Retailer of the Year: Fresh Thyme Market

Each year, WholeFoods Magazine nominates one retail store for its excellence across the industry- this year Fresh Thyme Market was selected! Congratulations to Fresh Thyme for its accomplishments this year.

Fresh Thyme Market

What started as a single market in 2014 has grown into a thriving chain of 71-stores strong just eight years later. Fresh Thyme Market first opened its doors in April of 2014 in Mount Prospect, IL, with a team of approximately 100 employees. Today, Fresh Thyme has locations across the Midwest, with more than 4,000 team members supporting the company’s goals and vision. Today, as always, that vision centers around community.

“Since its inception, Fresh Thyme has been a community-oriented retailer that supports local residents by providing them access to nutritious and affordable food,” shares Liz Zolcak, President of Fresh Thyme Market. “Fresh Thyme is dedicated to providing real solutions for real people. By offering a more deliberate way to shop and eat, we present a more thoughtful approach to managing health and wellness. Our dependable team members and partners deliver real healthy foods at real low prices, giving communities solutions to live healthier lifestyles. As a whole, Fresh Thyme aims to cultivate a brand that sources authentic and reliable food and products.”

Read on for insights from the Fresh Thyme Market team.

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The Mindset that Fuels Success

Wherever a person is on their personal journey to a healthier lifestyle, Fresh Thyme is there to offer support. “We believe that our customers want to live better, healthier lives, but we know that living a healthier lifestyle is not always easy,” Zolcak acknowledges.

To help customers on their personal path to wellness, and to support the local communities in the process, part of the Fresh Thyme brand promise is to help provide customers with fresh food at low prices that include local products to support small businesses. “We want to be our customers’ trusted neighborhood grocery store, where customers can enjoy the ease of a simple shopping experience,” Zolcak explains. It comes down to the basics: Real honest affordable goodness. Real straight-talk and answers. Real good food. Real affordable prices.

“That’s what customers are hungry for,” Zolcak maintains. “That is who Fresh Thyme Market is.”

For Fresh Thyme employees, seeing the payoff of that brand promise is wonderfully rewarding. “I am inspired and motivated to meet our customers where they are on their health journey,” shares Rebecca Stephens, Local Program Manager, focusing on local product procurement and assortment, and community engagement. Stephens has been in this role for four months, and was previously a Store Director for Fresh Thyme for eight years, opening and leading both Fort Wayne, Indiana and Portage, Michigan stores. “There are so many what I call ‘goosebump’ moments with customers,” Stephens tells WholeFoods Magazine. “Recently, a customer shared that she was told one month prior to eliminate many foods from her diet. She said she was so overwhelmed by the restrictions until she came to Fresh Thyme and could find so many whole food options, as well as clearly labeled package options. She said she will never go anywhere else, and finally feels like she can progress on her health journey.”

Great care goes into ensuring that shoppers find exactly what they need. “Fresh Thyme has gone through an evolution over the last few years to truly meet our customers where they’re at,” says Jonathan Lawrence, VP of Center Store. “This means we carry a moderate assortment of some of the top conventional items that you wouldn’t typically find in a natural food store. We realized that if the customer didn’t see a brand they recognized in a given category, they would walk right past the set and we never got a chance to educate them on the natural alternatives and trade them up to a better product. Introducing our customers to natural, organic, and mission-based brands is one of the most rewarding and gratifying parts of my job. This isn’t just retail or grocery…we’re empowering the communities we serve to take control of their health and happiness.”

Valuing What Truly Matters

Product assortment is a draw, but it’s the people that can truly make the winning difference in brick-and-mortar.

“Our most valued assets are our team members, because they have extensive knowledge and a friendly, engaging attitude that helps create a comfortable shopping experience for our customers,” says Zolcak. “We value our team members and empower them to help us make business decisions that will help our customers on their health and wellness journey and bring in new and favorite brands to give our customers more choices, value and convenience.​ Our team members help us learn and evolve to provide the best shopping experience for our customers.”

Lawrence, a longtime member of the natural products industry who has been with Fresh Thyme since 2013, shares, “I’ve had the privilege to work with some great organizations and leaders in my career. Fresh Thyme provided the opportunity to see if we could build a company and a culture from the ground up. There was no safety net; it was truly sink or swim, and that was really appealing to me.”

The culture and community that Fresh Thyme has created attracts (and secures) talent. Tee Ayer, Director of Operations for the Southwest Region, leads and supports operations for six Fresh Thyme Market Missouri stores and five stores in Indiana, and has been with the company since 2016. “The mission of the company spoke to me,” Ayer recalls. “I love the concept of offering healthy food at low prices to families in the communities that we serve. My team members are so proud and excited to serve their communities. Fresh Thyme Market truly cultivates a culture of giving, and I wanted to be a part of that culture.”

Stephens agrees. “As a Store Director for Fresh Thyme, I found great joy in connecting to our communities. We’ve always had fantastic programs to support our community, including in store and community events, product donations, and scrip gift cards for fundraising. When I began running the Portage, Michigan store, I found many locally made products that our community was passionate about. I began working with our merchant team to find ways to onboard new local brands. I eventually formulated a position and plan to build local products and community engagement across the company, and am very fortunate to be in that position today!”

Stephens counts the Local Planning Committee as her favorite company initiative. “It was during this committee that I worked with the merchant and pricing team to identify and implement processes and people needed to successfully launch a Local Program. To be a part of an organization where you can contribute and create new positions, bring new locally made products into our stores, and drive community engagement is beyond rewarding!”

Cultivating the Culture of Giving

“Having access to quality, affordable and nutritious food is unfortunately not readily available to many folks throughout the U.S.,” Zolcak says. “Our goal is to bridge the gap between food insecurity and food accessibility by using our resources to give back to those who need it most.”

