After months of construction in 1993, when Nature’s Fare Markets opened its doors on Cooper Road in Kelowna, it was unlike anything else: the store was a hub for innovative, grassroots wellness culture, but it also had the hallmarks of mainstream retail shopping, with a large selection and Fare Points. The store was also building something else that was just as special and unique: a community of people—local farmers, incredibly passionate team members and loyal customers. It’s where people are always first. For Nature’s Fare Markets, it’s these connections, values, relationships and meaningful memories that have come together to tell a beautiful story.
The sun breaks over the hills, the streets, the loading dock in the alley. The farmer is here in his pickup truck, with today’s drop of kale, corn or peaches. The produce manager is here, wearing gloves, an apron and a smile. Wooden bins of fruit and vegetables are stacked while they chat about their crops and families.
One of Brooke Sproule’s fondest teenage memories is the three times weekly drops of cherries at the back door of Nature’s Fare Markets in Kelowna. She was 16, had just earned her licence, and she loved driving, Okanagan mornings and those smiles at the loading dock.
“We knew everybody and they were so excited to get our fruit,” says Brooke. She’d help unload the crates and then drive around front to go inside and pick up whatever groceries were on her mom’s list. That was nearly 15 years ago, and now the Oyama orchard started by her grandparents in 1946 is a certified organic fruit farm of 10 acres run by Brooke and her husband Tanner.
Brooke has been able to carry on this legacy and dream for her own family in part because of this “partnership” with Nature’s Fare Markets.
“I’m always so thankful that my parents fostered that relationship,” says Brooke. Her parents had become close with the store’s founder, Rick Monahan, who arrived in the Okanagan in the early ‘90s with the dream of making a health-conscious lifestyle accessible to everyone.
Randy Irwin remembers those early mornings out back with Brooke and the others from family farms like hers, the pickup trucks piled high with carrots and lettuce and the bread so fresh it was still hot and steaming. After a few months working in produce in 2000, Randy was soon promoted to produce manager at the Kelowna store. “All of this became very much a passion and a foundation for me. I loved connecting with the farmers. I loved the relationships.”
By then the Kelowna store had been open for six years, after construction began in 1993. It was about 2,000 square feet and centred around what Randy called “a core group of customers” who lived that lifestyle: drinking rice milk in their fair trade coffee and taking turmeric to limber up their joints for weekend paddles or hikes.
“Nature’s Fare was the only place to find things like dairy alternatives back then. And we always had a strong local produce program. We were connected to our farmers and the local food chain at a time when most people didn’t think about where that box of food came from to get to the grocery store.”
“It’s mind-boggling to me to see how far we’ve come,” says Jodi Harries, who is now a part of a commissary team of 25 people based in the Vernon building that includes the warehouse, HR, marketing and more. She was hired in 2009, when the commissary was still in the small kitchen of the Vernon store that had opened in 1996, and there were just six people on that team, squeezing citrus, stirring fresh applesauce, roasting chicken breasts, washing their own dishes.
“I think what still excites me is there is always something new to learn, and the friendships that I have made along the way. Nature’s Fare is like family to me—I’ve met so many great people.”
Team members dig in, and they dig in big.
Laurie Yakelashek remembers a turn of events in her life that saw her shift from plans to become a Mountie to showing up at the old Eaton’s department store building in Vernon, where she’d worked in high school, after noticing a help wanted ad for Nature’s Fare. Resume in hand in the store, she ran into people she’d known as a teenager; a manager knew one of her uncles. Within hours, she was in and “it felt right…it felt like I was a part of a work family.”
That meant pitching in and being glad to have the chance to help out.
“I would become a receiver on the fly, build grocery pallets in our receiving area to ship to our stores…and help out in the Bistro in a pinch.”
What she has also loved has been the chance to be a part of community causes, such as the local food bank or the adult spelling bee in support of childhood literacy, or Gleaners in Lavington, which makes dehydrated vegetable soup to help feed the world’s hungry. Indeed, Nature’s Fare is known for its community generosity. In 2022, as so many BC families were struggling to recover from the effects of the pandemic, the seven Nature’s Fare stores collected more than 12,000 pounds of food bundles donated by customers and donated $60,000 to six Food Banks.
Today, Laurie is one of the produce specialists who gets to nurture relationships and new possibilities with certified organic local farms, like Sproule and Daughters in Oyama, Two EE’s Organic Produce in Surrey and Amazia Farms in Oliver.
