August 17, 2005
Section: Business
Page: 02C

Former F&M owner's new business grows

The Detroit News

Tenisha Mercer

FERNDALE -- Joel Fisher made selling toothpaste, antacids and toilet paper at discount prices popular when he started F&M Distributors with family members in the 1960s. Now he's tapping into another discount market with organic foods, natural products and alternative treatments.
Fisher opened Natural Food Patch, a 5,200-square-foot health food store on West Nine Mile in Ferndale, in 1999. With sales growing 20 percent annually, Fisher plans to open a second store in Macomb County within a year.

"This is the only industry with double-digit growth every year," said Fisher, 62. "No business that I've seen, after six years, shows that kind of increase."

Organic products have gained widespread appeal as baby boomers get older and as Americans embrace healthier lifestyles.

Sales of organic foods and beverages -- which are produced naturally without pesticides, drugs and growth hormones -- surged to $15.4 billion last year, from $1 billion in 1990, according to market research firm Packaged Facts, a division of Inc. in New York.

Natural Food Patch sells 20,000 products, from organic pineapples and gluten-free flour, to alternative medicines like St. John's Wort, aromatherapy oils, vitamins, beauty products and herbal treatments.

Fisher's bringing to his health foods venture the same strategies that helped make Ferndale-based F&M a household name in Metro Detroit -- buying bulk products at a discount and passing savings along to customers.

"This is everyday, low prices," said Fisher, pointing to store signs advertising its prices, which range from 80 cents for a carob candy bar to $65 for vitamins, are 25 percent lower than competitors. "I looked at what industry is not discounted yet and it was this business."

Fisher left F&M after nearly 20 years to start discount health and beauty stores in Florida in 1983. The chain grew to nine stores before Wal-Mart put it out of business in 1993. F&M filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 1995 and eventually went out of business.

Fisher, meanwhile, became a vegan, prompting his interest in natural and organic products. Food manufacturers such as Kraft Foods Inc., Kellogg Co., The Coca-Cola Co. and General Mills Inc. now make organic products, which include everything from chocolate and beer to turkey and potpies.

"Organic has gone mainstream," said Barbara Haumann, a spokeswoman for the Organic Trade Association in Greenfield, Mass. "You'll probably find that 70 percent of all supermarkets carry some type of organic products."

Natural Food Patch competes with larger chains such as Whole Foods by emphasizing customer service, Fisher said. The store has four vitamin specialists who give free advice. And Fisher will stock new items customers request as long as he can sell them at a discount. "You won't get that at Wal-Mart or Target," he said.

That's what keeps Christine Delks, 47, of Detroit returning to Natural Food Patch, where she recently stocked up on wheatgrass, ear cleansing candles and organic soap.

"They carry things," she said, "other stores don't."

Natural Food Patch

Where : 221 W. Nine Mile, Ferndale

Hours : Monday-Thursday, 9 a.m.-7 p.m.; Friday, 9 a.m.-9 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m.

Products : Organic foods, natural products, alternative medicines

Information : (248) 546-5908; ?a href=""?

Geoff Cameron shops for organic food at Natural Food Patch in Ferndale. The owner plans to open another store in Macomb County.

Christine Delks, with wheatgrass, says she likes to shop at Natural Food Patch because the store carries items that others don't.