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Top Company: retail/wholesale

TopCompany_VitaminCottage_LG.jpgMost shoppers still know it simply as Vitamin Cottage even though the Lakewood-based retailer modified its name about two years ago to reflect the fact that more of its business now comes from groceries than from vitamins.

Whether it's vitamins, organic food or free information from a nutritionist onsite at each of the chain's 33 stores, Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage still adheres to the principles laid down 54 years ago by Margaret and Philip Isely when they borrowed $200 from Margaret's mother and started going door to door in Golden, sharing books on nutrition and taking orders for vitamins and bulk foods.

"We've stayed consistent to our core values ... rather than trying to chase every trend that goes on out there," says Kemper Isely, a son of the founders who serves as co-president along with his brother Zephyr. "When my parents started the company they wanted to provide natural foods at affordable prices. That would be the first value we've always kept, to keep our prices as low as they possibly can be so people can buy the products we sell. Secondly, to educate people about their health so they understand how to take care of themselves."

The third value practiced by this year's Top Company in the Retail/Wholesale category is as much about what Vitamin Cottage doesn't sell as what it does. A page on the company's website at www.vitamincottage.com is titled "What we don't sell and why," and contains a description of more than 30 supplements and ingredients - many of them sold by other supplement retailers - that Vitamin Cottage has deemed to be of questionable quality or safety, or requiring a doctor's supervision to be safe.

"We are real selective about the products we carry in our stores," says Kemper Isely, one of 10 Isely offspring or in-laws with the company. "We only stock things that are good for your health. We also are careful not to stock things that contain artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, hydrogenated oils, etc. People appreciate the fact that they can come into our stores and not have to necessarily read labels - although they should read labels. But they don't have to, because they know the ingredients in the products we carry are going to be clean."

Vitamin Cottage was one of the first grocery chains in the country to go "bag free," introducing the practice about a year ago and launching it officially on Earth Day, April 22, this year.

"We stopped ordering bags on April 1 this year," says Isely, who reports that customer response to the bagless format has been "almost 100 percent positive. There's been a couple people that get grumpy about it. If somebody gets real grumpy we give them one of our reusable bags and say, ‘We still have bags.' That makes them happy. And then they usually bring them back the next time."

Despite the recession, Vitamin Cottage has continued to grow, though not at the 20 percent annual rate of revenue growth it had been averaging consistently since the late 1980s.

"We're still having same-store positive sales growth," Isely says.

The natural-grocery chain is up to 33 stores in four states - Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Utah - and plans to add at least six stores a year and expand into other Western states.

"We should easily be double where we are now in five years," Isely says.

- Mike Taylor

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