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Market owner: "Look into the future"

December 29, 2008
Georgetown Market has stayed in the health food game since 1973, in part because of owner Rick Montieth's ability to see down the road.

Years before the chain health food stores entered the Indianapolis market, Montieth wagered they'd show up sooner rather than later. His smallish shop on Georgetown Road needed to compete, so he scouted another location—about a mile up the road. A brand new 10,000-square-foot market opened in November 1997. About a year later, competitor Wild Oats planted its roots on 86th Street.

"I didn't want to be on the defense," Montieth said.

Since Georgetown Market stayed on its namesake west-side road, keeping the name wasn't a problem. But like any small-business owner, Montieth worried about retaining customers once the chain competition hit town.

"Initially, it had a big impact on us," he said, citing a north-side customer base that found Wild Oats' Nora location more convenient. Within two months, Georgetown saw sales cut in half.

Its organic produce took a big hit, and the market had to adjust ordering and staffing. Instead of two to three people working in produce, the store cut to one. Overall staff was reduced, too, down to 30-40 employees from a peak of 60.

"That was by far the biggest adjustment," Montieth said.

Despite the changes, one constant kept Georgetown from sinking: Customers wanted sound advice about products. "We've survived because we're pretty well-known for having a knowledgeable staff," he said. "We offer nutritional advice people know you can't find elsewhere."

Montieth said he screens potential staff for their nutrition knowledge, and he tries to hire personable employees who are interested in healthy living.

His children also are involved in the business: Brett Montieth is the Natural Living manager, Andrew Montieth handles inventory and Lauren Montieth, a chiropractor, practices out of the store.

The family connections run deep. Rick Montieth first became interested in heath food while working at his aunt and uncle's Glendale store, Nutrition Unlimited, during summer breaks from high school and college. He enjoyed waiting on customers and stocking shelves so much that he dropped out of Purdue University his junior year to open Georgetown Market at age 20. (He missed only one semester at Purdue before returning to earn a degree in business.)

One year away from his father's retirement from Allison Transmission, his parents invested $25,000 in the business. The first incarnation opened in a 1,500-square-foot storefront in a shopping center, later expanding to 5,000 square feet in the same center.

"Looking back, I knew little about it," he said. "I had little concept of risk. I didn't think about what would happen."

The move to the new location—Montieth's initial anticipation of the big chains and current popular health food trend—reaped benefits. Though he declined to share exact figures, he said revenue now is nearly 60-percent higher than what it was at the old location.

"If we stayed stagnant, I don't know if we would've made it," he said.

The store also uses a "Healthy Rewards" card system to track purchases and spot patterns that help with inventory control.

For two weeks in October, during the start of the Wall Street crisis and leading up to the election, sales slowed considerably. Customers stopped buying premium pet food, and Montieth went three weeks without selling a single bag. The last time that happened was in the weeks after Sept. 11, 2001. "I guess that's the last place people were cutting back," he said.

Over the years, shopping tastes have fluctuated based on what's happening in the news. Back in the 1980s, the public panicked over apples that had been sprayed with the chemical Alar. Customers came to Georgetown Market specifically for Alar-free apples. When spirulina became popular, the protein-rich green algae cultivated a waiting list of 200-300 people.

Public demand controls the trends, and Georgetown Market strives to keep up in an industry that has been mainstreamed by the chains, Montieth said. Preparing for the next big thing is a skill he developed over many years in the business, even if he may not know what's coming down the pike.

"I handle change relatively well," he said. "I think that's what life is all about: changes and how you react to and anticipate them."
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