Established Tradition Meets Cutting Edge: Cambridge Naturals

Cambridge Naturals Store

At a glance, the accomplishments of Cambridge Naturals include more than four decades in business, spanning two generations of family, numerous charitable initiatives, and an immeasurable impact on their community in Cambridge, Mass. Second-Generation Co-Owner Emily Kanter’s vision encourages sustainability and equity in all facets of business, and we were fortunate enough to have her share that with us.

Let’s start with a brief history of Cambridge Naturals.

We were founded in 1974 by my parents, Michael and Elizabeth when they were 23 years old. We started out as a full-line natural foods grocery store before there were places like Whole Foods; and we carried everything like meat, dairy, produce, cheese, bulk groceries, etc., as well as a limited selection of supplements and body care.

About 17 years ago, we shifted our model. It was in part due to the intense competition in natural foods, but we were also in a location where we didn’t have parking and at that point in time. A lot of people were shopping in larger grocery stores and sort of doing the “one-stop-shop”. So we shifted our model to focus more on supplements and body care, and general health and wellness lifestyle supplies. We did keep some grocery and have grown it back more significantly over the last 5 years, so we have everything from kombucha and chocolate and snack foods, to unique and interesting grocery items.

I am the second generation co-owner of Cambridge Naturals, along with my husband, Caleb, and internally I handle a lot of our marketing as well as overseeing our buying. I also engage with customers, take out the trash, mop the bathroom floors, and get done whatever needs to get done!

What is it like to be part of a family business?

My parents are still very involved, but less so on a day-to-day basis. They play a very hands-on advisory role to my husband and me. The two of us are in it all the time; we eat, sleep and breathe our business. My husband also has his own business in organizational development consulting and he brings that work to our store too.

We wake up talking about work, sometimes we go to sleep talking about work, and it’s fun. My family likes to banter so that often helps us deal with complex situations. There’s a lot of sarcasm involved in our conversations and we take everything with a little bit of humor. That’s actually one of our business core values, which are: work hard, have fun and encourage laughter. Laughter is really important to us. We certainly have disagreements, but one of the best parts of working with my parents is that I know they want what’s best for the store, I know they want what’s best for themselves, and I know they want what’s best for me.

So, having them as my mentors and coworkers is excellent because I know they are making every decision with those things in mind, as equals. We work really well together and they put a lot of faith and trust in Caleb and me, and it?s worked out pretty good so far!

As a Certified B Corporation, what are some initiatives that you’re excited about?

We’ve been a B Corp for three years, but we’ve donated to local nonprofits for many years, mostly community-based organizations and some national organizations. We are heavily involved in the regenerative agriculture movement as well as the sustainable palm oil initiative, the Raise the Wage campaign (to raise the minimum wage federally and locally in Massachusetts we’ve been at the forefront of fair pay and equal pay for women), and we donate to a variety of environmental and social causes. Last year, we raised our starting hourly pay to a living wage of $15 per hour and we pay 100% of health insurance for all full-time employees. A lot of what we do is localized because we do believe in local living economies.

Tell us about how your business has changed and evolved based on the accommodation of modern shoppers.

We try to always be on the cutting edge, not the bleeding edge, with new trends and research in the health and wellness categories. We try not to jump on fad trends or fad dieting, but instead, things that have significant research behind them, clinical research, and longevity in the traditional context. We try to work really closely with our brands to vet them and understand their processes, sourcing, raw materials, and how they’re treating their workers. I would say our customers now, more than ever, are asking for that transparency. For example, we’ve seen some negative news articles about supplements in recent years, so we’ve had to work really quickly with our supplement partners to increase the levels of transparency.

That’s going to become truer in body care as the scene has absolutely exploded. Now everyone and their grandmother are making cosmetics and skincare. And not every rosehip oil is created equal, so I imagine there’s going to be a similar movement in body care to increase transparency. We’ve started to see that from some of our suppliers; they’ve had to scale back or remove products from their shelves because they learned after putting them out that they’re not up to standards or that their manufacturer made an error, which is expensive.

