Down To Earth, the go-to grocery for natural food nuts and voracious vegetarians, marked its 30th anniversary today. Founded by a hui of vegetarians on Maui in 1977, Down To Earth has grown from its first location off University Avenue in Mo’ili’ili to five stores (three on ‘Oahu, two on Maui) and over 200 employees. During my college days, I’d often wander the cramped aisles, marveling at the dizzying array of products you could derive from soy, and the sometimes disconcerting substances that were called in to replace meat in popular recipes.
Despite their strict niche (they proudly reject all “meat, eggs, fish oils, gelatin capsules, products containing animal rennet, and the like”) and the occasionally higher prices that come with it, Down To Earth has done quite well over the past three decades.
Of course, as Down To Earth marks this major milestone, all eyes are on the pending arrival of mainland chain Whole Foods Market, which has an almost cult-like following among health-conscious shoppers. Whole Foods already has four stores planned for Hawaii, the smallest of which alone will have as much square footage as all Down To Earth locations combined.
In an interview with the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Down To Earth CEO Mark Fergusson said his company is renovating its stores, ramping up marketing, and bracing itself for a revenue drop as high as 40 percent. But he wisely notes that Down To Earth has built a solid reputation for its vegetarian focus and its emphasis on locally grown and produced products. Given the broader market targeted by Whole Foods, perhaps the people that should be worrying the most are other local supermarkets.