THIS IS NOT your ordinary health food supermarket.
When shoppers enter the 28,000-square-foot Ada's Natural & Organic Food Supermarket in Fort Myers, Fla., they feel like they're in the jungle.
Twenty-foot replicas of rainforest trees tower over grocery departments that include bulk foods, deli, organic produce, personal care and a smoothie and juice bar. But that's not where this nature preserve ends: A 20-foot waterfall gushes down the middle of the store, and a stream runs throughout, leading to three separate ponds stocked with live fish. Life-size animal statues and animal prints on the floor provide a fun diversion for shoppers.
“We didn't want it to look like a regular supermarket or health food store,” said Eddie Bonadies, co-manager of Ada's, who runs the show with his father, Nick, and brother Louis.
The store engages shoppers with countless visuals. Two mammoth aquariums are filled with live sting rays and tropical fish, and the refrigerated bulk room is designed to look like an Aztec temple. Managers and customer service personnel sit in tiki huts on the floor of the store — not in a back office.
The Bonadies family wanted to provide a family-friendly atmosphere for parents and their kids. Many times, children get bored in supermarkets or don't want to visit them at all, Bonadies explained. In this store, they stay interested by following the animal prints, looking for the animal statues, and feeding the fish.
But the $2 million spent on designing and building the space was not just about appearances. Ada's differentiates itself from other natural supermarket chains, including Wild Oats Market and Whole Foods, by carrying the same kind of variety seen in conventional supermarkets, but with a special emphasis on organics. Ada's carries thousands of SKUs of natural and organic items throughout the store. Grocery items are supplied by natural foods distributor United Natural Foods, as well as by more than two dozen direct vendors. Organic produce is sourced from Global Organic Specialty Source in Sarasota, Fla., and a few local farms.
Some departments sell strictly organic items, including 100 different SKUs in the organic-only produce department as well as the organic-only deli. The wellness ideal is very important to Nick Bonadies, who started out in the food industry more than 30 years ago on Long Island, New York. About 13 years ago he opened a 1,500-square-foot health food store in Naples, Fla.; he outgrew that location within two years and moved to a 7,500-square-foot store.
“That's what defines a health food store: not carrying traditional produce that has pesticides on it,” Eddie Bonadies said. In a dig at chains such as Wild Oats and Whole Foods, Bonadies said that operators that carry conventional gourmet foods with organic items are “compromising” the idea of a health food store.
Ada's deli features a daily hot organic buffet with about 16 entrees and side dishes, and an organic salad bar. On one recent day, the buffet sported wild-caught salmon, organic lasagna, organic turkey breast, organic chicken, steamed organic vegetables and four different organic soups. Vegan and gluten-free dishes are regularly featured.
The deli includes about 30 meats, cheeses and sandwiches, including a new line of organic wraps. The store's bakery, which features fresh-baked organic and gluten-free items, uses ingredients pulled right off the floor of the store.
Ada's organic juice and smoothie bar, with tiki bench seating, is also a popular spot, where concoctions retail for around $5.50 each. The menu has almost doubled, from about a dozen when the store opened, to 24 now.
In addition to the fresh departments, another area of the store that receives major emphasis is Ada's 800-square-foot natural and organic bulk foods department. Because many items do not have preservatives, they are sold in a walk-in refrigerated room. The Aztec temple design houses 480 bulk items, including flours, granolas, candy and organic pastas.
The vitamin and supplement department, which takes up an aisle that runs the length of the store, features more than 30 complete lines of vitamins. Here, category sales contribute more than 40% to total store sales, Eddie Bonadies says, thanks to the variety offered and a knowledgeable staff.
Store associates hired to work in the supplement department must have 10 years of experience in the health food industry; those hired for grocery and fresh departments must have at least five years of experience.
“If they don't have the knowledge to help the customer, they can't sell the product,” Eddie Bonadies said. Even staff members who are stocking shelves should be able to answer customers' questions about natural and organic food and healthy living, Bonadies added.
Knowledgeable staff have also boosted sales in the store's third-best-selling department, its Health & Beauty Center. A certified aesthetician and two certified makeup artists oversee the 84-linear-foot section, which includes a makeup chair and counter.
“Just like when they go in a department store, it is still that upscale customer. They want that upscale service, that one-on-one specialty service,” said Mary Malone, Ada's health and beauty manager. The store also draws natural HBC shoppers with special events such as microdermabrasion treatments, and free gifts with select purchases.
“They love the pampering. Most health food stores do not do that,” Malone said.
Whether it is the design, the variety of SKUs or the knowledgeable staff, the owners' strategies are certainly paying off. The store boasts around 6,000 shoppers a week in an area with grocery competitors Publix and Winn-Dixie, a new Wild Oats Market and a Whole Foods Market, as well as several mom-and-pop health food stores.
The privately held retailer does not disclose sales and profit figures. However, Nick Bonadies said the concept is so successful, the family is opening two more stores this year and would eventually like to take Ada's public. First up is a 24,000-square-foot store in Cape Coral, Fla., that will open this spring. It will feature a 10,000-square-foot, two-floor fitness center, complete with new gym equipment and classes including yoga and pilates.