Fresh Thyme MarketOne example comes from Fresh Thyme Market’s newest store, located at the City Foundry in St. Louis, Missouri. That was once a food insecure neighborhood, Zolcak says. “Through Fresh Thyme’s commitment to supporting local communities, we were able to stock the shelves with more than 1,000 locally sourced products, as well as fresh foods, fan-favorites and national brand products at real low prices.”

In addition, Fresh Thyme is a longtime partner of Feeding America and its affiliated food relief members. “On the heels of Hunger Action Month in September, we, with the help of our loyal customers, were able to donate over $350,000 to Feeding America,” Zolcak reports. “So many households rely on their local food banks, as well as other hunger relief programs, for food assistance. Thus, we make it our mission to help relieve some of the stress associated with getting food on the table each day.”

Making nutritious fare more accessible is a highlight of the job for Ayer. “As long-time partners of the St. Louis Foodbank, we are proud to help support the School Market program, which helps bring access and choice of nutritious food to students and families in a place that they feel comfortable. This program has a really special place in my heart. Knowing that we partnered to launch a program that has made healthy food available to St. Louis area children and their families through in-school ‘stores’ is so special. We are making a difference in our community by offering education and healthy food choices to kids, and that is so cool!”

Fresh Thyme Market also partners with Vitamin Angels. “Within this industry I’ve realized we can do far more together, and one of the partnerships I’m most proud of is our connection with Vitamin Angels,” says Lawrence. “Since day one, we established our December campaign and in collaboration with many of our brands and customers we’ve been able to provide life-changing vitamins for nearly 5 million women and children. We also felt it was important to support them directly, so we donate $.25 for every Fresh Thyme Vitamin sold, 365 days a year.”

Engaging with the Community in Unique Ways

“As part of our commitment to the communities in which we serve, our team members partner with local businesses, schools, and charities to further deepen Fresh Thyme Market’s roots within each community,” Zolcak tells WholeFoods Magazine.

Two fun and meaningful examples of that outreach:

  • “In Western Michigan, our team members sponsored an annual boat race regatta where middle schoolers constructed a boat out of duct tape and cardboard and raced to the finish,” Zolcak says. “Fresh Thyme Market as a ‘First Mate’ sponsor provided healthy snacks to each family and created community awareness that we are their local neighborhood grocery store, ready to meet each family wherever they are on their wellness journey.”
  • “In metro Detroit, our team members found a fun way to support their community by raising awareness and funds by creating a grilling event filled with hot dogs, brats, plant-based food options, games and coloring for friends, families and children in their community,” Zolcak recounts. “This event helped support a local charity called Blessings in a Backpack, an organization that donates food to families and children in need of meals and snacks after school and on weekends so that they do not go hungry when they are not in school.”

The company also utilizes more traditional means of outreach and education to engage customers. “Fresh Thyme engages with consumers through a multitude of avenues, one of which being through local broadcast segments,” Zolcak explains. “We have an in-house registered dietitian and health and wellness strategy manager who conducts several broadcast segments per month, all of which demonstrate timely themes that relate to health, wellness and the importance of a balanced diet. Our team is also active on social channels including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn. We find it important to build authentic relationships with our customers in and out of the store.”

fresh thyme market

Fostering Future Growth

Breaking down a few of the keys that are making a positive difference as Fresh Thyme Market looks to the future, Zolcak points to:

Team empowerment. “We are a small but mighty team that wears many hats everyday,” Zolcak says, “but we work with all of our team members and empower them to drive change to support our future business.” She adds that working smarter, not harder, is essential. “We are investing in tools to make our teams more effective and efficient to continue to drive
improvements to the business and pass along this value to our customers.”

Ecommerce. “This is an area that has become increasingly important to our customers and an area where we are looking to drive further connections with our customers to bring our in store experience to life in a digital format,” Zolcak says, adding that the company is “taking steps to own this channel and harness the data to drive more customer insights in an ever changing and competitive landscape.”

Test and learn culture. “Fail fast and implement quick wins where applicable across the chain,” Zolcak explains. “Being nimble in a challenging environment has proved to be beneficial. We have remodeled many of our stores to bring more products to our customers based on strong results in test stores. We are continuing to lean in based on learnings from updated/remodeled stores to apply winning areas to more stores in 2023.”  WF

 Emerging Stronger from Trying Times

Recent years have been difficult, and running an essential business during the pandemic brought challenges. “The health and safety of our employees, customers, and community is our top priority,” says Zolcak. “Running any business, especially one that deals with fresh produce and food items, during a pandemic was a proven challenge. However, to ensure stores were safe for customers and the Fresh Thyme family, we doubled down on already high cleanliness standards by proactively sanitizing stores more frequently throughout the day. Fresh Thyme teams are now required to clean all customer touch points every 60 minutes with a chlorine solution that is tested daily. We still implement these safety measures to guarantee our customers and team members feel comfortable while in the store.”

As with any challenge, Zolcak says, having a proactive approach and feeling confident to pivot is crucial. “We are extremely grateful to our team members and customers for their willingness to be agile as we navigated through the pandemic as a team.”

The team is always striving to improve, as well. “As a company, we stand united with the underrepresented communities who face discrimination,” says Zolcak. “We will keep working on ways to show and demonstrate our support for diversity, equality, and inclusion with our team members and guests who deal with racial inequality. We began leaning into tools and education in 2022 to be more diverse, inclusive and provide better equality and plan to further support and reinforce these initiatives in 2023 and beyond. We can do better. We will do better.”

Fresh Thyme Market Gets a Fresh Look

In August of 2020, the company announced that it was changing its name from Fresh Thyme Farmers Markets to Fresh Thyme Market, and unveiling a new logo.

logologo