Seeds of Success

Seeds of Success

Mustard Seed Market & Cafe, an icon of natural and organic food retailing in northeast Ohio, is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year with a remodel, and a tighter focus on its already strong prepared food program. One big change is an increase in space for presenting the company's in-store cooking, and its increased variety of all-natural deli meats. We're leading with our strength, Phillip Nabors,

Mustard Seed Market & Café, an icon of natural and organic food retailing in northeast Ohio, is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year with a remodel, and a tighter focus on its already strong prepared food program.

One big change is an increase in space for presenting the company's in-store cooking, and its increased variety of all-natural deli meats.

“We're leading with our strength,” Phillip Nabors, who with his wife, Margaret, owns the two-unit Mustard Seed Market & Café, told SN.

The prepared food category “actually has been a good [sales] indicator,” Nabors said. “For instance, we'll see a spike in prepared food sales followed by a spike in overall sales. Customers come in to pick up something from our prepared food case, then grab a cart and continue to shop.”

Both owners credit their Market Kitchen prepared foods with driving customer traffic as well as acting as an important point of differentiation in the marketplace.

“That category is just blossoming. During the remodel, we've changed bakery to self-service, which gives us a few more feet for prepared foods,” Margaret Nabors said.

“That change is positive in other ways, too. It's more efficient. Customers won't have to wait in line to buy two cookies or a bagel, and it gives us more room to display gluten-free items,” she added.

“We've done other things like take all the shippers out, and have made the aisles 6 inches wider, and made the floor lighter. It all makes the store look bigger.”

Nabors said she had always been interested in natural foods, and in fact, got started in the business by opening a 900-square-foot health food store more than 30 years ago.

“It was a continuation of my lifestyle at the time, and I learned so much there, evolving into a natural foods lifestyle, getting involved in the community.”

That tiny health food store sowed the seeds that have come to fruition in many of the ideas now implemented in the two Mustard Seed Market & Café locations in

Akron and Solon, Ohio. The Akron store has been expanded substantially since the Nabors first opened it in 1989. From the original 9,000 square feet, it now encompasses 31,500 square feet, of which 4,000 square feet is a kitchen used exclusively for retail production and catering. The cafe has its own kitchen and culinary team.

At the time of the last expansion in 1996, Carol Moore, known in the community for her culinary work at nearby West Point Market, came aboard as retail foodservice manager.

Up until that time, Mustard Seed's retail prepared food menu featured mostly basics, and mostly vegetarian dishes.

Since Moore was hired, she has methodically developed and expanded the prepared food and catering programs, Phillip Nabors told SN. With the expansion, and the addition of Moore's expertise, the prepared food category's sales have shown positive growth every year, even during the worst of the recent recession.

“We still had positive growth during the recent economic downturn. Single digits, not double, but growth continued,” he said, giving much of the credit to Moore. “Carol is just awesome. Her sense of taste, flavors, presentation can't be beat.”

Moore sees the variety of menu items she and her head chef Karen Bender have amassed as a major factor in the positive sales picture.

“We have hundreds of recipes and we rotate them in and out all the time,” Moore said. “Daily, we'll have 50 dishes in the service case, with 20 as backup. Customers can come in when the store opens and see a full case, then come back later, and see a full case. All of it is fresh, made every day.”

Moore said she and Bender have volume and variety down to a science. “

We don't shrink anything, and still our case always looks appealing. You'd want to buy what's in it. It's not just mirrors and lighting. It's fresh food that you know is fresh just by looking at it.”

Some of Moore's production staff of 11 associates start work at 5 or 6 in the morning. They prepare the day's fresh fare and have the service case set by the time the store opens at 9 o'clock. Then, they keep replenishing the display as needed.

It's Moore's opinion that the variety available on the menu every day helped keep sales growing during the recession. While quality and consistency are always a must, she said, the variety enables customers to think of Mustard Seed Market two or three or four nights in a row.

