She’s been called the queen of retailing, the pioneering creator of the natural food market, and the original visionary for the natural products industry. No doubt, there are a lot of “firsts” that link back to Sandy Gooch:
- First to go big in natural; in 1976 she (along with Dan Volland) opened the largest market of its kind in the U.S. specializing in natural food and health-related items–the 5,000-square-foot Mrs. Gooch’s Natural Food Store.
- First woman to develop a chain of supermarkets in the U.S., with seven markets in the greater Los Angeles area.
- Among the first to introduce the concept of “eatertainment” and “edutainment” in the supermarket industry.
As the founder of Mrs. Gooch’s Natural Foods Markets, this retired teacher set out to provide the finest, most natural, wholesome food and health-care products available. Shoppers at Mrs. Gooch’s enjoyed the peace of mind of knowing the aisle were filled with products made without harmful chemical additives, harmful preservative agents, artificial flavorings, artificial colorings, artificial sweeteners, refined white sugar, refined white flour, caffeine, chocolate, hydrogenated oil, isolated synthetic MSG, irradiation, bovine growth hormones, or GMOs using recombinant DNA technology.
Sandy’s influence spread far beyond the LA area, as the standards implemented in her markets helped set the bar for natural products throughout the U.S. and around the globe. A product was deemed “Goochable” if it met Sandy’s criteria for excellence, and her above-and-beyond approach to business earned Mrs. Gooch’s Natural Foods Markets the WholeFoods Magazine Retailer of the Year in 1993…and caught the attention of Whole Foods Markets, which purchased Sandy’s company later that year. And while that marked a transition for Sandy, it was still just the start of her impact, as her mentorship over the years has created a ripple effect that continues to positively influence our industry.
We asked Sandy to share what makes the winning difference.
Embrace learning: “My father, Buck Buckner, was my mentor,” Sandy tells WholeFoods. “He was a research biologist and chemist who owned a wholesale pharmaceutical company. He provided me with the platform to investigate, scientifically, all of the products that I wanted to sell at Mrs. Gooch’s. In the beginning I did not have a computer or ‘Google’ to help me understand if a product met with my strict criteria for purity. I sought out scientists from all over the world to help me ascertain if an herb, supplement, or body-care product were clean, pure, true to its claim and free of animal testing. My father inspired me to always grow intellectually, expand, and continue to learn. He also taught me to be open to new ideas as I followed my passion. He gave me this inspirational gem: “Wisdom is knowledge plus judgment equated in terms of simplicity.”
Overcome Challenge with Passion. “I had many challenges when I started Mrs. Gooch’s,” Sandy shares. “My father was dying of prostate cancer, my mother was going blind, and my first husband filed for divorce. Also, at that time, in 1970, a woman seeking capital investment for a natural food store was unusual. Not one banking institution would give me a loan. Eventually, I liquidated my teacher’s retirement plan to fund my project. I was able to navigate all of these challenges because my passion for the Mrs. Gooch’s concept was overwhelming. I never wavered from wanting it to come into reality.”
Know You Are Not Alone. “I learned a crucial lesson early in my career regarding the importance of acknowledging my staff and team with respect,” Sandy says. “My team never failed in being a resource for information and help. It was the team at Mrs. Gooch’s that helped me overcome all of the obstacles I faced in creating and expanding the company.”
Pay It Forward. By being such an open and giving mentor to others, Sandy has helped spark a movement that grows stronger each year. “My affiliation with Harvard University, at the Kennedy School of Government, has allowed me to mentor individuals globally. Many of these people are making political positive differences in their cities and countries world-wide. Over the years, I have attended board meetings, given advice, had phone and face-to-face meetings, Zoom conferences and acted as a sounding board to many. I have witnessed incredible successes. Mentorship can be simple and effective by just supporting someone’s dreams.”
Three of her mentees in different areas of the industry, author and wellness advocate Peggy Curry, brand founder Jerome Tse, and natural retailer Cherly Hughes, have enjoyed the benefit of her guidance, and helped amplify her good works. “The efforts, passion and vision of these individuals have resulted in positive, healthy alternatives for many,” Sandy shares. One example: “In 1994, I started an organization: The Healthy Meals Team. The plan was to bring healthy food options to the Los Angeles Unified School district cafeterias. It started at Venice High School in Venice, CA, and eventually expanded. We even started a garden in an empty plot of ground at the school. We collaborated with UCLA to develop a curriculum and teach students about healthy food. The program was implemented in the Science classes. I am very proud to have had the opportunity to mentor Peggy Curry. Peggy had an incredible passion to educate children about healthy foods. She wanted to create working and teaching gardens in schools. Slowly, Growing Great was formed in the Manhattan Beach school district with the goal to teach children how to grow, harvest, and eat healthy foods. This organization has expanded its passion and goals throughout the country. I have witnessed joy as children learn about the tastes of various fruits and vegetables in the Growing Great gardens.
