Monday, March 12, 2007

A Totally Organic Experience

Well, 98 percent anyway

Ian Diamond and David Richard believe their organic-food market is unique in
every sense of that word. “There’s nothing like us east of the West Coast,” Diamond said, playing off the old “east of the Mississippi” phrase.

What makes their Organic Connection in Brewster so different is their claim to be 98 percent organic.

“We are an organic concept store and 98 percent of the foods we sell are organic,” Diamond said. “Tha
t sets us apart from any other health-food store.”

And don’t even think about places like Whole Foods Markets or Wild Oats Markets, which announced last month they would merge and which advertise themselves as natural and organic retailers. “They’re about 40 percent organic,” he said.

“We take the fear out of shopping,” Richard said. “People who want to buy organic don’t have to worry about reading the labels.”

The 3,000-square-foot market is the third market to fill the storefront next door to the defunct, 9,000-square-foot USA Baby store at 981 Route 22 just a mile or so from Brewster’s downtown. But while the two former markets faltered and failed, Diamond and Richard are so convinced of their organic-food market’s success that they’re thinking about expanding into USA Baby, and opening more Organic Connection markets ­ first locally, then regionally, and then, perhaps, nationally. “David’s family owns 12 health-food stores in the Chicago area,” Diamond said. “We would love to take one and convert it to a pure organic store.”

As for the empty USA Baby store, “there are a number of different possibilities of what we might do,” Diamond said. “One option is to take 2,000 square feet and open an organic restaurant. Another option is to take the whole space and open the restaurant and a very large retail center with eco-home natural paints and wood finishes, organic clothing and a health center with massage and body- work practitioners.”

Suitable locations

Both Diamond and Richard have extensive backgrounds in the health-food niche.
Diamond, 47, mana
ged a health-food store in his native Melbourne, Australia, then opened his own store before starting an
organic wholesale company that exported to Europe and the United States. He moved here in the 1990s and began an organic-food home-delivery business out of his South Salem home in Westchester County.

Richard, 51, began working in one of his parents’ health-food stores when he was 9 and spent more than 20 years with them, managing a few stores and “cutting my teeth in this industry.” He began a publishing business in 1997 he called Vital Health Publishing that focused on nutrition, organic and whole foods and alternative medicines, then moved to Ridgefield, Conn., six years ago to be closer to his authors and the publishing industry.

One of Richard’s more prolific authors was Diamond’s father, John, who also lives in South Salem. That’s how Richard discovered Organic Connection home-delivery service, and he became first a customer and then a partner in the organic-food market venture.

“Ian and I were both interested in the regeneration of the natural-food store format of 25 years ago,” Richard said. “We based the market on the philosophy that organic is the way to go because it’s healthier for people and healthier for the environment.”

The partners searched for a suitable location in Westchester, Fairfield, Putnam and Dutchess co
unties and almost settled on an 8,000-square-foot building on Mill Plain Road in Danbury that housed a motorcycle showroom. “We negotiated for more than a year, but it never came to fruition,” Richard said.

“There are very few retail sites that suited our criteria and were not on the doorstep of another store selling organic foods” such as Whole Foods or Mrs. Green’s Natural Food Markets, Diamond said. “It would not make sense to open a market in the same town. It wouldn’t be a good business risk to take.”

The partners were “looking for locations with good demographics, good access and the ability to dr
aw from a wide distance,” Diamond said. They kept returning to the Brewster site and finally decided to lease the market after the owner dropped the price on the store’s furnishings and equipment to a point they couldn’t ignore.

“We didn’t know if Danbury was ever going to happen and with the equipment in Brewster, we could set up fairly quickly rather than go through a four- or five-month build out,” Diamond said.

As for location, Organic Connection is about a half-mile from the Interstate 84-684 interchange and draw
s heavily from metro Danbury and Westchester County. “We were a little concerned about positioning ourselves in Brewster,” Diamond said, “but we’re right off the interchange and we set out to be a destination store.”

More satisfying

Organic Connection continues to make home deliveries, which had averaged about
120 customers a week before it was tucked into the market’s operations, Diamond said. “That’s dropped back a bit because we reduced our delivery area a bit” after the service was made part of the market, he said. “We were delivering to Shelton and Bridgeport” in Fairfield County, “but it’s well
over an hour to get there from Brewster.”

The home-delivery business operated mostly by word-of-mouth, Diamond said, and its offering of organic fruit and vegetables and organic fresh and frozen meats became the foundation for the market. “We wanted to have prepared foods and interact with people more,” he said. “Home delivery is too efficient. Customers go on the Web site (, order what they want, we pack and deliver it and sometimes never speak to them. It’s very efficient, but not very satisfying.”

The market is more satisfying. “People walk in and say, ‘Wow,’ because we’ve really presented organics well,” Richard said. And because the previous markets in the space had a full, professional kitchen in the basement, “we have a hot-foods menu from 11 o’clock for the lunch crowd and keep it heated until dinner,” he s
aid. “We have an executive chef and an assistant chef on staff who create an impressive range of offerings.”