Debra Stark

Interviewer: Carrie and Michael Kline
Date: November 14, 2013
Place of Interview: Concord Public Library
Transcriptionist: Adept Word Management

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Carrie Kline: 0:00:00.0 Okay, today is the 14th, I believe, the 14th of November 2013, and we're in the Trustee's Room of the Concord Free Public Library. I'm Carrie Kline here with Michael Kline, and would you introduce yourself?

Debra Stark: Yes, I'm Debra Stark of Debra's Natural Gourmet in Concord, Massachusetts.

CK: Okay, and your date of birth for some perspective.

DS: March 18th, 1947.

CK: Okay. And tell us about your people and where you were raised.

DS: (laughing) My people—by "my people" I assume you mean my family and not my staff or my community, right?

CK: It could be any and all.

DS: All right, well I guess we'll get to all. But my people—my mother's family came from Poland. My father's family came from Russia. They ended up in Connecticut and the Lower East Side in New York, and I ended up growing up in Florida because my father was part of the missile systems technology—one of the founders of Cape Canaveral down in Florida.

CK: And what are your parents' names?

DS: Beatrice and (s/l Sidney) Stark. God knows what they were when they came (laughing) to Ellis Island, but that's what they were today.

CK: So, you were raised in Florida.

DS: I was raised in Florida. We were one of the first missile families moved down there. So—but I assume we're here to talk more about Concord today, and my parents moved to Fl—to Massachusetts, to Concord, sort of late in life. My father became—was asked to become a vice president at Raytheon, and my mother insisted that if she moved to Massachusetts, that she was going to move to a town that had an organic farm. And Concord has an organic farm at Hutchins Farm, so they built a house down the street from Hutchins Farm so she could go every day and buy her organic produce during the growing season.

CK: 0:02:07.4 We need to hear more about your mother.

DS: (laughing) My mother was a character. My mother really marched to her own drummer. She did things—my father didn't wear a wedding ring, she wouldn't wear a wedding ring. She was really a militant in all kinds of things, but very graciously so. She always believed in catching flies with honey, not with vinegar. But she was a firm believer in natural medicine and natural food, and so we were brought up—I, to this day, I've never had an inoculation or any regular medication. And so, for her, organic was always critical. I mean, I remember growing up in Florida—bags, 50-pound bags of organic greens would arrive, being shipped across the country from California and she would grind them and make her own flours, so it was really natural for her to move down the street from Hutchins Farm, which was the certified organic farm in this area. So, rather than living in Lincoln or Lexington, they moved to Concord for that farm.

CK: When was that?

DS: That was 1985, I think is when they came? And I moved here with my son because I was going through a divorce and I wanted to be close to family, and so, that's how I ended up in Massachusetts, and it was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. This town is really, I find, a town that is very inclusive—it has a lot of people from different backgrounds and different ethnicities and beliefs, but they seem to welcome everybody. And I'm sure there are people who would disagree with that, but my experience was that it's a town that really celebrates people's diversity.

CK: Wow. So, they arrived in '85. When did you arrive on the scene?

DS: 1989—'87—maybe it was '87. Maybe that's not even quite correct. My son, who's—let's see, my son was born in 19—I'm completely wrong. My son was born in 1975, and we moved here when he was 3, so boy, I'm way out of the ballpark. Dates are not my long suit—I remember stories but not dates. We moved here when he was 3.

CK: In '78?

DS: Yeah.

CK: Long before your parents.

DS: No, so my parents were here before then (laughing). So, I said dates are not my long suit, but stories, I'm good at.

CK: 0:04:34.7 Well, talk about the town you arrived in then in 1978.

DS: The town I arrived in was a town at that time that didn't have many single parents. It had very few Jews. There was no congregation, no synagogue at that time. There was then a small Jewish group that shared the First Parish Church. The First Parish Church let them use a room there, and they had, I think it was—I don't remember the exact name of the group, but I think it was called The Jewish Study Group or something like that. And it became—when we moved here—it started becoming stronger, and so when my son was 13, and I'll let you figure out the math of what year that was, actually, the first temple in town was built, Kerem Shalom, and I do remember that day, the church gave a cornerstone of the church to be the cornerstone of the temple.

CK: Can you spell Karem Shalom?

DS: Kerem is like garden—K-E-R-E-M—and Shalom is obvious. But the wonderful thing about that—when the temple opened, I remember starting at the church, the Torah was taken out of the church where it was being stored.

CK: The Torah?

DS: Yep. And there was a march from the church to the temple, which was a couple of miles away, and as people—people lined Main Street, clapping—and as the Torah and the group passed, each group would fold into the march, and so by the time, you know, they arrived at the new temple with that Torah, everybody in town was—it seemed like everybody in town was on the road and marching together. And it still sends shivers up my spine to think that this town donated the cornerstone of a very historic church to be one of the cornerstones of the new temple.

CK: And were those Jews joining the parade?

DS: No. No, they were citizens of Concord—because at that time—up until that time, there were really very few Jews in town. But the—as that—that to me encapsulates what Concord is—that feeling of celebrating diversity and celebrating differences. And I think Concord was one of the very first towns in the whole country that started a program in the high school called Facing History in Ourselves about Holocaust and about what happens when people don't enjoy each other's differences. So, my son was part of that program in town, and this town, each year, has a celebration in the townhouse and it's called Holocaust Remembrance Day, and it's not only about the Nazi Holocaust—they address what happens around the world if—if people don't learn to understand and respect one another.

CK: Wow.

DS: 0:07:37.9 So, when I had to leave town—sell my house in town—and move to another town for financial reasons, it really broke my heart, and I would say that the current town I'm in, Acton, which is a lovely town as well, doesn't have that feeling of inclusiveness, doesn't have that active motivation to—to explore different cultures, and I think that is something that is so rare in this time.

CK: Wow. What—what else? What other examples of that?

