Interview with Michael Kanter of Cambridge Naturals

Interview with Michael Kanter of Cambridge Naturals

Owning an Independent Business Came Naturally, as Did Starting an Independent Business Alliance

October 20, 2014


Michael Kanter and daughter Emily put some “family” into Cambridge Naturals

Since founding Cambridge Naturals foods store in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Stagl-Kanter family’s intention has been providing their community with healthy products. Those include organic foods, locally-made goods, credible nutritional supplements, herbal medicines and safe body care items. “One could say that my wife, Elizabeth Stagl and I literally grew up in the store, since we were 22 years old at the time we started Cambridge Naturals!,” said founder Michael Kanter.

The Stagl-Kanters have actively participated in the community, supporting a variety of non-profits and involving themselves in causes focused on creating a fairer and more just society. The business has grown over the years, but their mission never has diverted from being a successful local independent business that is a value and credit to the community. We interviewed Michael recently about how their independent market has succeeded taking a “high-road” approach in such a competitive and low-margin retail sector.


Natural foods have differentiated themselves from chain competitors in the past by product selection, but as Safeway, Walmart and other large chains work to “green” their image with more organic products, how are you keeping customers coming back?  What do you anticipate you must do moving forward?

We emphasize vastly superior customer service and product selection.  Dare I add that we provide a very superior customer experience.  We communicate clearly via social media and directly with our customers (and our staff!) the importance of our mission and our involvement with the community.  Beyond that we have become better and more effective marketers.

But — full disclosure — competition is intense and unrelenting and we have had to “re-invent” ourselves many times over the years.  That includes everything from numerous renovations and re-defining our product mix.  Also, we know we can never rest on our past successes.  We are always seeking out the better products and are always aware that we need to remind ourselves and staff of our purpose in the community.


Do you engage in your community in ways that set you apart from competitors?

Yes, again, especially with our support and direct involvement with local non-profits especially those focused on creating effective improvements to the air, water and soil and those working on issues of food security, hunger issues and domestic violence.  More particularly we are involved in campaigns to raise the minimum wage, reduce income inequality and to enable people to more easily invest locally, especially in agriculture and food production.

We have been effective at communicating our involvement in the above issues because we are not shy about promoting those causes or our positions on them.


You’ve been involved in Cambridge Local First from its beginning. Has publicizing the importance of local/independent business ownership benefited your business directly?

Yes, I am a founding member of Cambridge Local First, now over 9 years old.  We have about 350 members and a paid staff of two.  We have a very active board and very committed members. I believe that one of the major benefits we’ve received from our membership is our ability to communicate the importance of local and to show that “local” is not just a marketing term for us, but rather a significant part of our mission.


You have a strong reputation in the natural food and natural products industry. What advice do you share with your fellow independent grocers?

I speak at many natural foods trade shows on how to survive and thrive as a locally-owned and independent business, especially in today’s market.  Cambridge Naturals is known for having survived some of the fiercest competition in the country.  We have been told we are a model and inspiration for succeeding in spite of the challenges.

And the natural foods and natural products industry has always included many people focused on building better communities and supporting local agriculture.  The industry has grown especially dramatically over the past decade or so.  There has been a great deal of consolidation including buy-outs from huge national and multi-national and publicly-traded companies.  A number of our favorite companies that produce fine, ethically made and organic items have sold out to big conglomerates, many of whom have different values than the companies they have purchased!

Big challenges, let’s be brutally honest.  Fortunately, there is a large group of us who have a much greater mission and vision that includes building and maintaining strong, local economies and promoting the benefits of locally-owned and independent businesses.  I should at this point acknowledge and highlight the importance of the Natural Food Retailers (INFRA), which we recently joined.  INFRA is comprised of now hundreds of businesses from around the U.S. and is a source of support in many ways.  That support includes discussions of best business practices and achieving better pricing from our vendors through our collective purchasing power.


What motivated you to engage in forming a local alliance?

One, to better get to know more of the businesses and owners in the area.  Two, because the importance of local to me is bigger than my own business and suggests using business to create a better society and world.  And three, because to be sure, I hoped it would help us grow our business which would lead to further success and enable us to grow our staff and support them better.


What have you learned about creating a successful local alliance in your 9 years with Cambridge Local First?

It’s hard work!  You need active participants who don’t “drop out.”  At the same time you need to be really clear that people come into such organizations from different directions or purposes and it is critical to acknowledge those differences. Make clear to current and prospective members that a major part of the goal of the organization is to help businesses to grow. At the same time it is equally critical to find ways to get as many members as possible “on board” in terms of the “local movement” being part of something much larger than business success and growth.


What program have you executed in Cambridge that might interest others?

Certainly our business improvement seminars have great value (to toot my own horn, just a bit, since I am chair of the Business Improvement Committee). We have held workshops on everything from helping business owners improve their customer service and their marketing, learning about employee law and the latest details in health insurance and finance and succession planning and how to improve staff cohesion and morale.

Much more than that our members have been active in working with city officials and agencies and local universities on local procurement initiatives, local banking advocacy and a very active Women in Cambridge group that meets monthly and supports women entrepreneurs through discussions and networking.


Why do you consider it important for local businesses to engage in independent trade associations like INFRA? 

Along with INFRA, we also are members of the Natural Products Association. There are frequently business advantages to joining.  But way beyond that, none of us can survive in isolation either as individuals or as businesses.  By joining and participating in larger organizations we can get important, often very timely information.  Also we get to share our business practices among “like-minded” owners and managers (learning along the way) and we have the opportunity to help shift the conversation towards creating not just better local communities but also a better society.

And I should note that in September of this year we proudly became a Certified B Corporation (the theme of which is “People Using Business as a Force for Good)!

Update – April, 2015: Cambridge Naturals “next generation” owners, Emily Kanter and her husband Caleb Dean profiled in the New York Times yesterday in a story on business legacy planning in the independent natural foods sector. Summer Auerbach, a next-gen owner of Rainbow Blossom Natural Foods and member of the Louisville IBA in Kentucky also is featured.

Independent We Stand profiled Cambridge Local First in December of 2014

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