November 24, 2004
Section: Business
Page: 02D

Organic food comes naturally to dad, son

Special to The Detroit News

Maureen McDonald

FERNDALE -- The Natural Food Patch is stocking all the fixings for a vegan Thanksgiving, including organic pumpkin, whole wheat flour pie crusts, turkey-tasting tofu and plenty of vegetables. Keeping up with seasonal demands for healthy taste buds has helped the store attract 450-550 customers daily to its downtown Ferndale store.
Joel Fisher, 61, opened the store in 1998 and encouraged his son, Kevin, 32, to join him this year. They offer a wide assortment of organic produce, several aisles of vitamins, coolers full of health drinks and ice cream and shelves of herbal teas and environmentally friendly toilet paper.

"This is where I do all my healthy shopping," says Ron Moten of Detroit, bearing a basket of vitamins and organic greens. "Coming here on weekends is almost like a social thing, I run into so many people I know."

The Fishers invest over 60 hours apiece each week, offering a visible presence to customers and the 23 employees at the 5,200-square-foot store filled from the floor to the ceiling with products. For Joel, it is a homecoming from his youthful enterprise and for Kevin, a triathlete and attorney, it's a launching pad for expansion.

Lessons in how to discount products and market regionally came early for Joel Fisher. In the early 1960s, he joined his aunt and uncle, Fred and Margaret Fisher, in their new discount outlet, F & M Distributors, headquartered in Ferndale. They were among the first retailers to discount toothpaste, mouthwash and anti-acid tablets, all bought by the truckload.

Over the next 17 years, Fisher shepherded the company move across the street to a newer building and its sale to new owners. The firm closed all of its stores by 2003. Fisher left in 1983 to open his own chain of discount medicine stores in Florida. He ran the operation for a decade.

"Wal-Mart put us out of business; ultimately we needed a new plan," Fisher said. Noticing how healthy lifestyles and organic grocers were growing more popular, he sought a concept akin to F & M that steeply discounted name-brand vitamins, cosmetics and other fast-moving products. He built a business model and hunted for a store in southeast Michigan.

By lucky coincidence, the Ferndale property his aunt and uncle owned in the 1960s was on the market but the building was in filthy condition. He invested $500,000 in 1998 to debug the interior scrub and stock anew.

Joe & Jennifer Rutherford of Plymouth designed the zany carrots on the exterior while Fisher conducted weekly monitoring of prices at surrounding health stores. Among the competitors are Whole Foods Market, the national chain with outlets in Ann Arbor, Troy and Rochester; Good Food Company in Troy and Canton; and Nutri Foods in Royal Oak.

"The Fishers have a relatively small section for produce but they move an amazing amount of goods, little left to perish," said Ben Perkins, a sales representative for Goodness Greeness in Chicago. He said Natural Food Patch tapped into an avid market for vegetables with less chemical residue than conventional fare.

Kevin Fisher hopes to open two or three stores in the next year. "We are cautious, we wouldn't want to disrupt this store to add more. We love being in this business," he said.

Natural Food Patch

? Specialty: The family-owned supermarket retails organic vegetables, grains, vitamins in a 5,200 square foot store with 23 employees.

? Owners: Joel Fisher, 61, and son Kevin, 32, opened the store in 1998 in Ferndale. They are eying expansion in Oakland and Wayne counties.

? Information: (248) 546-5908.

Joel Fisher, left, runs Natural Food Patch in Ferndale with his son, Kevin. The store offers such natural goods as organic produce, vitamins, health drinks, ice cream, herbal teas and environmentally friendly toilet paper.