In the shadow of St. Anthony’s steeple, Hillsdale Natural Grocery occupies a space neatly hidden among several local storefronts.
Walking inside, the prompt smell of spices overwhelms even the most experienced connoisseur. The spice room easily doubles the size of a college dorm. That’s what customers like the most, Michelle Nauta, the store manager, explained.
“You would be hard pressed to find the selection of spices and herbs we have,” she said.
Hillsdale Natural Grocery prides itself in spices, nuts, natural supplements, and a diverse selection of diet foods; this isn’t the most unique quality. The store operates as a community-owned cooperative, meaning it isn’t controlled by an individual, but collectively by its members.
In 1971, according to Nauta, several families wanted healthier food products than what Hillsdale could offer.
“They would actually get together, make their order, run up to Ann Arbor, get the food, bring it back to somebody’s house and split it up,” she said. “From there, it grew into opening up a storefront.”
One of the original members still comes in to help break down boxes, Nauta said.
Hillsdale Natural Grocery is open to the public, but only paid members can participate in its ownership. For $12 per year, anyone can become a member, which grants access to special discounts as well as voting privileges at member meetings.
“Last year, we had … about 300 members,” Nauta said, flipping through a bright yellow legal notepad she found under a stack of papers.
At the annual meeting, six board representatives are elected while a president and vice president are elected biennially. Members also give feedback on product samples the store is considering.
This unconventional business model orients the store toward the interest of its members rather than a profit motive. According to its website, “Profits are returned to the business in the form of improvements or increased member benefits.”
Dianne Metevia, President of the store’s board, believes that member ownership is vital to the store’s success and identity.
“We pretty much make decisions on what the store does,” she said. “If they have questions or anything, we advise them.”
While Nauta handles day to day operations, the board ensures that members have a voice in the overall direction of the store.
Members also have the opportunity to volunteer at the store to earn a further discount. For three hours of work, which could mean taking inventory, cleaning, bagging, or other everyday tasks, members receive a 15 percent discount for the following 30 days.
Metevia said she personally knows several people who take the opportunity to volunteer.
“That’s part of the co-op,” she said. “If you go and help, you get a further discount.”
Sometimes Metevia volunteers herself even though she already receives the discount for being on the board.
The store’s uniquely natural products, in addition to its co-op model, drive its niche role in Hillsdale. According to Metevia, everything in the store is natural from the turmeric and brazil nuts, to the quail eggs and locally-produced honey.
Unlike other grocery stores, customers can buy bulk items like spices, nuts, coffee, and even cheese in any amount they wish.
“You only get what you need and then you don’t waste space in your cupboard because you don’t have use for the whole container,” Joan Krauss, the assistant manager, said.
“A lot of people don’t understand you don’t have to buy a whole pound. You can get a quarter of a teaspoon,” Krauss added. “Maybe that new recipe you wanted to try out, you don’t have to put out so much money for that spice.”
Natural supplements line the wall behind the checkout counter, inducing squinty stares and endless questions from customers. These are a main feature of the store; many customers come asking about natural solutions to problems usually addressed by prescription drugs with annoying side effects.
“To get a better selection of the supplements and spices, you’d have to go to Ann Arbor or Lansing,” Nauta said.
Metevia added,“If you have a question about something you might need a natural remedy for, they can show you in a book and give you suggestions.”
Hillsdale Natural Grocery boasts a wealth of information about natural living between all of the employees and the books laying around. Krauss said employees at the store often help customers shop for common diets like gluten-free or keto as well as more specialized ones like a blood type diet.
“If they come in with a list of things that they need for their diet, we try to accommodate what it is,” Krauss said. “Hopefully we have some of the things on the shelf. If not, we look in our order book and see if we can obtain it. We don’t have all of the answers but we can generally get in touch with somebody who can help the customer.”
The store distinguishes itself from larger ones by focusing on serving its customers, no matter their needs. Customers can request special orders at no extra charge and often spend a lot of time talking to the clerks.
Krauss said many new customers are surprised that the store is member owned.
“I think that gets people more involved in giving us their input, because they feel like maybe they’ll actually be heard. Most people come in feeling free to talk to us about whatever’s on their mind. It’s not always just Hillsdale Natural Grocery. I almost feel like a bartender sometimes,” she said, laughing.
Krauss’s job revolves around the service she’s able to give. “We take the time to talk to people,” she said.
“We learn from them as much as they learn from us, too.”
Nauta’s role, which she described as a “Jack of all trades,” barely feels like a job to her.
“I love the people that come in here. I love the different things that we carry. It’s kinda sorta not like work,” she said. “There’s a lot of work involved, believe me, but it doesn’t feel exactly like work.”
Though the store has stayed busy since its opening, it has experienced some hardship, especially when bigger grocers move into Hillsdale.
“We took a hit when Walmart came in. We took another hit when Kroger revamped,” Nauta said. She added that she expects the same thing to happen when the new Meijer opens.
However, Nauta is confident the store will stay in business due to its strong membership and quality of service.
“Nowadays, it’s all about convenience. People are in a rush,” she said. “But we have a very loyal following of people in the area and that’s what’s keeping our doors open.”