I would take some of their space if there was room. When they found the location on Belmont, I took the store next door, with the understanding that if they needed to expand, I would relocate.”
When Sunshine opened in its new space at 3201 Belmont Blvd., the owners were unprepared for the reaction they got upon opening. “We opened on a Wednesday, and by Saturday, our shelves were nearly empty,” Safer recalls. “It was amazing!”
Sunshine Grocery didn’t just serve the surrounding neighborhood; people drove miles to stock up on spring water, organic produce, artisan cheeses, vegetarian staples and bulk grains, nuts and herbs. The purple-painted building became a Belmont Boulevard landmark. “When I moved to Nashville from New York 10 years ago,” local Realtor Barbara Moutenot says, “I was looking for a neighborhood with sidewalks and a store that I could walk to. Sunshine was my market for almost everything; I got to know the staff, they got to know my children as they grew up. It was so personal for us, much more than just a market.”
Moutenot was one of many who greeted the news of the Wild Oats changeover with alarm. The sale was not easy for the partners, either. “Wild Oats had purchased the Squash Blossom in Memphis, a store like ours that a friend owned,” Safer says. “We got a letter from Wild Oats asking if we would consider selling. At first we said no, then we thought talking wouldn’t hurt. They made us a really good offer; we were familiar with their history and operations. After 25 years, we were ready to move on. Our personal lives had changed dramatically in that time. [All three couples are now divorced.] It seemed like the time was right.” In 1998, Sunshine Grocery became a Wild Oats market, though the Sunshine sign outside remained.
Customers were skeptical about the chain’s promises to make few changes, but were willing to give it a shot. “At first, they did a good job, but after a while, there were things that started to bother me,” Moutenot says. Locally grown vegetables disappeared from the produce department; shelf inventory began to lean heavily toward Wild Oats store brands, taking the place of other independently produced items. Employees donned Wild Oats store uniforms. Then, in the summer of 2001, the Sunshine Grocery sign on the building’s front was removed, and a large Wild Oats sign put in its place. With the tremendous success of the 18,000-square-foot store the company opened in Green Hills in 1999, there was a sense that the little Belmont market had turned into an unwanted stepchild.
Safer says that the first he heard of the Belmont store’s closing was from a current employee, who reported the news after a company meeting a few weeks ago. A couple of days later, he received a letter in the mail from Wild Oats headquarters in Denver, but by then, a sign had already been hung across the entrance to the Belmont store, announcing it would close Aug. 16 and inviting customers to visit the Green Hills store or the brand-new 30,000-square-foot megastore that will openwhere else?in Cool Springs on Sept. 17.
Though flyers posted in the Belmont store announced a 25- to 75-percent-off sale for the final week of business, by last week, nearly all of the inventory had been removed. One table held a sad assortment of Christmas ornaments; another had boxes of shiitake mushroom tea bags. A cashier on duty had little more to do than tell puzzled visitors about the new store. Shortly after 8 a.m. on Monday, just two days after the store locked its doors, two workers from Signs Inc. began removing the large Wild Oats sign from the front of the purple building.
Moutenot is sad about losing her neighborhood market and concerned about the future of the space. Wild Oats has nine years remaining on its lease; the company can sub-lease, though it will certainly not do so to any business that might prove competitive to its Green Hills store. “Many of us would love to see another market there, but it probably won’t happen,” Moutenot says. “A restaurant would be great, but it’s a big space and the rent is high.” The store is also close to Christ the King School, which might prohibit a beer license.
Safer has mixed emotions. “I am sad to see it go, and sad for the neighborhood, but quite honestly, what it became was not what we had started 30 years ago. I was sort of relieved when they changed the name. I have issues with some of their policies and with their pricing structure. We sort of feel like they have forgotten their roots. Every item that we had on our shelves we personally tasted, and it had a reason to be there that had little to do with making money. It’s a shame that they don’t seem to remember where they started.
“But I feel like we, the original partners, can declare philosophical victory. We stayed true to our mission, and we did what we set out to do. We introduced a better way of eating to this market. Now you can get tofu in Kroger.”