DS: To me that's the best example. I mean, what—what can top that story? (laughs) So, I don't think we need to find other examples, but I did—I brought that into my business as well, and whenever I interview anybody, I always say, "We're all different here. We have different religions. We have different sexes. We have different sizes and shapes and colors of skin and cultural ethnicities." And to me, I say the most important thing is that we learn to respect and enjoy each other's differences because if we can do that, it not only enriches our own life, it sort of sends out those ripples that may help change the world and make it a better place. So, part of those lessons I learned from my parents and part of them I learned from the town of Concord.

CK: Wow. So, your employees hear that.

DS: They do.

CK: Or your perspective employees.

DS: Yes. Everybody hears that.

CK: And do they get it? (laughs)

DS: They do get it. I mean, I think when I was growing up in—in the South—in Florida, it was still very hard lined, very segregated, very, you know, no Jews, no Catholics were allowed to join a country club. You know, it was really those days we read about in literature or read about in a book like The Help, and people us—always used to wish me Merry Christmas as a little kid and it always used to just—I used to become incensed—my mother couldn't—I would become so incensed, I used to say, "Do they assume everybody is Christian? Do they assume everybody celebrates Christmas?" And I used to—very truculently—retort back "and Happy Hanukkah to you." So, here I am with my store and I have this wonderful opportunity to do what I want to do, so every year we have a Hanukkah window. And I started with a few menorahs in my window—a collection—and I now have a window full of menorahs and I can't even fit them all in. Some of them were given to me by my staff over the years. Some of them were given to me by customers. And it's just bec—people come from all over because I think we're the only Hanukkah window in the whole Boston area. So, this year Hanukkah comes on Thanksgiving, so I had to put in my Hanukkah window November 1st, so it's in now. And even the shopkeepers in Concord—the art galleries—will call me and say that they have menorahs coming in. So, they sell a lot of menorahs that they didn't used to. I know that's neither go—that's neither here nor there—that's not a great story.

CK: 0:10:58.5 No, no that's interesting, and that's because of your window?

DS: That's because of the window. And every year people will come in—they'll say, "Oh, I have a new grandchild—my daughter-in-law's Jewish" or "My next-door neighbor moved in and they're Jewish and I'd like to get th—can I buy one of those menorahs in the window?" So, I, of course—they're always told, "No, those are Debra's collection," but then I'm able to send them to Noah, the gallery, or Lucy Lacoste, downtown Concord. So, it's—it's been—it's been a learning experience for lots of people, and a way to engage.

CK: Wow. And so people downtown are now selling menorahs because—

DS: Right.

CK: They can't get them in the window, they can just admire.

DS: (laughs) Yeah. So— Well, I've talked a lot about being Jewish and I guess that's—I'm probably going to be the only one who's going to be interviewed who will do that because there are not that many Jews in town, but I think we're a—a thriving, excited group now.

CK: Talk more about the group—the community, the size, the scope, what you do together.

DS: Again, I'm not that active. I am a member of the temple because I want to support them, but my son is now 37—38, and he doesn't go. He's not married. He doesn't have children, and there's really no reason for me to go. I don't like services—I never have—but it's a very musical group. They have their cantor's parents were survivors of camps, and so she does a lot of music around bringing people together. And the current Rabbi actually happens to be deaf. He's profoundly deaf, and he was in the Theater for the Deaf for many years. And he was a fire sword juggler or whatever, and he likes to sing off-tune, but he sings. (laughs) So, it's a group that comes together around music. And I have each year until now had them—their musicians come into the store and we've made latkes and we've had Hanukkah music and so we've had a Hanukkah celebration in our store each year. We're not this year because of the timing, but we also have a Chris—I don't want to sound as if we do only things around my religion—our store manager reads A Child's Christmas in Wales every year and we serve Christmas pudding a la naturale made with coconut sugar instead of white sugar (laughs). So, we do things around a lot of different ethnicities.

CK: Wow.

DS: So, where do we want to go? Do we want to go Concord? Do we want to go store? Do we want to go—what do you want to talk about?

CK: 0:13:42.8 Let's do a little more Concord in '78.

DS: Okay.

CK: Contrast it with now.

DS: Concord in '78 certainly had a lot more farmland, had more farms. We've lost quite a few farms in the last few years, but concurrent with that loss has been an awareness to save what we have. So, I would say that the few farms that we have are really strong and thriving and there have been—there's been a movement to plant new young farmers, and so there's a Stone Soup Dinner in town—I think this year we had our fifth or sixth Stone Soup Dinner—and we're one of the parties that is instrumental in making that happen. So, all the food establishments in town cook with produce that is donated by all the farms in town, and we put on this really wonderful, fancy dinner under white tents out in the fields of farms fields. And people pay to come, and every penny goes toward helping farmers in town. So, there's—I think there are 3 or 4 or 5 new young farmers who have been planted using part of that money. Two of them I know are using land on the national parks to grow organically. Others are renting or using other land in town. One of them used the funds that he got one year to buy a new tractor. So, we're really trying to encourage people to—we're trying to save land in Concord—keep land—farming land working and viable. We're trying to encourage that new young generation of farmers because the old ones aren't going to be out in the fields too much longer (laughs), and we're trying to create a community awareness to support those farms and to ask for things like non-GMO, organic—so, Verrill Farm—and they're good friends of ours in town—

CK: V...

DS: V-E-R-R-I-L-L, and I think they're now on a third or a fourth generation of farmers. They're one of the ones who are thriving and doing very well. But in the early years, I used to have arguments with them about organic and GMOs because that wasn't even on their radar, and they were very incensed one year when I put in a window in the store—I said, "Buy organic. No pesticides. No herbicides." You know—"Better for you, better for the planet." And Steve Verrill stopped by and said, "You're intimating that what we're growing is poison, and what we're growing is not healthy for you." And I said, "Well, that's the way I feel." So, for several years he didn't talk to me. And now we've come a long way, and this year they had a big sign outside their farm stand saying, "Our corn is non-GMO. We're using non-GMO seed." And his farm manager is someone who believes in organic. So, it's just—it's really interesting how conversation in town leads to change. And I think conversation in town is leading to farming change as well. There was a huge study over the last two years about sustainability in town and whether Concord could feed itself—or how much of what Concord eats come from Concord, for instance—and it was discovered that we are doing better at that because there's an awareness that people—if we want our farmers to do certain things, we have to support them. We have to not ask them to take that gamble and not know whether they're going to make a living. They have to know they're going to be able to sell to people who live in town what they grow.

