How the Health Food Shoppe is making local, organic food more accessible in Fort Wayne

When you think of local and organic food, you might think “high prices.” As General Manager of the Health Food Shoppe at 3515 N. Anthony Blvd., it’s a perception Sarah Claycomb has encountered a lot during her past two decades at the shop. While she has always loved the store’s healthy groceries, she’s long desired to make its products more accessible to Fort Wayne’s population.

Now, thanks to a combination of creative thinking and emerging food programs in Indiana, she and her business partner have been able to make that goal a reality.

“I actually hear people in the aisle now, saying, ‘Oh wow! These prices aren’t bad,’” Claycomb says. “I have been here 20 years, and I’ve never heard those words here until now. Now, I hear it regularly.”

Input Fort Wayne sat down with Claycomb to learn more about her work at the Health Food Shoppe, and how it’s making healthy living more accessible in Fort Wayne.

The Health Food Shoppe is located at 3515 N. Anthony Blvd.


IFW: Tell us more about your history with the Health Food Shoppe. What led you to become General Manager?

SC: The Health Food Shoppe will be 50-years-old in March of next year, and you will not hear me stop talking about it. (We’re doing 50 days of giveaways!) 

I became an employee here about 20 years ago. I was 22-years-old at the time and a student at IPFW, studying accounting and finance. I worked in the kitchen two days a week as my way to work through college. During that first 10 years, I was going to school part-time, and I had kids, so I was working multiple jobs, but I loved the Health Food Shoppe. 

The Health Food Shoppe now has a full kitchen to prepare its deli items and baked goods.

I was able to help build their kitchen into what it is today, too. When I started, the kitchen was just a hot plate and a toaster oven. But I started making and selling cookies out of that toaster oven—seven at a time—and we were selling 70 a day!

I was managing the kitchen at the original store, and before long, the Health Food Shoppe’s owners opened a second location Downtown as a deli inside Cottage Flowers. I managed the food production for the Downtown deli alongside the deli’s manager. Then, when I graduated college, I started looking for a job in accounting, but I didn’t want to leave the shop, so we reached an agreement where I could stay on and do accounting for the store.

Over the years, as other grocery stores, like Earth Fare and Fresh Thyme, moved into Fort Wayne, and as Kroger decided to start offering more natural foods, it nearly put us out of business. By this time, the original founders (the Beachys) had passed away, and their five children had inherited ownership. But many were not involved in the family business, and it was going sideways. 

The Health Food Shoppe is located at 3515 N. Anthony Blvd.

Since I had been managing the deli and doing the accounting, I pulled together enough funding to buy out most of the owners. One sibling, Lora Beachy, stayed in the business with me as my partner and an original owner. We also retained the Beachy family trust. 

We bought the Health Food Shoppe in 2019, so we had about a year to figure out how to turn our business around, which we did. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and we’ve been attending that party ever since.

The Health Food Shoppe sells local art in addition to local and organic groceries.

IFW: How has the pandemic affected your business as a small neighborhood grocery store?

SC: It’s been like a PowerPoint of different scenarios, going from one challenge to the next. First, it was safety; then it was labor challenges; and throughout the whole time, it’s been a challenge to get products from distributors. 

One amazing thing I’ve seen during this time is: Our local producers have been the most consistent. We can rely on them to actually have the products we need nearly 100 percent of the time, and our national or major distributors are still only at 65 percent fill rates of orders. Our local producers have not raised prices to the extent others have, either. All of this reinforces my desire to keep our local food economy strong.

The Health Food Shoppe is located at 3515 N. Anthony Blvd.

IFW: How have you been able to turn your business around despite these challenges?

SC: We’ve doubled down on the things we’re good at, which is largely customer service. When people come into the Health Food Shoppe, they sometimes have specific questions, like, “My doctor told me I can’t eat dairy anymore; how can I do that?” 

We can help them figure out their health or dietary needs. We offer that extra level of information. We have an amazing deli, and we have an entire dietary supplements department with experienced professionals ready to answer your calls even before you come in.

The Dietary Supplements department of the Health Food Shoppe.

IFW: Price management has also helped you turn your business around. Tell us more about that.