Never (Ever!) Settle. “Our industry has the opportunity to show its mark of difference by maintaining strict standards,” Sandy stresses. “As soon as we dilute the efficacy of the products we manufacture or harvest in fields or carry in stores we lose credibility. We must be vigilant to stay true to our ethics and goals for quality. Our customer base remains the advocate. We are gaining ground as some of the mega grocery stores now carry organic products. The result is the introduction of the benefits of healthy foods and healthy products to a broader customer base.”
Over the years, Sandy adds, she has given thousands of lectures and always ended with the same message: “Ignore your health and it will surely go away.”
The Positive Ripple Effect
Three of Sandy’s mentees share the gems they learned from their mentor.
Connect…and Keep Connecting
“I have had many incredible mentors they the years,” shares Cheryl Hughes Founder of The Whole Wheatery, a natural food store in Lancaster, CA. “Sandy was one of my first. I wanted to work for her and presented myself to her hoping she was planning to open a store in Lancaster. Ha ha. I was new to California, not really getting the geography of it all. Clearly, that was never going to happen due to demographics, etc. I boldly said, ‘Can you tell me a few things I need to know, as I will open my own? Another ha ha, as her telling me all I would need to know would have taken years. Luckily, we have had decades of friendship and I still continue to learn from her.
“Sandy did tell me that if I did indeed open my own store, I must have a private label so that when a customer opens their cabinet or refrigerator they will see my label and learn to trust me. Of course I had to choose a reputable provider first and foremost. She said, ‘You can’t buy the value those impressions of seeing that label in someone’s home can have.’ She turned me on to Vitamer Labs and shortly after I opened I did have my private label. She was right.
“Being the former teacher she was stressed that education and training become an integral part of the business. I emulated her by giving store tours and lectures and cooking classes over the years. It has really paid off. Of course she set the standard for beautiful stores that told the story from the inside out and that was always part of our history too.
“Sandy has a personal reason for getting started: It was all about getting healthy. I had no challenge to build from so had to create my playbook from all the industry folks I met, many of whom she introduced me to.
“I was ‘told’ to get involved with folks in the know. I took a seat on the regional board of the NNFA, later the NPA, for years. These connections were just what propelled me forward. I met so many what I considered famous folks from our industry. Linus Pauling, Bernard Jensen, Carlton Fredericks, Frank Ford from Arrowhead Mills, Jeff Bland, Mo Siegel, Rachel Perry, and countless others.
“The trade shows were a great way to connect, and Sandy kept connecting me. I was fortunate enough to work with the folks from Threshold, specifically Roy Upton, to create the blackout kit that pushed consumer involvement and ultimately the passage of DSHEA. I got involved with Citizens for Health as Sandy introduced me to Alex Schauss. I got into the organic movement and sat on the retail side of the OTA board during the time we were developing GORP.
“Sandy connected me to FMI and I sat on the Natural side of that board for years. It was her story of how FMI helped her stores during the strike that showed me their value. Thanks to her and her wise counsel, I got involved and remain involved in our amazing industry. Currently I am on the INFRA board.
“It is a real gift to have these Mentors everywhere. It all starts with one great connection. I have tried to counsel, connect and share with other retailers over the years. It is what makes what we do so fantastic.”
Stand Strong for What You Believe In
“A mentor to me is someone who you look up to, a role model, an inspiration, and someone who takes a personal interest in your success,” shares Peggy Curry, author, educator, food entrepreneur, and award-winning health and wellness advocate. “Having Sandy as my mentor has been an incredible gift to my heart and soul. After my mom’s passing (my mom was a successful business woman), Sandy really became a strong role model for me. She is a compassionate, successful businesswoman who is genuinely interested in helping me succeed. Sandy has always been there for me. I can count on her to show up or pick up the phone and talk with me for advice and guidance whenever I need it. She has been such a huge part of my life both as a mentor and dear friend bringing together our shared passions for purpose driven work; health, healing with food and eating for benefit.
