photography by Sarah Parisi Dowlin
Before farmers’ markets scattered across the Ohio Valley, before seasonal eating was trendy, Clifton Natural Foods embraced healthy, locally sourced food.
Bob Craig’s first customer at Clifton Natural Foods on a crisp September morning was a 38-year-old woman looking for advice. “She was diabetic and wanted to become vegetarian and wanted to know how,” he says.
Changing how one eats is no easy feat, and dispensing advice about it is a heavy responsibility. Luckily, Craig and his wife, Aline Kuhl, have three decades of experience fielding such questions. “I just took her on a tour of the store,” Craig says. “I tell a lot of people, ‘If you’re thinking about dietary changes toward a more vegetarian lifestyle, don’t get overwhelmed by all the products. Think about it meal by meal.’”
[Bigger stores] do a great job, but we can be more hands-on with our customers. For Kroger, vegetarian hot dogs are just another product. For us, this is an extension of our lifestyle. It’s a family-owned store, and we’re passionate about it. ”
— Bob Craig
If that new customer continues to shop at Clifton Natural Foods, she’ll be able to find every thing she needs. The 1,280-square-foot store is small, more New York City bodega than giant Midwestern grocery store. Fresh bread from Sixteen Bricks is delivered daily; an open cooler no wider than a VW Beetle holds fresh, organic produce and grab-and-go items. A row of glass-fronted refrigerators and freezers contains a tight but extensive selection of tofu, seitan, vegan and dairy cheese, eggs, yogurt, milk, meat, fish, and other healthy products. And in case you forget you’re in Cincinnati, taut tubes of Jumpin’ Joe Grotta, a vegetarian goetta, will remind you.
Two aisles of neatly arranged shelving offer up snacks, cereals, baking ingredients, teas, natural beauty products, soups, and canned goods. The back wall is lined with bulk herbs and spices in alphabetical order. Supplements, natural cleaning supplies, and pet food all have their own sections.
Roots of the Business
For more than 30 years, Clifton Natural Foods has been providing the Clifton community with a place to find all these things and more in a true mom-and-pop atmosphere. But when Kuhl bought the store in 1985, she never imagined she’d still be working as a natural-foods grocer all these years later.
Kuhl began her career in natural foods even earlier, in 1977, when she was hired at age 15 to work at New World Foodshop, a natural-foods store in Clifton’s Gaslight District. Her affinity for natural foods came from her mother, who started reading popular health food books in the early ’70s. “She taught me to read labels and encouraged me to take vitamins, but she never gave up meat entirely,” Kuhl says. “I did some reading of my own, including Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and decided to become a vegetarian.”
In her teens and early 20s, she managed the store while supporting herself and piecing together a journalism degree at UC. It was also during this time—and at the store—that she met Craig, another fan of natural foods. “I walked in for a hummus and tabbouli sandwich, and there she was,” he says.
Managing a store, school, and a new relationship was overwhelming, so Kuhl took a break from school to figure things out. As she toyed with the idea of opening her own store, a sales rep told her about Nature’s Treasures, a store on McMillian Avenue, that was for sale. “I went that afternoon and got starry-eyed,” she recalls. “It was an attractive space with a high, pressed-tin ceiling, wood-paneled walls, and lots of light. I didn’t think twice.”
But having never owned a credit card or financed anything, she had no hope of getting a bank loan. It turned out that the sales rep was married to the store’s owner, and since he knew Kuhl and felt she was capable, they accepted her $3,000 in savings as a down payment. “I took ownership two weeks before my 24th birthday,” she says.
Kuhl renamed the store Clifton Natural Foods and took it to the next level. She was the sole employee the first two years. Craig helped her sweep up or stock shelves after his shift as a psychiatric nurse. She eventually hired one employee, then the space next door became available. Craig took a leave of absence from his job to help her expand and never went back. At one point, they had 14 employees, a busy lunch counter, and a few tables.
Along the way, Kuhl and Craig got married and started a family. When retail space at the corner of West McMillan and West Clifton with parking became available, they moved and expanded the store again. When their second child was born, Kuhl took a break from the store to raise and home-school the kids. Craig took over the day-to-day operations and kept the business humming along.
By the time Kuhl was ready to get back into the business four years ago, the couple was facing a crossroads: Their landlords had sold the building, and it was scheduled to be torn down. Kuhl and Craig had to decide whether to walk away or find a new location. They both weighed the pros and cons and told each other they’d made a decision. Craig, who is 10 years older than Kuhl, said he was ready to wind down into retirement. Kuhl wanted to continue.