CK: 0:17:00.7 How can they know that?

DS: Well, they can know it if citizens will come and say that to them or if citizens will support the CSAs in town, or if citizens will go to Steve Verrill and say, "I'm so proud of you that you're doing that non-GMO corn. I'm buying, you know, a dozen every day." So, it's—again, it's a process, but it's giving the farmers the confidence—I think if people talk to the farmers, engage them in conversation, and give them the confidence that you know what they're doing and that you're going to support them, that will—again, that's not expressed very well, but it will send out all these ripples. And it also makes it much more interesting to know who grows your food, doesn't it? And I think it's much more interesting if you know Steve Verrill or if you know Hutchins Farm or if you know the people in town.

CK: And CSA stands for?

DS: I think it's Community-Supported Agriculture. So, a lot of the farms, in order to survive, will sell shares in their farm. So, they will pre-sell all their produce—so, they will sell—if you belong to a CSA, you know that every week you're getting a bag full of produce or a bag full of whatever is being grown seasonally, so they can sell all their produce ahead of time that way, and some of them have succeeded that way. And I just have to say this sort of flies in the face of what my business does because we want people to come into our store to buy produce, and we want people to have home gardens, so here we were—you know, we're asking people to have home gardens, we're asking people to support local farmers, and we're also asking people to support us, so that—and I do really think there is enough business for all—for everything to happen, but we don't try and take the business away from the farms. We try and say, "Go to your local farm stand. Support them." And we also are the largest customer of one of our staff, who's actually also a farmer. So, he sells to us all during the summer and in the winter he works for us, so today is his first day back to work for the winter season. He's not a Concord farmer, he's a farmer in another—a neighboring town—and we just happened to forge this relationship with him about 20 years ago.

CK: And his name?

DS: Ray Mong, M-O-N-G. Good Scottish background (laughs). And it's Applefield Farm—is his farm.

CK: So, what—what do you sell from his—

DS: Everything that he grows, like all of our kale comes from him—our lettuce, our carrots, our beets—you know, right now, of course, he's wound down, but right now—yesterday, for instance, he delivered these little cute baby cauliflower—purple, yellow, and white—just absolutely adorable, and you saw them and you just had to buy them, whether you were a cauliflower lover or not. But anyway, we buy carrots from Hutchins Farm, apples from Hutchins Farm, so we buy a lot locally, too. We don't buy from Verrill Farm, for instance, because they're not organic, and now he doesn't hate us anymore for that. He understands that we just do something different.

CK: 0:20:58.5 Wow.

DS: Yeah.

CK: And I've heard of other natural food stores that just have issues with taking the leap into produce—is that an issue?

DS: No. It's never been an issue for us. We used to have a farmers' market in our store one day a week for organic produce—used to be Tuesdays, and we would have tables throughout the store and it was always our busiest day by far. People would come and by the end of the day it was all gone. So that was the way we used to do produce, but then when we were able to buy the building and expand the store, we were able to put in a produce cooler and have produce every single day. And people come to us from all over—we get customers from Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island—who come to the store on a regular, maybe weekly, basis—not so much for the produce, but for the whole store—but the produce department just continues to grow. And as a matter of fact, last week we put in a second produce cooler so that we're able to do our job better.

CK: So, that's a year-round?

DS: Year-round, 365 days a year.

CK: Your store's never closed?

DS: We are closed, I lied (laughs). It sounds better to say 365 days. Yes, we're closed for Labor Day. We're closed for Christmas. We're closed for Thanksgiving. We're closed for Easter, depending on the staff—if they—enough staff that want to keep the store open, we're open on Easter, so a lot of it is staff-driven. We definitely are closed on Christmas, New Year's Day, and Thanksgiving Day, but other days we allow the staff to decide from year to year.

CK: But you're generally open seven days a week?

DS: Yes, we are.

CK: Can you say that?

DS: We're open seven days a week (laughing)—Sunday, we're only open from noon to 6, but that—it's a crazy busy day.

CK: 0:23:00.2 Wow.

DS: Yeah.

CK: So, how does local produce fit with wintertime?

DS: You know, in the winter you can't—we had a customer come in irate last year. She said, "I want local, but that romaine comes from California." And I was looking out and it was snowing like crazy, and I said to her, (laughing) "It's pretty hard to grow romaine under the snow." But we have two other staff who are also farmers, and one of them is putting in an unheated greenhouse this year, so we are going to have his lettuce year-round. So, that will be—it'll be very—it'll be mesclun more type of greens, not full heads romaine. So, things are changing every year, every year, every year, but we do have chard year-round locally, kale year-round local, so there's some things that we are able to get from farmers who are growing in unheated greenhouses.

CK: Wow. Well, I'd love to hear about your evolution from being a single mom to opening up a store. I'm assuming there was a little bit of a lag. And bring us to the beginnings of Debra's natural food.

DS: I will say from the time I was a little girl, I always loved food. I was always an organizer. I used to walk through the lunch line in school and correct the lunch ladies. I used to tell them what they could do better (laughs) or what they—how they could make the food better. I never bought it, but I used to go through as a critic. I was, I'm sure, not very loved (laughs) for that reason.

CK: For example?