SC: Even though our store doesn’t charge higher price margins on our products than other stores, we do often buy smaller quantities of items and organic, local items, which in turn, can make our prices higher. That price perception was crushing us for a while, but it is changing, and we’re excited about that. 

For one, I’ve worked to get us involved with a natural independent retailers buying group, which has helped us keep prices down because we’re buying as a group. As inflation has driven other stores’ prices up, we have been able to beat them out with lower prices, too. 

The Health Food Shoppe offers hand-prep, organic alternatives to fast food in its deli and bakery section.

We’re operating on a slim margin. But it’s worth it because, along with health and service, accessibility is one of the three pillars we operate by. We want our products to be accessible to as many people as possible.

In the grocery department, all of our yellow-tagged items are guaranteed low prices. You can take those prices to Kroger—anywhere—and our prices are guaranteed to match. It’s important for people to come in and not break their budgets.

Supplement Specialist Sharon Hans pulls a product off the shelf.

IFW: Tell us about your partnership with Double Up Indiana, and how it’s making your food more accessible.

SC: Double Up Indiana essentially doubles the buying power for individuals using food stamps up to $20, allowing them to get $40 worth of fresh, healthy food for $20. This is an amazing opportunity, not only for people who use food stamps themselves, but for our entire food system in Northeast Indiana.

Food should not be political, but it gets that way. We need to see a food revolution in our entire country, rethinking where our food comes from and how it’s distributed. While most people think of Indiana as a “farm state,” more than 90 percent of Hoosiers’ food expenditures are going to farmers and producers out of state—even out of the country. When it comes to fruits and vegetables, 98 percent are imported.

I serve on the board of the Northeast Indiana Local Food Network, and part of the work of the network is to help change this dynamic, so more people are growing and buying a wider variety of fresh produce locally. 

Dark Chocolate Raspberry Chia Parfait made fresh by the Health Food Shoppe is a staff favorite.

Doing this work, I think about issues, like farm subsidies, a lot, and how they affect on our food system. I have always thought if we’re going to do farm subsidies, why don’t we subsidize the food that’s actually healthy for people—instead of corn and soy? Why don’t we make fresh, local produce that our bodies actually need less expensive than unhealthy options?

Double Up, as I see it, is like a reverse subsidy in Indiana. It gives individuals the spending power to eat healthier, on their own terms, and it increases the incentive for Indiana farmers to diversify and grow more varieties of crops because they’ll have more consumers able to buy them.

If we could do this, on a broader scale, where more people could buy more locally grown produce, we could really affect the supply and demand for healthy food in our state. 

IFW: How popular is Double Up so far?

SC: It’s very popular. Our customers have been very appreciative, and it’s made a big impact in the food people are able to buy. At first, I was concerned about how we would get the word out about this program. But customers seem to be informing each other, and I’m so thankful for that. 

The soup and salad bar at the Health Food Shoppe at 3515 N. Anthony Blvd.

IFW: For those who want to start buying local more often, what are some must-try items at the Health Food Shoppe right now?

SC: The deli is really the light of my life, so I’m biased. We do hand-prep, organic alternatives to fast food here every day, and it’s delicious.

We used to have a hot bar that was pretty popular before COVID. We don’t have that anymore, but we do still have a salad and soup bar, and all of our entrees are available every day now in grab-and-go form as meal helpers. That means you can get roasted chicken pieces, veggies—everything you need to make a salad or dish quickly—to go. People come in, and say: You made my night so easy. I don’t have to worry about what to cook now. 

We also have some incredible fresh bakery items and juices to go.

Sunrise juice made fresh by the Health Food Shoppe is a staff favorite.

Among the national products on our shelves, I love the Simple Mills brand. Simple Mills thin mint cookies at the Health Food Shoppe.

They’re a grain-free company, started by an awesome lady, and our customers love their stuff. Their products are fairly expensive because they’re almond based, but they offer a whole line of cookies, and there’s this little thin-mint-like cookie people are going crazy over. I don’t think anybody else in Fort Wayne has it.

In our supplements department, it’s all about magnesium for muscles and stress relief and papaya enzymes for help with digestion.

Come in, and check out the selection for yourself!

This story was underwritten by Brightpoint and the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation. Double Up Indiana is a program of the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation, which is sponsored by the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ and works to achieve quality health and wellness for underserved populations.
 

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.