By: Steve Sears
You can speak to Paul Kralyevich about your bad day. If you do, the owner of Denville’s soon-to-be 15-year-old Grassroots Natural Market, who has many inspirational sayings hanging on his office wall, will happily lend you some wisdom to inspire or raise your spirits beyond any gloom.
You see, Paul wants the atmosphere at his popular Denville location to always be happy and positive – and it is.
“Let me show you something,” he says to a visitor. “When one of my employees is having a bad day – and that doesn’t happen often – I show them this.” He points to a 2011 photo of Grassroots Natural Market following Hurricane Irene, then jabs at it with his finger. “We had 6 inches of water in the store. Now, that’s a bad day. Everything got fried – computers, registers – everything. The produce case? Fried. The deli case? Fried. We reopened in 5 days. My crew came here, sanitized the entire place, and we reopened with a $200 cash register. The store was still a mess, but people were happy because they had regularity (again) in their lives. They had someplace to go. We were the first food store to reopen in Denville.”
Thankfully so for, yes, the locals, but also for those who frequent the store from outside the area.
When the Astoria, Queens (New York) native Paul was seeking a “challenged” healthy food store to purchase, he scoured trade journals seeking the perfect place and location. He knew of Denville, had an affection for it. “I call it a ‘very sophisticated Mayberry’,” he claims with a huge grin. “The people are very friendly. My New York friends come out here and say, ‘People say hello to me on the street.’ I say, ‘Say hello back.’ It’s not a big town, it’s the right size town where people are very friendly. They really support their downtown and the downtown is very vibrant.”
He elaborates on his business search. “I was looking to buy a business for sale that was semi-distressed,” he recalls. “Let’s put it that way. It was 2005 when the economy was very good, sales should’ve been going up, but they weren’t here. They were flat, if not down.” Paul, whose mother at the time lived in neighboring Parsippany, would visit the town when he visited her. He also that time was part owner of a Manhattan business that elbowed him out as a partner, although his percentage of ownership was still intact. He eventually sold his interest in that location and turned his eyes towards sole ownership of a similar store that he could encourage upward. “I looked at several stores, all the way up to Martha’s Vineyard, and settled on Denville.” I’ve been in this industry since college, which was a long time ago, “he says with a chuckle. “I knew my suppliers, I knew my product lines, I knew how to manage. So, you stick to your own back yard, just like a good writer will stick to what he knows. (Ernest) Hemingway wrote about Cuba because he lived in Cuba. He didn’t write about Morocco. So, I looked for natural food stores that were for sale.”
Prior to purchase, he took to the triangular-shaped store and did some shopping. “I saw the problems right away when I walked around as a customer on several occasions. I even brought my sister Jerelyn out here to do the same thing.”
“This is going to be my livelihood; this is going to be my life,” he states emphatically. “I couldn’t make a mistake.”
Paul purchased the store on April 15, 2005, the name was changed, and Grassroots Natural Market was in business the next day, slowly evolving over time. What didn’t fit in was eliminated, the product mix was changed, the store started to specialize (and still specializes) in organic food, vitamins, and beauty aids and an all-natural deli, Paul started to advertise and take part in the popular Denville street fairs, brought on some new staff, “and it took off,” he says.
Walker Jackson, owner of nearby Jackson Education, is just one of the Grassroots Natural Market very loyal customer base. “We know all their names,” says Paul, “and they know us. It’s just a very pleasant work environment, which makes our jobs that much easier.”
Jackson is a breakfast or lunchtime visitor three days per week. “It’s threefold,” he says regarding the market’s popularity and success. “First, every ingredient they use is all natural. Second, they cook every morning, so it’s always fresh. Third, the people who work here are super nice. All three (reasons) are pretty equal, but the people aspect, absolutely.” He is feasting on breakfast. “The prices are so good. This breakfast is going to cost me $4.00. $4.00 for Organic quiche! Where can you get that?!”