“Thank goodness I listened to her,” Craig says. “She was absolutely right.”
The couple leased a storefront on Ludlow Avenue, right across the street from the old New World Health store where Kuhl had started her career. The space was smaller so they went to work figuring out how to make the most of it. For three months they tinkered with a model of the space to optimize every square inch, crafting it into the bright, efficient store it is today.
“We actually have more product variety in this store than we did in the other one,” Craig says. “We’re constantly having to restock it all day long, but it’s easier to maintain a store that’s compact and filled to the gills with product.”
Like any successful small business, Clifton Natural Foods provides the kind of intimate customer service that’s just not possible at big grocery store chains. Kuhl handles all the ordering, a process that involves continuous feedback from their community of shoppers.
“It’s unbelievable as far as [Kuhl’s] ability to know her customers and to know what sells and doesn’t sell,” Craig says. “If we buy something and it doesn’t sell, she won’t get it again, but if we have one customer that gets a particular tea every month, she’ll make sure to have it on the shelf.”
With their combined experience and Craig’s background as a registered nurse, Clifton Natural Foods customers look to the owners and their five knowledgeable employees for advice. Some may be trying to simply eat healthier; others may be dealing with more serious health issues. Some are college students grocery shopping for themselves for the first time. Others are loyal customers who grew up shopping there with their parents.
No matter the reason, the staff is happy to jump in and help customers choose the right supplement or explain how to use a medicinal herb. But that education goes both ways. “I learn so much from my customers,” Craig says. “If they ask us something we have no clue about, we’ll do research on it.”
Sometimes the exchange is just old fashioned recipe swapping. “It’s unbelievable how many herbs we sell in a given day,” Craig says. “And whenever someone comes in to buy cooking spices, all of a sudden you start trading recipes and tips.”
Being in business for three decades, Kuhl and Craig have ridden many waves of health food trends, from kale to kombucha. One of the biggest changes they’ve seen is what Kuhl calls the “co-opting of healthy foods by corporations.” As foods that were once considered fringe moved mainstream, big companies started to buy smaller producers.
“It really saddens me because small companies like Arrowhead Mills, Westbrae, and Health Valley were the backbone of the independent natural food stores,” Kuhl says. All of those brands are now owned by Hain Celestial Group, a global food corporation that owns dozens of other natural product brands.
Craig has noticed that as larger companies gobble up smaller ones, they sometimes shift the products to a more mainstream taste by adding more sugar or salt. “We have to watch that,” he says. “We want to keep things as clean as possible.”
“Big corporations simply don’t have the same standards as the small, independent companies.
Nor do they support the little guys like me who helped them succeed back when everyone treated natural foods as a joke,” Kuhl says.
The mainstreaming of health foods hasn’t been bad for their business, however. Yes, many of the same products can now be found at supermarkets, but that also means that more people are being exposed to and educated about the products. “[Bigger stores] do a great job, but we can be more hands-on with our customers,” Craig says. “For Kroger, vegetarian hot dogs are just another product. For us, this is an extension of our lifestyle. It’s a family-owned store, and we’re passionate about it.”
Their experience and passion means that they only sell products that they believe in. “We carry stuff that we personally know works, that we have experience with, or at least we feel good about the company,” Craig says. This is especially true for supplements; they only carry supplement lines from companies that they’ve dealt with for decades and know to be reputable.
Another big change they’ve seen is the maturation of local food, of which they carry as much as possible. When they were starting out, there were very few local food businesses catering to the natural or organic foods market. “People are just getting more and more sophisticated, the products are looking better, and they’re higher quality,” says Craig.
The natural foods landscape is sure to undergo more changes. It remains to be seen, for example, what impact the sale of Whole Foods to Amazon will have. But Craig and Kuhl feel that there will always be room for stores like theirs that combine service, knowledge, and passion. “I try to never lose sight of the fact that I wouldn’t be in business if it weren’t for my customers,” says Kuhl.
She also points out that when she started in the business, the only organic produce she could get was carrots. Today, just about every food has a widely available organic counterpart.
“That’s good for everybody,” says Kuhl. “Our bodies deserve healthy fuel—that’s the best way to look at it.”
Amy is a freelance writer and content strategist with an interest in sustainability, food, and wellness. After 12 years of apartment living in Brooklyn, NY, she's enjoying having space to learn how to grow food in a community garden plot here in Cincinnati. She blogs regularly about sustainability for the nonprofit Sustainable America.