DS: For example, I used to go through and tell them they used to—they used to do Wonderbread and margarine—I remember that—and canned peas. And I used to tell them that they should do fresh peas 'cause the kids would like them better. I used to tell them they should lose the margarine, lose the Wonderbread 'cause I said you could just take a piece of bread and squeeze it, and it would become like a little ball of what my grandmother used to call "kvetch"—and it sounds exactly like it is—so, and I used to talk about the dangers of margarine—this is in the '50s (laughs). So, I have always been a militant about food. I have mellowed over the years and that I believe everyone should do what makes them happy and comfortable, so I no longer correct people. I wait for people to ask me a question, so I think I'm—I'm actually fairly likeable now. But in the—I always wanted to make natural food user-friendly and easy for people. From the time I was a little girl, I always felt if people could just get back to food the way it was meant to be in its unadorned, simple form, and sit around the table and share food around the table, that would create a sense of community—it would bring people together. And it was something I always, always wanted to do. So, when I—my parents moved here and then when I followed and moved here, I worked as a legal secretary for a couple of years—hated it—and I just said to my parents—I said, "I really want to do something around food. I want to open a store where I can sell food and cook and talk to people about ingredients." And so my whole family loaned me money and I opened—it was a tiny, tiny little store that's now expanded twice—and within two years, I paid my parents back. But it—it just was—it was something I always wanted to do and I don't know why.

CK: 0:26:47.7 And where was it? (clears throat) What was it called?

DS: It was called Debra's Natural Gourmet, and it's in the same location it is today.

Michael Kline: Called? I'm sorry?

DS: Debra's Natural Gourmet, and my mother worked there until six months before she died. Then she was the—sort of, everybody's mother. She would wander through the store, giving out recipes and treating kids to different things, and she was a character. And my son is in the business now and is really doing more, I think, than I am there, so he's—he's the next generation, and I'm very glad he became passionate about it and fell in love with it too because otherwise what would I have done? My—this child that I've created would've died with me probably.

CK: And his name?

DS: His name is Adam Stark.

CK: Wow.

DS: Yeah, I should have brought him today. He—he's a lot more fun to listen to than I. (laughing)

CK: Oh, I can't imagine that.

DS: (laughing) He's a character, too. He and my mother had a lot in common—both of them characters and both of them loved to discuss politics (laughs). So, I used to enjoy listening to the two of them.

CK: What was one of your mother's recipes?

DS: She had a lot of them. Basically, she would talk to people about how to simplify things, but one of hers—people come in to me and say, "Oh, I'm still making that recipe your mother told me about." One of her famous ones was called the Glowing Salad, so named by a child who shopped in the store who said, "It glows!" So, we called it the Glowing Salad—she would cut up a fresh pineapple, and then she would grate or shred a whole beet, a whole carrot, and a whole apple, and just toss it with the pineapple, and then serve it on a romaine lettuce leaf with a sprig of parsley or watercress—and it's so simple to do—if you have a food processor, it's literally a minute or two to shred all of those veggies.

CK: 0:28:49.2 But the pineapple's not shredded, that's—

DS: That's correct. That's just cubed. That was the only hard part of the recipe. But she would talk about who has time to peel vegetables and why would you peel an organic carrot or beet or an apple? That's where all the vitamins are—in the skin. So, she would talk about just scrubbing with an old little brush and cutting the ends off and just grating it and tossing it. And she said, "No one will see the peels. No one will criticize you. No one will know they're there. And why would you waste the peels in any case?" So, that was a rec—that's a recipe we actually still make in the store's kitchen every day, and it sells every day. And we talk about things like beets enrich the blood, and the apples have all that wonderful fiber, and the pineapples have those digestive enzymes. So, that salad is a—really a—sort of a detox salad.

CK: So, you have a kitchen in the store.

DS: Yes, we have a kitchen in the store, and we also do a fair amount of catering, which we don't seek out, but finds us. So, when the movie The Judge was being filmed in town this past year with Robert Downey, Jr. and Robert Duvall, we were—

CK: What was the first name?

DS: Robert Downey, Jr.—I think that—yeah.

CK: Okay.

DS: So, we were—we were absolutely thrilled to be asked to supply their—some of their breakfast and some of their, kind of, afternoon snacks, and every day that we got asked to supply them, they ordered double, and we just—we heard that Robert Downey, Jr. was a big fan of our scones, and Robert Duvall fell in love with our coconut ghee bars, so (laughing)—so, that was fun—that was our moment of fame.

CK: Wow.

DS: Yeah.

CK: So, you have a cooking and a baking staff?

DS: We do. We have eleven cooks in our kitchen and two full-time bakers, and probably could use a third. One of our bakers is Sasha—he calls himself the Macedonian. He's—again, we have a lot of characters in the store and he's one of them. So, he has learned so much. He—he knows the science of baking, and he has the intuitive knowing of how to deal with flour and ingredients, but he knew nothing about the ingredients we use when he came to us four years ago. And he has learned so much about natural ingredients and natural sweeteners and gluten-free flours, and when he started he wanted to use a gluten-free mix and I said no, because then it'll taste like the same crap everybody else has, which is pretty awful. So, I said to him—I said, "No, we're going to make our own gluten-free mix." And I made some suggestions and he tweaked it—well, he has become so excited about what he has been able to create with gluten-free baking, for instance, that in January, he's going to launch his own gluten-free pie crust company, so that's going to be pretty exciting.

CK: 0:31:55.4 Are you going to lose him?

DS: We'll lose him. He says that he's going to still work for us and the other will be in his spare time, and I don't think that'll last for long because his pie crusts that he makes are so wonderful—there's no gluten-free pie crust on the market like his—I mean, they really taste great. So, I think we will lose him, but you know, part of what we want to do is encourage people to be their own entrepreneurs.

CK: Yeah. So, you're more than a store.

DS: I—I really do feel that we are a little mini-United Nations in a community. And every day customers thank us for being there and saying what a difference we have made in their lives, and what I say to them, it's a partnership—it's you know—it's the staff and it's the people who walk through the doors and it's our suppliers. And I say it's like a three-legged stool, and all the legs have to be strong, so I—that really resonates with me.

CK: Wow. And what's your role these days?

