Nowadays, just about any grocery store carries natural and organic foods, sometimes in a separate section or aisle. But when Mollie Stone’s Markets – which began selling only natural foods in the San Francisco Bay area in 1986 – first combined the two side-by-side, the biggest objections were from the natural vitamin and supplement industries.

“A lot of health food companies wouldn’t sell to us,” Co-owner David Bennett reveals. “A few of the natural vitamin companies felt like we would destroy their brand’s reputation because we were moving them out of the local pill shop.”

 Bennett says it took a long time for some companies to warm to the approach. The idea of combining natural foods with conventional groceries on the same shelves did not occur to the founders immediately. Their first store was named Mollie Stone’s Natural Farm Market after Bennett’s partner Mike Stone’s deceased mother. It was a 15,000-square-foot natural foods supermarket in Redwood City, Calif., in the San Francisco Bay area.

Before the friends decided in 1985 to found Mollie Stone’s Markets, Stone had been hired away from a grocery wholesaler to become general manager of a three-store grocery chain, but Bennett had no grocery industry experience – he grew up in his family’s construction business.

“About a year-and-a-half after we went into business with the natural foods supermarket, we had an opportunity to buy an old-fashioned, conventional supermarket in the city of Sausalito,” Bennett recalls. “We got the idea to take all the natural foods knowledge that we had learned in setting up the natural foods supermarket, and in 1988, we integrated it into the Sausalito conventional market when we took it over. We came up with a merchandising plan called ‘best of both worlds.’ So we were one of the early adopters to mix health food and supermarket fare in the same offering.”

Mollieland Mogul

Customer convenience is stepped up a notch at the company’s San Bruno and San Mateo locations. Besides offering Starbucks and Peet’s coffee shops, the same locations feature Mollieland, a free, supervised play area for children ages 2 to 12. Trained staff members provide fun and safe play while moms shop in peace or just read a newspaper over a hot cup of coffee.

Additionally, Mollie Stone’s Markets provides free transportation to customers’ homes on the Mollie Bus from two of its San Francisco locations, Pacific Heights and Castro. “We have three stores in San Francisco, and from two of them we run a bus so people don’t have to give up their parking spots in the city,” Bennett notes. “If they can get to the store, we drive them home.”

Another innovation is the company’s community card that automatically transfers up to 5 percent of a customer’s total purchases to one or more customer-designated nonprofit organizations. “We’re constantly reinventing ourselves and trying to make the stores unique to the particular neighborhood they serve.”

Most of the Mollie Stone’s Markets locations were former grocery stores. The company has not built a store from scratch but frequently is approached by developers about anchoring retail developments.  The company’s locations are being remodeled constantly.

The National Association for the Specialty Food Trade Inc. selected Mollie Stone’s Markets as an outstanding specialty food retailer of 2012, one of only five selected nationwide. Additionally, Unified Grocers bestowed on Mollie Stone’s the 2012 Ben Schwartz Retail Grocery Visionary award, which annually recognizes an innovative independent retail grocer. Bennett attributes these honors to his workforce.

“We’re very fortunate that our employees have been primarily with us for many years,” Bennett states. “We don’t have a lot of turnover at Mollie Stone’s. We have a wonderful core group of employees, which obviously is the success of Mollie Stone’s markets. We’ve been in business for 26 years, and we have many employees that have been with us over 20 of those years.”