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Store Manager David Bowen says two house brands – Akin's and Paragon Plus – occupy a large portion of the vitamin aisle. "We see a lot more interest in the private label – that's shot up," he says.
Heather Mosley | SBJ
Store Manager David Bowen says two house brands – Akin's and Paragon Plus – occupy a large portion of the vitamin aisle. "We see a lot more interest in the private label – that's shot up," he says.

Business Spotlight: A Natural Fit

Attention turns to organic foods and supplements in wake of global health crisis

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Vitamins D, C and zinc – they’ve been staple supplements for many during the past two years of the pandemic. Akin’s Natural Foods sales directly reflect the consumer trends, says Mary Ann O’Dell, the company’s nutrition director and spokesperson.

“Immune health is very big,” she says, “and has been for the last couple years now. The other thing is stress relief or stress control.”

The natural foods and nutritional supplements store in the Fremont Center has upped its game to meet the new demands for health products – as long as supplies are available.

“It was one of those things at the beginning of this whole thing, people are coming in for more and more,” says O’Dell, who works at the Tulsa, Oklahoma, headquarters for the small grocery chain. “We probably carried 40 SKUs of zinc, and never did we think we’d have trouble getting zinc. Yet we did. And so did everyone else.”

In addition to the Springfield store, Akin’s operates three stores in Tulsa and one each in Oklahoma City and Rogers, Arkansas. Its parent company, The Healthy Edge Retail Group, also runs Chamberlin’s Natural Foods in central Florida and Earth Origins Market on the western coast of the Sunshine State.

Family roots
The natural food store’s roots in Springfield predate its alignment with Akin’s. It first operated as Earthwonder Natural Foods, O’Dell says.

She’s unsure of the year it opened, but according to Missouri secretary of state registration filings, Earthwonder Natural Foods was created in 1987 by Luther and Deborah Ver Steeg in the same shopping center.

The first Akin’s store opened in 1935, by Bernice Akin, in Tulsa. Yet, O’Dell’s family became quite familiar with the business. Her dad, Jim Hinkefent, owned the store for 40 years after a few Tulsa businessmen bought it from the Akin family and hired him to run it. Hinkefent eventually bought the rights, she says.

The business started with a simple idea: “Our understanding is that she had her own health issues and thought, ‘If I have these problems, other people might have these problems too,’” O’Dell says of Akin. “So, she opened this little health food store.”

Now, Akin’s is a little chain of health food stores. The Springfield store, which took on the Akin’s name in 1997, attracts customers from throughout the region, says Store Manager David Bowen.

Elkland residents Rick and Donni Bowman stopped in on an early January day while in town for another medical need. It was their first time at Akin’s, after it popped up on their GPS search.

“We’re here to see what they have,” Rick Bowman says.

Specifically, they’re looking for a liquid multivitamin, infused with both fruits and vegetables. Donni Bowman holds a bottle from Garden of Life, while she chats with Bowen about the Balance of Nature brand before making their purchase and the 40-mile drive home.

Though the store has catered to online orders and curbside pickup in the past year, Bowen says the Bowmans represent the majority of Akin’s customers.

“For our market, I don’t really see that too much,” he says. “Our customers like to come in and talk to us and ask questions.

“People come from Mount Vernon and Branson, and some as far as West Plains.”

Shop talk
Over 50% of the store’s sales and product lines are supplements. Bowen says groceries are next, followed by health and beauty products.

At the entrance sit a few bulk bins and a scale to weigh the self-serve nuts and dried fruit.

The store’s size – about 3,000 square feet, Bowen says – keeps most product within eyesight. There are short grocery aisles to the left, coolers in the rear and supplement products from the center to fill the right side of the store.

Industrywide, organic food and nonfood sales spiked in 2020 to a new U.S. high of nearly $62 billion with 12% annual growth, according to the Organic Trade Association. The prior year, organic sales had grown by only 4.5%. Still, certified-organic food sales account for just 6% of all food sold in the U.S., the association reports, representing market share growth potential.

For Akin’s and Healthy Edge, O’Dell says annual revenues are kept confidential.

Among the Springfield store’s over 10,000 stock-keeping units are Bragg apple cider vinegar, Epic jerky, Boca burgers, Om mushroom superfood and Daiya frozen sweets. O’Dell says SKUs companywide in Healthy Edge stores are probably in the 100,000 range. The company works with two primary distributors, United Natural Foods Inc. and KeHe, and maybe five smaller ones, O’Dell says.

After completing a slight facelift in the store last year, Bowen is looking forward to a big addition to the shopping center. Around the corner from Akin’s, Coryell Collaborative Group plans to build a five-story residential and commercial property spanning more than 88,000 square feet.

“I’m excited knowing it’ll be residential and retail,” he says of the former Heritage Cafeteria site, which was torn down and now awaits construction crews. “Once people start living there, maybe we can provide more deli options and produce to go.”

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