“Sandy was integral in helping me as a first-time food manufacturer. I first met Sandy in 1995 when I began manufacturing Evy’s Garden Organic Marinara Sauce. The sauce was in honor of my mom Evy who had passed away from breast cancer. The gentleman who was producing the sauce, Marti Ventre, of Ventre Foods, introduced us. I met with Sandy to go over label design, marketing and pick her brain about the food industry. Sandy was a huge help. The sauce was distributed nationally in all Whole Foods Markets thanks to Sandy’s introduction. We launched the marinara sauce in 1996 at the largest attended South Bay event. An Evening in the Garden was held at the South Coast Botanic Gardens with 1,450 attendees and over 250 volunteers. It was a magical kick off for the sauce and raised funds for breast cancer research and The Wellness Community’s patient support. The event continues to this day under the guidance of The Wellness Community. From that first meeting 25 years ago, Sandy has been mentoring me with all my passion projects!
“She has a wealth of knowledge and shared her unbelievable expertise. Our stories are very similar, both of us having been teachers in Culver City and believing that food is medicine. Sandy helped with every aspect with the branding of the sauce. It was her insights that guided me to success with the copy editing, design and then marketing into Whole Foods Markets nationwide. It was successful in that woman really resonated with the product. Back in 1996 there were only two companies on the shelf with profits going to fund causes. Newman’s Own and Evy’s Garden. All profits went to breast cancer research and patient support.
“When GrowingGreat first was getting started and became a non-profit, Sandy was part of our initial Advisory Board and continues today to advise and participate in GrowingGreat. Sandy’s Learning Garden at Venice High School was a successful garden, nutrition and lunch program. Her personal experiences and insights helped us greatly in the early years of GrowingGreat. Sandy continues to share her advice today with her new leadership role in Friends of GrowingGreat. She is always so helpful sharing her enthusiasm and knowledge!
“Sandy is a huge champion with all my endeavors. Most recently, she is a proud mentor for my inaugural cookbook, Damn Good Gluten Free that recently launched in November of this year. The lifestyle cookbook shares again our mutual love for health, healing and food- especially beneficial food. Because both of us reclaimed our health with food we love sharing our success. This cookbook reflects everything that Sandy stands for, integrity of wholesome healing products, foods that heal and support strong bodies, adaptable recipes for every person’s condition or personal preferences. I shopped Mrs. Gooch’s growing up. It was my market near where my husband lived. As I grew up, I loved that store and everything it stood for. I modeled myself after Sandy’s beliefs. Stand strong for what you believe in. Her standards were revolutionary and epic in the grocery store industry. Sandy was the catalyst for bringing forward the entire natural health industry. I pay-it-forward, her ideas, her standards, and her mission for teaching about health and well-being. I feel so blessed by her and all her accomplishments. Sandy shared her inspiring story with our Curry Girls Kitchen community as a guest on our Make Life Delicious Podcast.
“Still to this day Sandy continues to be an incredible mentor and role model in my life. She’s an inspiration and champion for all I do and have done: Evy’s Garden Organic Marinara Sauce, GrowingGreat, Curry Girls Kitchen and now Damn Good Gluten Free, the cookbook. Over the course of 25+ years, Sandy has been there every step of the way sharing her excitement and enthusiasm, lifting me up, guiding me through challenges and cheering on my accomplishments. What a gift she is to me.”
Be a Strategic Planner
“I was introduced to Sandy Gooch via Dr. Lilian Cheung of Harvard University’s School of Public Health,” says Jerome Tse, creator of Berri Fit and Berri Lyte organic electrolyte drinks. “Having Sandy as a mentor has made a significant difference for my company. Sandy has helped me navigate an industry that I was new to at the beginning of my career launching and expanding Berri Fit in Whole Foods Market. Sandy has been instrumental in mentoring and assisting with strategic planning for Berri Fit’s expansion as the world’s first plant-based USDA Organic fitness beverage made for health-conscious fitness enthusiasts. Sandy has also helped me with my company’s new product innovation, including Berri Lyte, the first and only 100% plant-based USDA Organic electrolyte solution made for moms looking for a healthy option for her children. Our products are now available in Whole Foods Market, Sprouts Farmers Market, Rite Aid, CVS, and many more retailers.
“In our company’s early years, we had the challenge of raising capital from institutional investors. Sandy provided excellent advice of building a ‘POD Model’ that would allow our company to scale profitably and organically. This strategy was one of the factors that helped our company land our first institutional investor.”