James Robison was on his way to register for his first semester of MBA classes when he turned the car around and called his younger brother Jack to convince him to drop out of school and start a business together.
“I kinda snapped. I did not want to go back to a classroom again,” James says of that fateful afternoon. The brothers had been talking about going into business together for a while. They were young; Jack was only twenty years old.
“He [James] brought up the idea of the store and I was like, ‘I’m on board with that.’” Jack remembers that in that moment, Grassroots Natural Market was born.
That was ten years ago. There was nary a Whole Foods for hundreds of miles, and few if any local restaurants were marketing themselves as farm-to-table. It would still be another five or so years before a once-obscure green known as kale would make its hegemonic ascension to claim the throne of the produce aisle. Nevertheless, the brothers Robison took a chance and opened a natural food market smack in the middle of Five Points.
The idea of a health food store was not a foreign concept to James and Jack, and neither was the notion of keeping it in the family. Both grew up stocking shelves and mopping floors in the vitamin store owned by their father and uncle. In business since the seventies, the operation was decidedly old school — hand-stickered merchandise, the old-fashioned cash register that chimed a bell when it opened, and not a computer in sight. As a young man, James often offered suggestions for modernizing the store to attract new customers and make the processes more efficient. His unsolicited advice, however, was met with the same refrain —“when you have your own store, you can do whatever you want.”
“That worm got in my brain,” James says. “I took a legal pad and wrote out a full page of notes of things I would do differently. Long story short, it worked out.”
Those tweaks have served the store well. In the decade since Grassroots welcomed its first customer, the business has enjoyed consistent yearly growth despite the recession that hit soon after its opening. “That actually helped us in a way because it kept us lean and mean in the beginning,” James says.
As the organic foods market continues to thrive regionally, the brothers remain satisfied with their little slice of Riverside. Rather than pursue expansion, they have focused their efforts towards enhancing the original location’s customer experience. In recent years, they’ve added a patio and incorporated taller shelving to stock more merchandise. Jack points out the tape on the floor that a consultant is using to reimagine the store’s layout to accommodate a higher flow of traffic.
“We do a large amount of volume for our footprint,” he says. They’ve recently hired a passionate new produce manager and are in the process of installing a reverse osmosis misting system that will keep their locally sourced organic produce at its peak freshness.
Moving forward, James likes the idea of grocery stores incorporating restaurant elements, so the Robisons have hired a chef and are in the process of conceptualizing a hot food stand behind the store that will feature both vegan and paleo options — two food trends they have witnessed grow immensely in recent years.
On Cooking at Home
Healthy but comforting food has always been the order of the day on the Robison table. “Breakfast was buckwheat pancakes and fresh carrot juice. I remember lots of veggie burgers and tabbouleh growing up” Jack says.
As a bachelor, often cooking for himself after a long day at the store, Jack’s go-to for a weeknight meal is a simple sauté of onion, garlic, greens, mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, and perhaps some beans. It’s simple, utilitarian and infinitely riffable.
When it comes to who’s wielding the wooden spoon in James’ kitchen, he is quick to acknowledge his better half as the superior cook. However, with a newborn baby in the house, the duties of getting dinner on the table have increasingly fallen to him. On such occasions, he softens up some fresh, seasonal vegetables, hits it with his favorite brand of curry simmering sauce and by the time the wine has had a chance to breathe, dinner is served.
James and Jack may have completely different lives, and they may bicker and fight as brothers are wont to do, but if there’s one thing they can agree on, it’s that folks should be drinking more water, eating more fresh fruits and vegetables and cutting out the processed foods. Thankfully, they know just the place to stock up.