Groceries – The Freedom of Choice

Groceries – The Freedom of Choice

Written and photographed by Kyle Hanson McKee

Sundance Natural Foods, despite having many competitive chain stores in close proximity, has kept an upstanding and respected relationship amongst the Eugene community while maintaining financial stability for 41 years


This colorful mural is located outside of Sundance Natural Foods.

Sundance has survived because it is a locally owned business that supports locally generated food and products. Sundance does beneficial things for its community and abides by the mutual ethos that runs parallel to the beliefs of the community. For example, Sundance created a compost pile with the waste produced from access food, whether from fresh produce or from the kitchen. With these broken down food scraps, several times a year employees distribute this compost to community members. Shoppers are offered nutritious soil for their own local and organic gardens so they can actively participate in the message Sundance is trying to spread: a community nourishing individuals, who nourish a community. This full circle attitude is apparent between costumers and employees within the walls of the organic establishment.

Renee Kempka is the general manager of Sundance Natural Foods

Renee Kempka is the general manager of Sundance Natural Foods

Sundance is the quintessential example of neighborhood community members realizing the magnitude of their consumer vote, and putting their money into an organization that stands for values they agree in. Shoppers hold the power of where to spend their money. The choice may be purposeful or indirect, but this money does contribute to an organization. Whether it’s a farmers market or a multinational corporate entity, the money goes somewhere and has an effect on the business.

Calvin Smith, a two-year employee at Sundance Natural foods enjoys his job because of the educated and intimate interactions he is encouraged to have with the customers and more importantly, his community. The 51-year-old former Broadway actor is just one of the many faces and flavors of Sundance. Despite the irritation of close-to-minimum wage pay, he finally saw his job to be well worth it one day when he brought a copied stack of owls coloring-book-sheets ready for children to draw on.

A pair of children who always came in with heir mom would say “’Hello Calvin!’ Their eyes were beacons, they knew my name and loved seeing me.’”

This is the kind of relationship Sundance employees tend to have with formerly perfect strangers. “I told them to decorate the owls with white.”

The result was incredible. “Two weeks later I saw them standing there with the owls covered in white cotton balls! It made a connection [for me]…when a child hears your words, uses glue, produces something – Its kind of a shimmering landscape, and it brings it back to me,” Smith said.

This “bring it back to me” idea is what Sundance is all about. Their system is meant to go full circle; the effort given by employees goes to the customers and then to the greater community, eventually going back into the store; a symbiotic relationship.

Not everybody chooses to shop this way.  In fact, Albertsons on 30th Avenue and Hilyard has an average count of 7000-10,000 customers per week.

While Sundance struggles everyday to keep up with major cooperate grocery chains, the general manager of Albertsons Dan Beigh “doesn’t consider health food stores competition because we offer a wider variety of product. We’re not going to have some of the specialty organics, but our price count is going to be a lot lower”

The main benefit of a large-scale corporate store, such as Albertsons, Safeway or Fred Meyer is that their prices are cheaper. They have a huge array of brands, and extreme accessibility to every type of product in one location.  With these affordable prices, lower income families are able to buy more food. As Beigh said, “we offer a broader scope for less money.”

Brands that people have grown up with their whole lives are still on the shelves. Many of these products will always taste the same due to mass production, not to mention last forever due to preservatives. Often times, people are drawn to consistency, and if every Albertsons looks the same and habitually has the same types of food, the convenience is uncanny. There is a large selection of food, most with affordable prices, so what is the draw back? Well, Cheap food is still cheap food.

With the close proximity to the many major grocery stores in the area, such as Albertsons, Safeway, and Fred Meyer, one would expect Sundance might have trouble staying open.

Sinju Mann, 37-year-old mother of three, said, “Sundance is an investment. My contributions [to them] give me an initial healthy product, but it also contributes to my greater neighborhood. My money goes into a system that gives back to me and my family.”