DS: I drive everyone crazy (laughs). I'm—I do. I'm in the store only 3 days a week, and those 3 days I not only—I—I don't get on the computer once. I'm only on the floor and I notice things, so if I go through and I notice that on register 2 we have a mishmash, and it's not just books, or that if register 4 looks pretty puny, I will get displays up there—get somebody else to do it, or I'm the one who will notice that we don't have some of my favorite foods for Thanksgiving, and when are they arriving, and they better come in great quantity because I'm using them in my cooking class next week, or because they're going to be in the recipe in the newsletter. So, I would say I'm the—I'm the eyes that see the setting, and I'm the one who got the French benches for out front that gives us that wonderful curb appeal, or who ordered from one of the local artists a carrot table that we have out front that our customers love, or the carrot carved—the wooden carrot carve hanging over the deli. So, for me, it has to be a visual experience, as well as when I walk in the store, I want it— I want wonderful smells, and the kitchen provides that, or I want everybody on staff to be wearing their name badge and to learn the stories about the food we carry, like why are we carrying meat from Steady Lane Farms? I want them to know who the farmer is who grows that beef and how she treats her animals. I want everybody in the store to know why they might want to use more cinnamon, or what the problem is right now in sourcing quinoa or chia—God help us, it appeared in Dr. Oz and the prices doubled in price last year. So, I want everyone on staff to know why we're using coconut sugar in the kitchen and why we would never compromise and never use white flour or white sugar. So, I—

CK: 0:35:07.8 No white flour—

DS: Never. Never, Never, ever in our kitchen. And then the white sugar, I go back and I tell the story—my mother used to use it to kill nematodes in the yard in Florida, and that she always referred to white sugar as a dead food—calories, but empty calories—so, I'm nothing if not opinionated and I share that with our customers and our staff.

CK: Wow. How? How do you share it, especially with your staff—they're all working, right?

DS: They're all working, but you know if I'll see something going through the register and I'll—a customer—I'll say, "Oh, you're going to love that, and do you know..." and I'll tell a story. For my staff, I do the same thing to them—I'll drag them around, I'll say, "Did you see this?" or "Do you know about that?" But every paycheck comes with a staff memo, and it's two pages, and it takes me an hour and a half to write it each time, and in that I tell things that I have found interesting or things that I've learned or things that customers have asked me, or I will ask them to submit things to me that I can include that others on staff may not know or found interesting. So, I just asked one of our brand new young farmers in town, who, again is working for us in the winter, I said, "Send me a few paragraphs for the staff memo about what you learned growing organic this summer."—It was her first summer growing organic.—"How was it different for you and what did you learn?" So, it's—it's—for me, it's just a constant exchange of information and the—what brings it alive for me are the stories.

CK: Wow. Talk some about your customers. How—how have Concordians changed? Is there a difference in who comes in now and who lives in this community?

DS: I would say that the—not all the Concordians have discovered us yet, even after twenty-four years. There's still a lot of people who are afraid that if they walk into our store, that if they ever taste brown rice, for instance, that chocolate mousse will never again be able to touch their lips, which is not true. I think there are Concordians who still think of us—Debra's Natural Gourmet—as Birkenstocks and hairy legs, and that's not the case; however, I think we have changed a lot of people in town. The mothers' groups who knew nothing about—or the school lunch groups, or—or even the local—well, I can't remember the name of the group that studied how—whether Concord could feed itself—I can't remember the name of that group, but for two years they were going together and I was sitting on—listening to some of their talks—never once did the words GMOs or organic come up, and I said to them, "You know, really? You're so interested in food and farming, how—why haven't you looked into those issues?" because to me it's part of the whole, and so now, they're really—they—somebody came into the store yesterday and said, "I want you to know the committee in town that has all the farmers—that's on their docket to talk about this year—that's on their agenda to talk about." But I would say a lot of people have found us through friends who have been ill who have discovered us, who came in and found a natural something that helped them, or people who have allergies have discovered that if they try and eat a different way, the allergies clear up. People—some people have found us because we have been their last resort—they've been very ill—and in many cases they're—they're able to get their normal lives back. I mean, food is a really wonderful medicine. Food is probably the best thing we can do for our body and our health—
(sirens in background)

CK: 0:39:10.2 Let's just let this pass.

DS: Yeah. So, the only thing I think better for the body than food, real food is our mental state, so a sense of humor and a positive attitude, and I feel that that can be strengthened by what we eat and more importantly by a sense of community. So, that's what we try and do in our store, and so we try to create the same community we feel out walking the streets of Concord, which is people know your name, people are interested in who you are, and they want to hear your stories. So, we really do greet people as they come through the door in the store. We do know about our customers' lives, and I will say we are so involved in that that last week I had a family come in—a mother and 4 adult children and their grand—the grandchildren—because the grandfather had died, and they all came to tell us what an important place our store had been in his life, and it was the only place he wanted to go in the last year of his life—for him, because he said he walked in the door and he was able to go (sighs), and he was able to smile and people knew him and it just felt like the most welcoming place he had to go. So, about townspeople coming and discovering us, that's been their experience—that's been the experience of people who find us. How has that changed over the year? More people have found us—more people who have learned to trust us and are willing to try different ingredients or just go home and try a recipe where they may not have been comfortable in the kitchen before. So, it's been—I don't know—it's just been a wonderful growing up experience together.

CK: Wow.

MK: When I bought vitamins at your store yesterday morning—

DS: Yeah?

MK: I got my bags stuffed with some of the—some of those wonderful recipes—

DS: The newsletters.

MK: The newsletters—

DS: Yeah.

MK: So, you're putting out different recipes all the time?

DS: 0:41:24.1 Well, we write a monthly—we write a monthly newsletter, and I always do the recipe in there, and Adam always does the health article, and then it's a conglomeration of other stuff, so it's a calendar sometimes, of events in the store. We try and have a couple—at least a couple of speakers a month. I do a cooking class in my house for customers each month. When were you there? What time were you there?

MK: Yesterday morning.

DS: What—what time?

MK: Oh, probably 9 o'clock—8 or 9—between 8, 9, maybe?

