Start-ups get a lot of press. There are podcasts, magazine features, blog interviews and TV shows built around the shiny, glossy newness of a business getting its feet off the ground. But what about local heritage businesses? The ones that have been mainstays in their community’s landscape for generations? The ones that have remained nimble enough to survive for decades, even as their markets diversify and change?
Cambridge Naturals in Cambridge, Mass., is one of those businesses. It’s been part of the local community for more than 40 years, when Michael Kanter and Elizabeth Stagl opened the shop with the intention of establishing a community natural health store. Now, their daughter Emily Kanter and her husband Caleb Dean are co-owners, a transition that began in 2014. Here’s how the foursome has managed to maintain the shop’s integrity while expanding to accommodate the growing awareness of natural health, and satisfying both old and new customers.
To Sell or Not to Sell
Emily and Caleb were living in Portland, Ore., where they’d both gotten an MBA, when Michael and Elizabeth mentioned that they were considering selling Cambridge Naturals, a certified B Corporation and a certified Sustainable Business Leader. “They were sad, but ready for a step in a different direction,” says Emily. The idea of selling the longtime family business didn’t quite sit right with Emily and she and Caleb began having discussions about what it would be like for them to take over. “We were working in sustainable food systems and building local economies, but I was burned out on the nonprofit funding cycle,” says Emily. “I was ready to do something more creative with the flexibility to implement quickly. That’s much easier in a business context.”
Making a move to manage Cambridge Naturals felt like a perfect fit. In business school, Emily had used CN as a model for a successful business that is sustainable and has a positive impact on the local community, but is also profitable. “I don’t get the ‘I want to start a business’ idea,” Emily says. “I’m more passionate about what the business does. And Cambridge Naturals has a quadruple bottom line: people, planet, profit and purpose.”
While Emily and Caleb were sad to leave Portland, they were excited to apply their grad school learnings to an existing, thriving business. “It’s time-tested,” says Emily. “It’s a community resource that was doing well, and we had ideas to help it grow its presence and revenue.” So, they began the yearlong process of moving back to Massachusetts, and becoming co-owners of Cambridge Naturals with Michael and Elizabeth.
Honoring the Old, Implementing the New
Emily and Caleb didn’t approach their new co-ownership without grounding themselves in what had worked for Cambridge Naturals for four decades. Not only did Michael and Elizabeth grill their daughter and son-in-law on their plans to assess the viability of a new direction, but they also served as a reminder of the customers who had been shopping with CN for 44 years. “We tried to honor what [my parents] had created with their original customer base,” says Emily.
Because the business was both well-loved and well-established, Emily and Caleb had a foundation to rely on. “We could implement changes in real time, and have the security of a business that was really loved,” says Emily. “We wanted to maintain the product selection for our long-time customers, but also bring in new products for new customers, those who wouldn’t have thought to shop here until recently. As the awareness of wellness grows, so does our customer base.”
The prevalence of knowledge about healthy eating, preventative medicine and mindful living has required Emily and Caleb to carefully consider how to position Cambridge Naturals in its brick-and-mortar location. “We’re trying to give you an experience you can’t get online,” says Emily. “As you walk through the store, we want to create a tactile discovery experience, and straddle the balance between ‘want’ and ‘need.’ You might need toilet paper when you stop into the store, but on your way there, you might see a candle you haven’t seen before and smelling it creates an experience. It’s not just about selling products.”
That experience applies to the kinds of brands Emily and Caleb bring to CN’s shelves. “We want to be on the cutting, not the bleeding, edge of products,” Emily says, “with new and innovative products that you can’t find elsewhere.” Their stock also tips towards the local. “We want to be an incubator for small companies to try out retail, and move away from brands that don’t fit our mission or are too available,” she says.
Leading the Way to Expansion
Though Michael and Elizabeth never had the desire to expand Cambridge Naturals past its original location, Emily says they’re “bursting at the seams.” The physical layout, she continues, doesn’t allow space for a lot of events or workshops, something she and Caleb want to bring more of to the community.
That’s part of the reason CN is expanding to a second store in Brighton, Mass., in the fall of 2018. It’s about three miles from the Cambridge location, and will be part of a collective of businesses focused on health and wellness. “The broker for the neighborhood, Graffito SP, already knew Cambridge Naturals and wanted us there,” says Emily. The Boston Bruins and the Boston Celtics both have practice facilities in the new development. It’s rounded out with offices for WGBH, the Boston NPR affiliate; Harvard Business Publishing; New Balance shoe headquarters; and BOSE.
When the initial proposal was on the table, Emily and Caleb received a little hesitation from Michael and Elizabeth. “They never wanted to own two locations,” says Emily, “but they’re passionate about CN, and they have supported us as we push forward in the process.”
This growth is crucial for the business, says Emily. “We’ll be able to reach a whole new community of people in Brighton, and be more accessible to more customers. We want to be as deeply embedded in this community as we are in Cambridge.”
Working with Family
With Michael still serving as CN’s Chief Visionary Officer, and Elizabeth overseeing the company’s financial administration while also consulting with CN customers on nutritional supplementation using her Master’s degree in Nutritional Science, the co-founders are still closely involved with the business of Cambridge Naturals. That could lead to tricky interactions, especially because CN has been close to their hearts for four decades. Says Emily, “It’s a continual shift to get them to trust the new moves we’re making. But it feels like they care deeply about Cambridge Naturals and the health of Caleb and me.”
Emily also says that Michael and Elizabeth are consistently surprised and exited that they’re not responsible for every little thing that happens at CN. Like when the power went out early on a Sunday morning in the Cambridge neighborhood in the fall of 2017—and Emily and Caleb were the ones to get out of bed and trouble-shoot how to protect their products and manage their staff. “[My parents] were so relieved that they didn’t have to do it!” says Emily.
“We work hard to keep that family business feel, no matter how much we grow,” says Emily. “We have our sticky moments and we disagree, but by and large, we’re good at working together.”
What’s Next for Cambridge Naturals
As Emily and Caleb work on bringing the same CN feel to Brighton in fall 2018, they also have their sights on what a collective of businesses that support each other could look like. “We want to stay invested in Massachusetts,” says Emily, “but we love the idea of ancillary businesses that support our original store.”
She says she admires Ann-Arbor-based Zingermans, which began as a deli and now has businesses across the city that feed into the first store. “Bakeries and coffee roasters—businesses like those could give us products to sell at Cambridge Naturals and also help us expand.”
It’s like a family of businesses, she says. And that type of forward thinking gels with the family-owned persona of the original Cambridge Naturals. If you ask us, it’s a natural fit.
Read more about how wellness businesses succeed and thrive in our The Business of Wellness series.