It is this reputation of upstanding values that represents its costumers and keep Sundance open. This reciprocated respect between costumers and employees is what allows them to thrive in the less than optimal economy.

Often times, shoppers at Sundance are thinking about what they are having for dinner along with more conceptual food ideas, like where it comes from and what influence it has. “When you looks past the sometimes-higher price, a higher product is given,” said Mann.

Colette Levesque, employee and college student at the University of Oregon has been working at Sundance for a year now. “We know you’re face, we probably even know your name.” This is the type of service and communal understanding observed while at Sundance that keeps people coming back.

Despite the draw of cheaper food and a seemingly endless array of choices, many Eugene citizens choose the smaller scale stores. The general manager of Sundance, Renee Kempka estimated that “Eugene has the leading number of health food stores per capita in all of the United States.” Examples of these stores are Sundance, Red Barn, The Kiva, Friendlys, and New Frontier scattered throughout the town. This Oregonian trend and knowledge about food is very the opposite of the general Californian public right now.

California voters rejected the mandatory labeling of Genetically Modified organisms, otherwise known as GMOs. These ‘mystery ingredients’ are what shoppers and workers of Sundance purposefully avoid.

Sundance shoppers are fully aware of everything on their shelves. From the snack chips to the produce, they are organic and not genetically modified. “We have hundred and hundreds of local vendors that sell to us weekly. We know where our food comes from.” said Kempka. She thinks buying locally has more benefits than just knowing where one’s food comes from and where it is made.

Purchasing food from local vendors puts money back into the local community and reduces environmental impacts from excess transportation. Sundance has many vendors who sell to them year round, giving seasonal produce depending on what the season’s weather can produce.

Leveque says, “This really what it comes down to. Albertsons in the middle of December will sell you a mango.” A mango in December is farmed and shipped halfway around the world. This action has a less-than-optimal environmental impact due to the mass amount of fuel, as well as a slim benefit for the local economy. The purchase of a mango from around the world is far from an “investment towards the community.”

Fortunately, according to the general manager of Albertsons and Sundance, there is a growing trend among consumer populations towards an increase in organic, seasonal and non-genetically modified foods. Places such as Safeway and Albertsons have a growing produce department, especially in the organic section. Stores such as Safeway have recently given sales on organic produce, making their organic products cheaper than their nonorganic. How does a store like Sundance successfully compete with these cheaper incentives and prices, especially if they are selling a similar product at a better price? Why does the community care so much to support the local entity? Sundance and Albertsons are six blocks apart, almost equidistant for Amazon neighborhood dwellers.

Sundance has prevailed in existence, and will continue to because of its large customer support and its active community involvement. Its efforts have led to a larger organic support system in Eugene that has influenced the cooperate system of Albertsons, Safeway and Fred Meyer. The light will not diminish anytime soon within the entity of Sundance.

Revealing Statistics

According to general manager of Albertsons Dan Beigh, Albertsons on 30th and Hilyard, has eighty employees all organized through a union. They have roughly 60 part time and 20 full time employees.  It has been open in Eugene for 32 years, and was the first Albertsons in the area. They receive an average of 7000-10000 customers a week and their prices are divided amongst a national average and handed down from a cooperate superior. Their square footage is 40,000 square feet. They interact with “around ten” local venders. The managers of Albertsons refused to provide information about the profit margin of 2011.

According to the general manager of Sundance Natural Foods Renee Kempka, Sundance on 24th and Hilyard, has seventy employees and has been open for 41 years.  They have 30 full time and 40 part time employees. They receive an average of 4694 customers per week, fluctuating between the seasons. Their prices are determined based off the marginal price range of local sellers, customers, and recent store trends.  Their square footage is 5925 square feet. In the year of 2011, the profit of the net income profit margin of the store was .3 percent; the cost of goods were 67.2 percent; the payroll was 20.7 percent; the operating costs were 11.8 percent.

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