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A Natural Foods Grocer Shares His Secret to Creating Demand

ICSC Small Business Center

January 6, 2023

Jimbo’s Naturally founder and President Jimbo Someck has built a successful chain of four Southern California natural foods grocery stores by adhering to his belief that eating high-quality organic and natural foods is better for both the environment and the community’s health. In an effort to live up to these values of sustainability and wellness, Someck has made controversial business decisions like selling only organic produce and refusing to stock plastic water bottles or items that haven’t been certified non-GMO. Advisors warned him these decisions would cost him money and customers. Instead, Someck said, these decisions have benefited his small business.

In this Q&A with ICSC Small Business Center contributing editor Rebecca Meiser, Someck, who got his start in food services by breaking down cardboard boxes at a co-op after leaving Cornell University, makes the case that when you lead with your values, customers will follow, even during times of inflation and high prices.

How did you get interested in the food business?

In 1973, I had finished one year of college back east, and I came out to visit my brother. One of the things he was involved with was a food co-op in Ocean Beach, San Diego. It wasn’t the most lucrative job I’ve ever had. I was getting paid in food credit. For every three hours I worked, I got a dollar’s worth of food credit, which comes out to be a little bit more than $0.33 an hour. The store was run by a group of four people who had a lot of passion. They wanted to provide inexpensive food to the people who lived in the area. Eventually, I became one of the people running the co-op. I got a hefty salary of $140 a month, and I was working probably 300 hours a month. After about 11 years there, I decided that [being there] was a great learning experience but I felt that the business operations were ineffective because decisions were made by a group of people. There was no one really leading the charge. I just decided that it’d probably be easier for me to venture on my own.

Tell us the thinking behind the opening of your first Jimbo’s Naturally grocery store.

I opened my first store in an area [of San Diego] called North Park in 1984. I was probably very naive and really didn’t set my expectations too high. All I remember saying is: “I don’t care if I make $1 or $1 million. I want to be able to look at myself every day and say I did it with transparency, integrity and honesty.” And if I did it that way, then hey, let the chips fall where they may.

But you ended up being very financially successful, despite that thinking. You have four successful natural foods grocery stores open now and had one of your most profitable years yet in 2022, at a time when other small businesses have struggled. Why do you think that is?
I came along at a prime time to do what I was doing. I always say I was very fortunate because when I opened my first store, it was right when Whole Foods was getting to be prominent. It opened the doors and minds of many people when Whole Foods became a national phenomenon. Their success really helped my business and certainly all the other natural food businesses who were now in the public eye.

Why is this focus on organic and natural foods so important to you?

When I came out to San Diego originally, I didn’t have much of a clue of what organic was. As I got to understand it — from an environmental perspective, from a sustainability perspective and from a humanitarian perspective of not wanting people working the land to be exposed to chemicals or pesticides — I just became a firm believer. I believe that whatever you put in your body has to have an impact. Like: “Why wouldn’t you put the cleanest thing you can in your body?”

“The first thing as a business owner is: You get to decide who you are and what you want to be.”

You sell only products that don’t have white sugar or artificial preservatives, and recently, you decided to sell only produce that’s organic. Doesn’t that hurt you, as in when a customer comes in for a melon only to find you’re not stocking them because you can’t get an organic one?

No. It’s interesting. More often than not, these decisions have actually been a boon to us, not just from a financial perspective but really in cementing our customers’ belief in the idea that we do the right thing. I think people want to shop at a place that lives up to their mission. The people who shop with us on a regular basis are more loyal to us than if we didn’t do the social and environmental things we do because they want to support us [for embodying these values.] When they shop at our stores, they feel an added value in being there.

At a time of rising inflation, you’re doing the best you’ve ever done. Why do you think that is?

I go back to the idea that our customers are dedicated and loyal to us, and the people who shop our stores have probably made a decision that food is important to them. If they want to give up something, maybe they’ll give up going out to eat as often or maybe they won’t buy certain clothes. Especially if you have kids and you’re committed to eating this way, you’re probably not going to sacrifice that early on. Even people who’ve been impacted by inflation — they’re going to want to spend their money in a way that reflects their values.

What’s the lesson in this for small business owners starting out?

The first thing as a business owner is: You get to decide who you are and what you want to be. If you’re running a business simply because you’re trying to maximize your profit, then you’ll make decisions that will perhaps not reflect who you are. What I found is when I laser-focused on the mission and made sure I was running [my stores] with honesty, integrity and respect, the bottom line got better.