CK: Two days ago.

MK: Two days ago.

DS: Oh. So, on Tuesday.

MK: Tuesday.

DS: Okay.

MK: So, Tuesday—and a young woman—

DS: Oh, a brand newbie—Anina.

MK: Helped me find exactly what I was looking for.

DS: Okay, well she's been there a total of a week, and she's a teenager, and she's hot to trot, wants to learn. And we decided—we have a nurse who's in that department—we have an 0:42:24.1 iurdetic medicine guy; we have my son, Adam; I'm there; Mary Kadlik who's been with us for twenty-three years was there—

CK: Spell it?

DS: K-A-D-L-I-K. So, we have a lot of people who really know their stuff there. And Grace, our nurse, is there on Wednesdays, but we decided we needed someone just to sort of help—be able to find things on the shelf. So, she's the only one in that department who doesn't really know much, but she's so excited and she's like a little sponge. So, I was just—it's interesting that the one person who helped you is the one person who probably couldn't have engaged you in an exciting conversation.

MK: 0:43:06.3 But she—but she was able very quickly to read the labels and figure out what they meant, and she found me a vegan—

DS: Yes.

MK: Vitamin D-3, which was exactly what I needed.

DS: Good.

MK: And in—in the right dosage, and—and, well, I—see the dosage actually seemed a little high, so she said, "Maybe you could take them every other day."

DS: (laughing)

MK: So, that's what I'm doing—I'm taking them every other day.

DS: Good. Well, I will tell her when I see her Saturday morning that—how proud I am of her—

MK: She got good marks.

DS: Yeah—part of what we hired her so that her—the rest of our eyesight is going and her eyesight is nice and young (laughs). So, over the years, we have tried to have staff who are all ages. And I will say one-fifth of our staff are women in their late 60s up to 78, 79. So, it's—and—and two of them who live in Concord still bicycle to the store and bicycle to work. And one of them is a breast cancer survivor, so we have a staff who are young and old and we just—everybody works together, which has been very interesting to watch (laughs).

CK: More customer stories!

DS: More customer stories—

CK: Concord people.

DS: Concord people—I could tell you stories of people I wish shopped in the store, who have never set foot. (laughing)

CK: That would be great—anyone from Concord.

DS: So, Doris Kearns Goodwin and her—who's, as you know, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, and I have all of her books, and I'm so in awe and so admiration of her, and she's just not a customer in our store—so, I don't—I've thought over the years what I should do and how I could make that happen—I'd love to have her—she's been there once. I saw her once, but—and I know she does a lot of catering, a lot of entertaining, and they—again—have never called us or used us, but I decided I'm not going to be a pest and I'm not going to agitate there. But last night, we had a speaker in the store, and her sister is a very famous artist who lives in Concord, and her sister's name is Ilana Manolson and she really is world-renowned artist, and was the guest in—guest artist in residence in Scotland last summer, and you know—really invited all over the world. But she's become a customer in our store because not only are we close and she can walk there, but also because she had some health issues. And so now, she—she's there just about every day, and she's trying to get her health life back on track.

CK: 0:45:59.1 This is Ilana?

DS: This is Ilana—and her sister, Nina, became a consultant around issues around body image
and food. And last night, I think her talk was on the psychology of eating. So, psychology of eating and—her message was simple—her message is—is that food is not your enemy, but you need to be—create some sort of awareness around food, and you need to sort of sit down and say, "(sighs) Thank you, food. Thank you, body." And, you know, "Hello, pleasure." But, I won't try and talk about her message, I'll garble it however I say it, but it was interesting to me that that room was full of people whom we don't ordinarily see as our customers who came because they have issues with and around food, and they were looking for help. But it was also interesting to me to see the big sister, the artist there, saying, "Oh, I'm so proud of my sister and I love this store, and thank you for allowing her to come and speak." So, it was just kind of a win-win for everybody. All right—but people who are customers—(sighs) where do you want me to start?

CK: Well, I just loved hearing about that grandfather and it just 0:47:15.7 (???) (inaudible). Anyway, Leslie said, "She knows so many Concord people." (laughs)

DS: (laughs) I do know a lot. I don't always know them by name, but I do know a lot of their stories, and a lot of their stories I can't share because they're confidential—people will come to us in distress and talk about someone—about abuse in the home, about cancer, about all kinds of things—and they feel free to tell us those stories knowing that we won't go on and talk about them. One of my—very, very sweet man who's there with his wife just about every day, and it was only five or six years ago I learned that their daughter—he came in, he looked very sad one day, and I just said to him, "Are you okay?" And he said, "No, today's the anniversary of my daughter's murder."—that she was one of—she was a runner in Central Park who was attacked and raped and murdered, and so you think, you know, how do you go on and how do you live with that? And I was able to say that to him—that I don't know how you put one foot in front of the other, and I don't—I don't know what courage it must take to go on living when something like that—a tragedy like that has occurred. And so he—we've never spoken about that since, but he always comes in and each time he sees me, he comes over and taps my shoulder, he gives me a hug. So, it—we're a repository for a lot of people's—where they've been able to share grief like that. So, it just—that's kind of hard, I would say. And there are days when I go home, when I feel emotionally drained because I have listened to people's stories, and at the same time I know the behind-the-curtain stories. I know that various staff are struggling for one reason or another, and yet, in our business, the show much go on, and you can't share that and you can't show it. Although I did one time—one of our staff was having a very bad day—very hard time—and she wasn't as loving with a customer as she should have been and the customer complained to me, and I did say this is confidential, but this is what is happening, and she said, "Oh my goodness, I had no idea." And so, I noticed that she's very loving toward that staff member whenever she comes in. It's not that she was able to share what I told her, but she has some understanding that that person is also a human being who has things happening in her life. So, it's—yeah—so, I guess you asked my role—my role is the ringmaster (laughs).

CK: 0:50:08.2 And you're in three days a week?

DS: Yeah.

