Tioga County has many things, but only one natural foods store. So when owner Brenda Thomas decided earlier this year to retire, her friends and customers (mostly one and the same) wished her well but also wished they weren’t facing the question, “Now what do we do?”
Enter Aubrey and Riah Irion and Shady Grove Natural Market. The young couple—they’ve been married just four years—had, up to this point, been working at Aubrey’s family’s lumber business. When they knew Brenda was thinking of retirement, they started talking with her about the possibility of purchasing the building and the business and then “everything fell into place,” said Riah.
“She was very supportive,” Riah continued, adding that Brenda’s commitment to community service was “huge. She’s just so giving, really.”
So with the paperwork underway and an almost-guaranteed customer base—at least to start—the couple began thinking about how best to put their own stamp on the former Nature’s Valley Natural Food Store. They both come from households in which self- sufficiency and an entrepreneurial spirit were important, and believe in buying regionally/locally as much as possible. They have a big garden and raise their own meat. Those kinds of philosophies have been a driving force in how they’re making this venture a successful reality.
“I grew up on a little homestead,” Riah said. “Mom and Dad taught us about reading labels. We were surrounded by animals. All of my existence has been around natural foods. It’s made it very real in our adult lives.”
Aubrey stressed the importance of buying local and said there is not so much a need for organic certification if you know where your food comes from. Local and regional offerings at the store are designated with a “local” sticker to help customers make the most informed choices.
“It gives the buyer more power, I guess,” said Riah.
What sorts of things will you find at Shady Grove Natural Market? There are gluten-free flours and baking mixes from Sayre (Aubrey can’t eat wheat, so the gluten-free products are some of his favorites), Thad Compton’s locally roasted Fair Trade coffees, loose leaf teas, bulk foods like oats, rice, quinoa, and beans, yummy cheeses, certified raw milk, kombucha (it’s sooo good!), locally made Human Nature skin and body products, an array of vitamins and supplements, books, handcrafted jewelry, and even a section with shaving supplies and other men’s products (“I’ve got to get some more fun stuff for guys,” said Riah.). Aubrey is particularly enthusiastic about offering more fresh produce and home-brewing supplies.
“We found a place in New Jersey that was very helpful, and so they’re shipping us an order,” he said, adding that there seem to be quite a few folks in the area brewing not only beer but fruit wines, and he hopes to be able to provide them with yeasts and other products for those projects. In addition to continuing full-time at the Irion family lumber business, he has also been the go-to man at Shady Grove Natural Market for the business’s logo, bookkeeping, building renovations, and coffee-grinder refurbishment.
“He’s the man behind the curtain,” said his mother-in-law, Bridgette Markell, who works part-time in the store. The Irions have between them an eclectic background in a variety of experiences. What has been most beneficial so far in this endeavor?
“Working for Dad’s business has probably been most helpful—figuring out what we can do to make the business run better,” Aubrey said. He also revealed that, when he was in high school, he used to do all the grocery shopping for his family, so, at the risk of sounding sexist, he does have a unique and male perspective on the whole retail food scene. Riah said her parents always encouraged her and her siblings to be entrepreneurial, to “make things” like jewelry and soap. And to date it’s all been good. They had arranged a trip to Alaska early in the summer—part vacation and part work, as they’d been retained to play music at a wedding (they come from musical families; Aubrey plays guitar and Riah plays fiddle)—and then “hit the ground running” when they returned.
“We pretty much assumed we’d be doing this every night,” said Aubrey, looking around the shop and likely seeing everything that needs to be done. “It’s been fun. We’ve had stressful moments, but we get to hang out while we’re doing this,” Riah added. “We have people in and out [at their home], so this isn’t so different.”
The couple is hoping for a lot of customer input, so visit Shady Grove Natural Market at 144 Tioga Street in Wellsboro, at facebook.com/sgnaturalmarket, or feel free to call them at (570) 787-0555.