“Because we rotate so much, while keeping staples always, they could have something different every day,” Moore explained. “And during the recession, particularly, people had to work harder than ever, giving them little extra time, and still they wanted good food to put on their tables. I think they took advantage of the convenience we offer.”

Moore also pointed out that there's something for everybody on the menu. While more and more of her customers are becoming vegans, there are a lot of meat-eaters among her regular customers, she said.

“People love our Southern fried chicken, and our chicken pot pies are one of our best sellers. The ingredients are all natural. We use Bell & Evans chicken breasts only. We also have a beef pot pie and vegetarian pot pie.”

The crusts for those pies are just about the only things that aren't made from scratch on-site.

“The crusts are made by a pastry chef I've known for years, in Louisville. Of course, he makes them to our specs, following our strict ingredient standards,” Moore said.

She added that she and Chef Bender make a constant effort to stay on top of food trends so they can lead the way in the local marketplace.

“Kale is getting a lot of press right now, so we've added items featuring raw kale.”

Indeed, kale and red lentil salad is spotlighted in the company's April ad circular. So is a side dish using brussels sprouts, which are enjoying a popularity surge, too.

Baked pork chops and “crispy batter-fried fish and chips” are featured as well.

Moore and Bender aim for variety even with the basics. For instance, they offer 15 or 16 different potato salads.

“Potato salad is such a basic here,” Moore said. “Naturally, we have the traditional one, made with mayonnaise and mustard and hard-cooked eggs, but we also have red, white and blue, using different colored potatoes, and Wisconsin true bleu, using new potatoes, Wisconsin bleu cheese, cilantro and toasted pine nuts.”

Then there is the company's signature potato salad, which uses a lot of mustard, olive oil and mustard seeds.

While the store sells lots of potato salad, especially as picnic and grilling season arrives, one standout customer favorite is “Backyard Macaroni Salad,” Moore said.

“It's different because of a pickle. We use a special brand of bread and butter pickle that we get from a company we know in San Francisco. People love that salad. It's that pickle.”

As Mustard Seed will soon ramp up its sandwich business, Moore expects sales of salads to grow even more, as customers pair them up with sandwiches. And, with the worst of the recession now behind, prepared foods took an upswing this quarter, Moore told SN.

“This quarter, our prepared foods program has contributed 20% to total store sales at this location.”

Moore, as well as the whole Nabors family, sees the Mustard Seed Market and Café business as an opportunity to educate people about healthful eating, sustainability and other topics.

“Just with our menu, we're showing people that eating right can be fun. It's not a prescription,” Moore said. “Then in my ads, I try to include some useful information. Without making any health claims, for instance, I talk about the good properties of such spices as turmeric and cinnamon.”

Margaret Nabors said the stores act as a tool to educate the community.

“Eating this way has a huge impact on everyone. We offer classes and lectures regularly, and our son, Abraham, goes out and talks to groups at schools.”

The Nabors' sons Abraham, 28, and Gabriel, 23, are immersed in the business. In fact, they both went to the Natural Products Expo West show in Anaheim, Calif., with their father earlier this month. The trio was on a mission to find new products, Phillip Nabors said.

“That's one of the advantages we have over the big chain supermarkets — our flexibility. We can get the latest products on our shelves quickly.”

Mustard Seed Market & Café has catered local political events, even some that hosted U.S. presidents and their entourages. The company has also dabbled in supplying items to be served on planes, trains and boats, but it is now putting extra concentration on community outreach, Nabors said.

Sourcing local products is a major effort, and Nabors has cultivated a huge network of local suppliers.

Nationally, organic food sales are up substantially this year, and Mustard Seed Market's overall sales are gaining momentum.

“More people are growing their food in a sustainable way, and they're eating right, taking responsibility for their own diet and how it affects their health, and some even care about the planet,” Nabors said. “That says to me that our plot to change the world is working.”