CK: So, is there that level of intimacy when you're not—

DS: Not perhaps as it could or should be because my husband's style is different. Our store manager who is a wonderful man—his style is different.

CK: Do you want to name any of these people?

DS: I can—his name is Jim Leahey, L-E-A-H-E-Y, and he's—he's from England. He's been in this country now for over 30 years, but he's from England.

CK: And your husband?

DS: I don't have a husband. It's my son.

CK: Oh, I thought you said your husband's style was different.

DS: If I said—

MK: You did say your husband's style

CK: Yeah.

DS: Did I really?

MK: Yeah. I thought, wow, she didn't mention getting remarried.

CK: Yeah.

DS: No, I haven't. Oh, wow, maybe that's wishful thinking (laughs). Adam's style—my son's style is different—not my husband--and he doesn't even live with me, thank God. If he lived with me we would kill each other. So, yes, his style is different, too, and I am constantly tackling him on that. I had to cook in the kitchen on Sunday, which is not one of my usual days, because we were short a cook, and so I went in and I cooked. So, I fill in. So, my 3 regular days are often supplemented by another day there—so, I cooked, and that's a day that he's in charge, and I noticed that he never left the supplement department. So, I went over to him and I said, "Have you swung through the store? Have you walked through the store? Have you engaged customers in conversation? Have you engaged the staff? Have you seen where the staff were?" And he said, "Well, no, that's not really my—my style." And I said to him, "Well, that has to be your style because that's part of your job. If you don't do that, you don't know what's happening in the rest of the store." And his argument was, "Well, I'm the only one in supplements today and I've—it's been a steady stream of people coming back and asking me questions," because they really do consult with him about things that are heavy and serious. But, he has to have that realization that that's a very important role he has to play.

CK: 0:52:27.2 Yeah.

DS: So, yes, the days I'm not in the store, people don't notice that there's something on the floor that needs to be picked up. They don't notice that Mrs.(s/l Tolletino), who is in her 90s, may be looking for something and not finding it easily. They have to notice all those things and they have to take care of one another. So—

MK: What a great interview.

DS: (laughs).

CK: What a shero you are!

DS: No, I just—I want—I really want the world to be a better place, and I'm not willing to be a crusader and to give up my own life. So, the way I could do that was choose a small venue and try and make that what I would like to see. And I know that I worked in places growing up that did not treat people as human beings and did not allow for—they didn't—they didn't create the kind of place that I like to be in, so it—this job gave me the opportunity to fulfill my dream, which was wonderful and exciting.

CK: Thank you!

DS: Is that enough?

CK: Is it enough for you?

DS: You know, I could probably talk for two weeks and not—(laughs) so, you have to tell me.


CK: 0:53:48.9 Well, let's—

MK: What should we have asked you?


CK: Yeah, yeah.

DS: What should you have asked me. The retail—the business and the retail life in Concord has been going through challenges of its own. So, I don't know whether I want to share all of this story or not, but the 5 & 10, which is two doors down from us, who's been in business a long—much longer than our store and was a place that people came to from all over--got themselves—got themselves into financial difficulties through no—no fault of their own—they loaned money to an old friend who was their distributor and the distributor declared bankruptcy, so they not only lost all their spare cash, but they lost the source of all their inventory.

CK: And the name of the business, again?

DS: West Concord 5 & 10, I think. And they really didn't reach out to the community. They didn't say, "We're in trouble. We need your support." And then the young man who was the stepson of the owner died unexpectedly of a heart attack, and the owner had moved up to Maine, where he was caring for his wife who had had a stoke. So, this business, which had been part of the lifeblood and part of the history of Concord had its shelves virtually empty. Nobody had known what was going on, that it was in trouble, and the man who was living above it, who had been managing it dropped dead. So, just before he dropped dead, I had gone in and I had said, "Chris, what's going on?" And he had told me, and I said, "Well, why didn't you reach out? Why didn't you ask for help? Every retailer in town wants you to succeed. Every citizen in town would be devastated if you went out. Why didn't you reach out? Why didn't you ask for help?" And I—this is the—I don't want you to put this in, but I will share—

CK: We'll stop then.

DS: Okay. So, his stepfather, with the mother who had the stroke, moved back to Concord and they are trying to bring that business back, and they did share with the citizens of town that they had had a hard time—but they were—but with everybody's help, they would come back. And that, to me, is—it's the moral of the story—again, this was a business that was so private that they were afraid to share that story, and so they almost completely went under. And there are other businesses in town—there's one who just announced two nights ago that they are closing, also in West Concord. Had they shared with the community that they were in trouble, that they needed support, I think they would have been viable and continued, and so, I—I think that's a state of retail in general in small towns where the businesses aren't the Gap and the businesses aren't CVS—those businesses either have to be well-loved and doing well on their own or the businesses have to share with the community, if you value us, you need to support us. And I think that's part of the whole shop local movement, but the retailers in the last couple of years in this town have come together, so we get together once a month for breakfast, or we do promotions together—retailers have to—outside their stores—have to take that time and make that time to create that sense of community and then they have to go further. They have to talk to the community—not in ads, necessarily, but by becoming involved in town politics and in town civic groups, and they have to ask for help. That's what they—we haven't historically known how to do—is ask for help. So, you know, even if you're a salesperson, you have to ask for the sale. Well, these businesses have to say, "We need your help. Will you walk through our doors?" So, I—that's been on my mind a lot lately because I know there's some other small businesses who may be struggling who haven't done that.

CK: 0:58:26.8 How do you do that apart from ads, then?

DS: Write a letter to the editor. You know, you talk—tell a story—tell a story about one of the artists you're featuring in and that you're so happy to be able to support them and put food on their tables and you hope people walk through the door so that you can continue to do that. I don't know—or you do, you write about the tough state of economy and you know how much easier it is to go order your books on Amazon, but you'd love to see them in your store so that they can touch and feel a book and get to know an author who's going to come and give a talk. You have to be open about all the struggles. You have to reveal that it's tough.

