When Albertsons decided to remodel one of its two Goleta supermarkets in April, it focused on two areas: its produce section and a new, all-natural, organic foods aisle.
Albertsons’ high-ups saw a trend that many tri-county vendors have observed in recent years – Central Coast and South Coast residents love buying fresh and often organic produce grown nearby.
But what makes this area so excited about buying such fruits and vegetables?
“We have such a rich growing area,” said Sam Edelman, general manager of the Santa Barbara Farmers Market Association. “We have such a great selection of local produce coming off the local farms. You can really get a full selection of produce year round.”
With large farms both inside and just outside of the Tri-Counties, residents have access to fresh produce – even some organic – all the time. And unlike other areas of the country, long truck-hauls aren’t necessary, meaning the region reaps the benefits of cheaper produce, as high fuel bills are sliced out of the picture.
“If they’re not local, you can’t use them,” said Kelly Brown, president of the Natural Café. “Guys aren’t going to drive a long ways to your stores to deliver four cases of tomatoes.”
Brown said demand has shot upwards since his local chain of healthful restaurants started 16 years ago. The company leapt to $11.5 million in revenue last year and expects to roll down Highway 101 in the coming years to open new stores in the Los Angeles area. The company already has a dozen restaurants across the Tri-Counties.
“This state’s ahead of the curve,” Brown said. “We’re operating on a higher plane of consciousness and awareness of what we put in our body. It’s a more outdoor society, and what people put in their body affects how they feel.”
Tri-county produce leaders noted the region’s exceptional weather plays a big part in why locals love fruits and vegetables, particularly organic produce. The gap in price between organic and conventional produce has dwindled in recent years, meaning more people will spring for organic, knowing it isn’t tainted with pesticides or other potentially harmful sprays.
Lilia Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for Albertsons, said that customers are telling the supermarket’s management that “organic is the way to go.” It began remodeling some of its stores, like the off-Hollister Avenue location in Goleta, under the “Fresh and Healthy” theme in 2007. Rodriguez said two more Santa Barbara County Albertsons stores will undergo a “rebranding” in the next two years to include more produce and organic products. Despite being a national chain, Albertsons still buys products from local growers and vendors as much as possible, including seafood, wine, chocolate and baked goods.
Jason Dew, store director of Lazy Acres in Santa Barbara – one of the largest single stores of all-natural organic foods and products in the Tri-Counties – said that people have more of a commitment to their bodies today than in past years, signaling an upswing in demand for all-natural products and organic produce.
Those who frequent his store and others like it often are not deterred by the price because they “invest in their health and, at the time, that investment doesn’t see a bank account.”
Organic growers have also become more consistent in their products’ quality and pricing, said Edelman, which he said is a reason why Santa Barbara County’s farmers markets have seen 10 percent jumps in patronage year after year.
The Saturday farmers market in downtown Santa Barbara pulls in 3,000 to 4,000 visitors every week, and the San Luis Obispo farmers markets on Thursday nights can draw out as many as 10,000 visitors in the peak summer months, according to the San Luis Obispo Downtown Association.
Edelman also noted that buying fresh, organic and local produce ties in with the green movement, in which the Tri-Counties is a national leader.
As the president of a regional chain of healthy restaurants, Brown echoed Edelmen’s thoughts on why the region buys more fresh and organic produce than other parts of the country. He expects that the demand will only climb, even if the economy slides down.
“As time goes on, organic is good for the soil, the water, and it’s good for humans. There’s no downside there,” Brown said.
Jim Dixon, president of Tri County Produce in Santa Barbara, said he expects his business to improve too, mirroring the trend of others in the last three years.
“2006 was our best year. 2007 we were 8 percent over 2006 and this year it looks like 10 percent over last year,” Dixon said. “That’s because all the smart people know where to shop.”
Dixon buys almost exclusively from growers within a 250-mile radius of his Milpas Street shop, which has been open for 23 years. He buys lemons from Ojai, broccoli from Santa Maria and celery from Oceano, for example.
He said his company and other independent, all-natural and organic stores in the Tri-Counties fare better with price than their Los Angeles counterparts.
“The organic providers in Los Angeles, they gouge all their small stores that sell organic. They over-double the price they pay for it before they sell it to you,” Dixon said. He also noted that fewer farms grow organic produce, meaning the overall supply is less so farmers can charge more.
But bottom lines are showing that health trumps cost in the minds of thousands of tri-county residents.
In droves, they’re venturing to farmers markets and all-natural vendors to do their shopping.
“If you factor in the potential for carcinogens in non-organic, and the health-care costs down the road, it’s pretty cheap if you look at it in the long-view,” Brown said.