And, in the lifestyle category, people are wanting to know about BPA-free and asking if items contain any harmful chemicals. In our store, customers have moved even beyond the basics and are seeking something even cleaner. They have high standards, so we have high standards.

We sell very few products online, as what we’ve realized over time is that our competitive advantage is in how we do brick and mortar, providing an amazing customer experience.

Cambridge Naturals Store

Speaking of brick and mortar, congratulations on your recent expansion announcement! Tell us all about it!

We are opening our second location in summer 2018. It’s 44 years in the making. It’s partly in response to the tremendous growth we’ve had at our current location. The most common complaint we seem to get these days is, “I walk into your store for one thing and I spend all my money! You need to put me on an allowance because everything here is so tempting!” It’s a good complaint to have. We’re busting at the seams.

We also have this amazing staff and we’ve really been excited to figure out ways to allow our team to grow with us, which is very hard to do with a single location, so we’re really committed to our staff. Part of our mission is to create great jobs and a great place to work, so we’re excited to be able to do more of that.

With so many impactful initiatives happening at Cambridge Naturals, is there something you’re most proud of?

I’m really proud of the living wage initiative. It was a huge financial risk for our business to undertake. We believe it has absolutely paid off in employee retention and greater happiness and health for our employees. But it was definitely a risk. We didn’t know how it was going to play out last year, right after the national election, when a lot of us were left feeling very uneasy. It is one big thing we did to move forward in a positive direction as a business and to have an impact on the community in a way that we felt we could, so I’m proud of taking that step. It’s one step of many that we need to take, but it was a big step in the right direction. We wanted to be able to prove to businesses like ours that it’s possible and that its benefits are going to pay off long-term.

What inspires you, personally?

I’m inspired by certain businesses like Patagonia, they’re an incredible business and business model. We just started carrying Patagonia Provisions products which we’re really excited about.

Zingerman’s was named “The Coolest Small Company In America” by Inc. Magazine. They started out as a deli in Ann Arbor, Mich., and over the years they’ve grown to be a much more robust business. They have something like 10 different individual businesses operating together. There’s a bakery, which supplies the deli, and a coffee roaster, which supplies the bakery and the deli, and a mail-order and customer service training business, and they all work together. They were at the forefront of open-book management; my husband flew out there last January for a training. They’re only located in Ann Arbor, so they’re also a model for us because we do want to grow, but we’re not interested in growing to New York or Philadelphia. We really want to stay in Massachusetts and be able to have more of an impact on this community.

Another business that I’m really enamored with is a clothing company called Elizabeth Suzann. It’s clothing that I love. I stumbled upon the business about four years ago. Liz Pape, the founder, and designer has built an amazing sustainably-minded company. She’s part of the slow and ethical fashion movement, and they’re really doing something special. Everything is made to order (almost everything is made in-house) and they have a lean business model. She has some amazing staff initiatives, too. I follow them on Instagram and read the blog. Her artistic sense for her business stands out, and her customer base is so loyal. She’s big on transparency, pricing, and business model, so every time she writes something, I’m drooling over their business model like, “Oh, we need to do this.”

How do you see Cambridge Naturals evolving and moving into the future?

One of our biggest competitive advantages is the education that we offer for our employees and for our customers. Providing a high level of education will continue to be huge for us. Our customers are looking for that health and wellness education too.

More and more people are starting to understand the toll that environmental and product toxins are taking on their lives and they are starting to shift how they view their health preventatively. It’s already started, but it’s a wave that is continuing to grow and build. More people are going to start looking for products that fit a clean and healthy lifestyle so they don’t get sick and have to seek extreme medical measures to deal with it.

Unfortunately, with the way our healthcare system is going, it’s getting more and more expensive to deal with illnesses and ailments once they’re there, so people are seeing their health as something that’s worth paying for now, rather than having to address it in a much more expensive and potentially painful way in the future.

I also think that, as climate change continues to evolve, we’re going to see more and more people seeking high-nutrition sources of food that are grown or raised sustainably, with an ethical supply chain. Transparency for brands is going to be incredibly important, including certifications, labeling, and transparency in sources.

This post has been edited for clarity and conciseness.