CK: Which you do?

DS: I think I have over the years. I mean, yeah—last year, I ordered too many turkeys, so I ordered the same amount of turkeys, but nobody was buying them from us last year, and I sent out an email—I just said, "Help! Turkey truck arriving tomorrow! Two hundred fifty extra turkeys that nobody has bought. Can you help?" And I would say within fifteen minutes, every one of those turkeys was sold. People picked up the phone and started calling—yeah. I asked for help and we got it (laughs).

CK: And I'm going to guess these were special turkeys?

DS: They are certified organic turkeys, but they are also the Stonewood turkeys—Stonewood Natural, which we've been selling for twenty-two years—and our problem with Stonewood turkeys is that three years ago, Verrill Farms decided to sell Stonewood turkeys, too, and people are more accustomed to going to Verrill Farm for turkeys than they are coming to us for turkeys. So, we lost a lot of our turkey farmers—our turkey customers—to Verrill Farm, and I don't grudge them that. Again, I really do think there's enough business to go around for everybody. We just had to ask for it.

MK: Good story.

CK: It worked.

DS: Yeah. Yeah.

MK: 1:00:34.0 Hanging in the window somewhere in West Concord, maybe across the street from you, there's a Shop Local poster in the window, and it says that is—is it $.64 out of every dollar that's spent locally stays in the community—

DS: True.

MK: If you go to a box store, that figure drops to $.40-some—

DS: Below $.50.

MK: And if you order online, the—the—the figure is 0—nothing stays in the community.

DS: Correct.

MK: So, I—that really caught my attention to see those real numbers. I've heard those about the arts, too. For every dollar spent on local arts stays in the community 9 times, and it's just so interesting to think about local economies and how devastated they've been with huge box store chains and all the rest of what's feeding on the small town that once was.

DS: There was that whole shop local movement—every store in West Concord—every store had all those posters in the window. We each had a different poster of different sayings. We kept that up for 60 days in our window—now we have it in our back entrance. What I did was I walked around the store and I photographed every one of our staff, and I have these huge collages hanging of our staff, and our poster that I left hanging in the back hall talks about when you shop local, you're not buying a CEO a new second yacht or a fancy home McMansion, you're paying for this person's dance—kids' dancing lessons—or that person's groceries on the table, and so we do have that up still, but it's in our back hall 'cause we need to keep changing our front windows. But yes, and all those issues are so important, and it wasn't until the last couple of years when small centers—shopping centers began dying, or all turning into Starbucks and Gaps, that the locals realized they had to be asking for patronage and ask for help. And when you think about it, it's—it's all we, locals, who are asking—being asked for contributions to support the—the local baseball team and the local hospital—they're not getting money from Starbucks, they're getting money from every one of us, and what I say—I get about thirteen requests for donations every single day—every single day—and my standard response now is we never say no to our customers to help keep us in business so we can be here again next year to give again. And if somebody isn't a customer, I say no. I mean, there's certain charities that aren't local that we choose to support—we support The Non-GMO Project. We support Camino Verde down in Peru that is trying to save plants and do all kinds of environmental stuff, but mainly, we support every local cause in town. And you can't do that if people don't come through your doors and you don't have money. I mean, our accountant said for our business last year, our contributions were $120,000, so that's not only coming off our bottom line, it's coming out of our profit-sharing that I have for our staff.

CK: 1:04:16.5 You have profit-sharing.

DS: Yeah.

CK: Talk about that.

DS: Everybody who works in our store knows what our break even point is, and the break even point is how much money you need to have come through every day in order just to pay your bills. So, our breakeven point is—I was going to say it's like $16,000 a day—so, it costs us $16,000 a day to be open—that's electric bills, that's staff, that's water, that's town taxes—16 th—until we make $16,000 every day, we haven't made a penny. And over that is profit, so of that profit, 20% goes into a fund that gets divided among the staff. That's not a formal plan at all, it's my way of saying thank you, and I do it based on the number of years somebody's been there, based on the number of hours they work, how I perceive they help me, they help each other, and they help our customers. So, it's—I don't have to file anything with the government because it's not a formal plan, and I always end up putting more than 20% into that and my accountant is always shaking her finger at me (laughs). But it—it just—and I dispense it twice a year. So, our staff are always looking at those sales—they're always looking to see, ooh, today we only sold $15,000—we lost money today—we're open—so they're always kind of tracking that, but I would say 90—95% of them still haven't changed their behavior to say, "Gee, how could I make someone see one more thing on the shelf?" 'Cause if every customer put one more thing that they would be getting someplace else into their basket, that would drop immediately to the bottom line, which would increase their profit-sharing, but they don't—they don't see that, and as my brother says, "That's why they're not the owner," 'cause they don't—it's not constantly on their mind.

CK: Wow. Hopefully, your son—

DS: He does. Yeah, and he just—he has this wonderful facility for finding exciting new products—he gets so jazzed up. So, smoked olive oil was his find a couple of years ago and now we have our customers hooked on smoked olive oil, and we can't get it (laughs), so we hope—have, hopefully, a pallet coming up from West Virginia somewhere, but—(sigh).

CK: West Virginia?

DS: Yeah.

CK: Known for its smoked olive oil?

DS: No, but there's a Win distributor who happens to sell smoked olive oil and they happen to have a pallet of it down in West Virginia, so—(laughs). Anyway, it's very—a lot of fun.

CK: 1:07:05.5 'Cause you're—we heard the other day there's a Trader Joe's nearby—I even hate to say the word in front of you.

DS: We have five or six Whole Foods within 20-25 minutes of—ride without traffic. A lot of our customers who work in Cambridge and Boston drive by at least one of them coming out of town and will stop, so we know we share customers with a lot of different venues, and, as I said, I really do think there's enough business for everyone, but the small stores have to ask for their share.

MK: Thanks, that's just—

DS: Yeah.

CK: Thank you.

1:07:48.9 (end of audio)


Debra Stark


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Mounted 30 July 2014 -- rcwh.