Three times a week in the warm months, Mike Kosaka of Amazia Farms pulls up to the back of the Penticton store with vegetables he and his wife and children have picked just the day before: arugula, beets, chard, kale and lettuce mixes. In the course of year, it adds up to nearly 10,000 bunches of kale, 2,000 pounds of garlic, 7,000 bags of arugula, to name a few.
“We have to be competitive with things coming out of Mexico or California, but we’re given a privileged position because the whole chain lives the commitment of supporting local,” says Mike.
Local and fresh. Field to table in just a day or two. In fact, at the peak of growing season, 75 percent of the store’s organic produce is locally grown and Nature’s Fare has relationships with 75 growers, making that possible.
“Everything is so fresh,” says Mike. They meter out what Nature’s Fare needs and plant and plan to cut lettuce, for example, three times a week so the veg can get to the customer as quickly as possible. Interstore trucks that go through a network up from Penticton to Kamloops stores (the third and fourth stores, which opened in 1998) also make selling in this way viable for a small family farmer. That and getting paid the week after the kale and the chard has been scooped off the shelf by customers.
“You can count on them to always come through.”
And that’s true whether farmers—and other vendors—want to stick with what’s tried and true, or try something new.
A few years ago, Brooke had the idea of flash-freezing the Sproule orchard’s peaches and supplying frozen peaches to Nature’s Fare year-round.
“They said, ‘OK, we’ll try it,’ and that’s been life-changing for us,” says Brooke. Now the Bistro at all stores makes smoothies with these frozen peaches. The commissary, too, uses Sproule peaches for a decadent chutney.
Randy says that commitment to people and farms and innovation has allowed Nature’s Fare to continue to be leaders of the pack—and a grocer of choice, now in cities that include Langley (opened in 2010) and White Rock (the seventh store, opened in 2016).
“Watching our vendor partners grow and these farmers develop these speciality niche products, it’s amazing to see the incredible innovation just within this tight-knit group of people.”
Today, late July, the Sproules are just waiting for their peaches to ripen. In the meantime, if they have extra cherries or nectarines, Brooke can phone up the Vernon store’s produce manager and ask about taking extra and doing a sale, and they’ll probably say yes. Like most summers, Laurie will probably be by the orchard for a visit, and say hello to the newest Sproule.
In the farmhouse where she grew up and now raises her children hangs a 20-year-old family photo framed in barnwood. Brooke, on one end, is a teenager, alongside her brother, sister, mom and dad, whose head is just below the Nature’s Fare Markets logo. Behind them are the peach trees about to bud, and Wood Lake. Their hands brush the words overlaid in white script: Committed to Buying Local.
“I just love how it feels like a family. They want the best for us, is how I truly feel. They’re invested in us and our story.”
Some 130 kilometres away from the Sproule orchard, at the brand new Nature’s Fare Markets store in Kamloops on Notre Dame Drive, a woman in shorts orders the Joyful smoothie with peaches at the smoothie bar.
The store opened in July in what was once a Toys ‘R’ Us—doubling the size of the Nature’s Fare store on Summit Drive to nearly 20,000 square feet. With all that room and fresh, modern branding came the opportunity to bring in even more organic fruits and vegetables from dozens of BC growers, and also the chance to try new things: a ‘fresh bar,’ where customers can build their own salads or a meal with mac and cheese or vegan lentil bolognese; a speciality coffee bar where you can get a latte topped with collagen or turmeric; café seating for 35; a low waste refill section for everything from loose-leaf tea to household cleaners; and a bakery, a first for Nature’s Fare, featuring artisanal breads, decadent cakes and pastries to suit a variety of diets.
“We have so many great customers in Kamloops,” says CEO Michael Sherwood. “They have busy, active lifestyles and families, and they care about shopping local, organic and sustainable—so it was exciting for us to meet that growing demand and let them experience all of these new and enhanced offerings.”
While Kamloops customers are showing the ambience and ‘bars’ are a hit, with customers taking selfies in the aisles, what remains is something you’ll find at any Nature’s Fare store: a coziness created by a family of team members and customers passionate about health and wellness and local growers.
“At the end of the day what draws customers to us is our team members,” says Sherwood. “We strive to provide a great customer-employee experience, and I’m sure that over the next 30 years, we’ll continue to ensure this remains our hallmark.”
Article was published in The Good Life magazine – Click to see our 30 year timeline.