Therese, Paul’s assistant and bookkeeper, says “Denville is a hustling town.” She echoes Jackson’s compliment on employee friendliness, then alludes to another key Grassroots Natural Market “ingredient”: knowledge. “I think the big draw here is our employees. The vitamin department, they know their products inside and out. The cashiers, they can just talk to customers and just make them feel like, ‘Okay, they know what they’re talking about.’ It’s not like any other place where they just give them the product and that’s that. They talk to you about why you should take this, the background of it – you know, CBD is really big right now – so just having the knowledge of all of our products is really a big draw.”
Paul agrees. “And a lot of knowledge. I mean, Therese has been with us for 12 years, Dee, the vitamin specialist has been here 12 years, Valaya, the chef has been cooking for us for 11 years, Eric V. the grocery manager has been here for 10 years, Justin, our produce buyer has been here for 6 years and Eric M, the refrigeration and frozen manager has been here 6 years. We have a very knowledgeable staff, and we search out small companies that are under the radar screen, that people can’t find anywhere – except here. And that’s what brings them here.” Paul, who resides now in Boonton, proudly adds that “Grassroots Natural Market may be small, but it is mighty.”
Grassroots Natural Market has been recognized by many local publications as a top store in the area, and Paul acknowledges the plaques and certificates adoring his office wall. However, it’s not what’s most important. On a recent Tuesday, Dee scaled a ladder, a customer needing a hard to find vitamins that only Grassroots Natural Market has in stock, and the cashiers were not only ringing up customer orders but offering engaging conversation and suggestions for the current and future visits. Therese adds, “All of our buyers scrutinize every product they bring in here to make sure it’s clean, to make sure it’s organic. They won’t just put anything on the shelf. Anybody who goes into the vitamin department knows that Dee has the cleanest products and stands behind them.”
“And everyone who goes into the produce department,” interjects Paul, “it’s all organic.”
Paul gets his best Grassroots Natural Market improvement ideas from two groups of people: his customers and employees. “Not from my head,” he states. And what has he learned from both? “Have more vegetarian and vegan dishes in the deli, which we now do – that’s a customer thing and an employee thing, but mostly a customer thing. An employee thing? Learning to be more patient and think before you talk.”
If one thing is lacking at Grassroots Natural Market, it’s space. “The kitchen would love a little (more) space,” says Therese. “They work in close quarters back there and they do a good job. There’s a deli staff in the front and the two chefs in the back that cook for the case, and we do catering, and then there’s the front end, the juice bar, and there’s sandwiches being made. The chefs are here early, and they cook until 2 or 3:00, and then we have a pastry chef that’s totally gluten free. It’s a busy place.”
Speaking of “busy,” the true busy season for Paul and his team is from mid-September until Memorial Day. October is a big prep month for the day Grassroots Natural Market loves the most: the day before Thanksgiving. “That day is the single busiest day of the year. We do it right; we prepare, everything runs nice and smoothly. We rent a refrigerated truck and park in the Denville Hardware lot because we need more refrigeration space that week. Our busiest month, every year for fourteen years, has been March. It sounds counterintuitive. November is great, December is great, January is great, but by March, it’s getting a little warmer, the roads are clearer because there’s usually much less snow, and (after all the holiday eating) everyone wants to start eating healthy. So, March is our best month.”
Paul, who says something real special will be planned for birthday #15, claims ownership of Grassroots Natural Market has made him more patient. “I forgive mistakes and forget – just don’t make them three times,” he says while chuckling. “I’ve also learned a lot about people, and to listen to your gut more than the resume sometimes. Intuition – that comes with age, too. I’ve been a manager my whole life, and partner since I was 36. It’s been a good run. It’s been a lot of fun.”
He then closes with an interesting story which bellows the atmosphere of care of Grassroots Natural Market. “My cashier of 3 ½ years was pregnant. She was very happy but also a little bit sad because she was leaving. They (the employees) threw her a baby shower, in the store, on Sunday morning, when nobody worked on a Sunday morning. People came from far and wide on their day off to say goodbye to Karli and give her gifts.”
“That says something about this store. We’re like a very functional family.”
Grassroots Natural Market, open seven days a week, is located at 20 First Avenue in Denville. Visit www.grassrootsnaturalmarket.com or call (973) 627-5440.