Ukiah Natural Foods celebrates 40 years of success

By Justine Frederiksen, Ukiah Daily Journal

It wasn’t always this easy to eat organic in Ukiah.

Forty years ago, you couldn’t just decide after work that you wanted to make pasta, then stop by the grocery store for some organic noodles and find a wide variety of pre-made sauces or fresh vegetables to pair them with.

Back then, your choices were to grow and make your own organic food, or maybe join your neighbors in a “buying club,” where you all ordered bags of organic beans and big jars of nut butter that you picked up weeks later when they were delivered to some central location.

In the early 1970s, Lori Rosenberg, the general manager of Ukiah Natural Foods Co-op, was a member of a buying club in Mendocino County that decided, “Hey, why don’t we open a retail space where everyone could come and buy these products whenever they wanted?”

And so the Co-op was born, first opening in 1976 in a converted garage.

“But we quickly outgrew that space,” said Rosenberg, explaining that the Co-op’s first actual building was near the railroad tracks on Gobbi Street, a location it again quickly outgrew before moving to another space on Perkins Street where Walgreens stands now.

“And that’s where the Co-op really boomed,” said Rosenberg, adding that the organic food movement was also blossoming, bringing many more products and much more interest from customers.

This week, as it turns 40, the Co-op has outgrown yet another space and is looking for a new one, but “we have yet to find one that would fit our needs,” said Rosenberg. Instead, the store completed a remodel last year.

At the helm for 30 of those 40 years, Rosenberg attributes the store’s continued success and expansion to it staying true to its mission of providing not just healthy food, but quality, good-tasting food that’s as local as possible and sold by a happy, committed staff.

“We are really proud about being able to provide people with trusted food for 40 years,” she said, explaining that while not everything in the store is organic, “all our produce is. And it’s fantastic.”

People can trust the food and other products they sell, she said, because she and her staff eat and use them, too. Strolling through the store on a recent Thursday, Rosenberg quickly found a few favorites, including some striking black and white beans at the bulk food bins, definitely one of the busiest sections of the store.

“These are so good in soups,” Rosenberg said of the orca beans, which she described as having more of a buttery texture and flavor than other beans.

Just around the corner from the beans were the wines, many from Mendocino County producers.

“This one is so good,” she said, pointing to a bottle of sparkling wine from Anderson Valley. “I had a glass at Saucy one night, and I told my staff we had to stock it. Mostly because I wanted to buy a bottle.”

The store is always on the lookout for more local products to stock, and recently began selling the “People Pleazin’ Preserves” made in Lake County.

But as proud as she is of how many quality, locally-sourced products the Co-op sells, Rosenberg seems equally proud of how the store serves as a hub for the community.

“People love to gather here, to sit at the juice bar and talk,” she said, adding that people also often call the store to ask questions that have nothing to do with the business, but they figure someone there will know. “And really, it has always been that way.”

The store will be holding a birthday party this Sunday, Oct. 9, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., with music, food and other activities like butter churning and apple pressing in the parking lot. It is located at 721 S. State St., right across East Gobbi Street from Safeway.

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