A walk on the wild side

Wild Oats has been a beacon for healthy living for over thirty years. Here, Natural Products editor Jim Manson talks with the store’s founder, Mike Abrahams, about how his own life experiences – and unconventional career path – directly shaped the Wild Oats story

When I ask Mike Abrahams if he thinks his career trajectory has been a little unusual, he knows where the question is leading. “Trajectory is probably a nice for word for it,” he says. That’s because the last job Abrahams was doing before tumbling into the health food trade was in structural dynamics, working on spaceflight at the European Space Agency in Holland, back in the late 1970s. Unable to resist the joke, he tells me: “When people said to me ‘it’s not rocket science’, I was one of the few people who could say, well, actually it is.”

It was, he recalls, a glamorous life; well paid, and with lots of opportunity for travel. A couple of days into one skiing holiday, Abrahams promptly went down with flu. He wasn’t to know that this unwelcome but otherwise prosaic incident would launch him onto a new and very different path.

Mike grab 3“One of the women in our skiing group just turned round to me and said ‘you’re making yourself ill, you can make yourself better’. She was absolutely convinced that, with a few adjustments to my diet, I’d be back on feet in no time. I thought, I’m going to go with this, and she gave me some very specific nutritional advice – ‘eat these beans, those vegetables, avoid meat and milk products’ – along with a shiatsu massage and some very intense reflexology, and I was back on the slopes and skiing again.”

But within days of returning to Holland, the flu was back. This time Abrahams was determined to deal with the root of the problem. “Being an engineer rather than a scientist I didn’t think about it, I just went about experimenting. Very quickly I had cleared out my cupboards and replaced the contents with aduki beans, brown rice and seaweed and booked myself onto a whole lot of macrobiotic cookery classes.

“But I knew I had to do it properly and within about six months I realised it was working. The multiple allergies I had suffered from, and a bunch of other health issues, had all gone.” All that jet-setting meant that Abrahams was also able to add to, and refine, his growing nutritional knowledge as travelled from country to country.

Socially, however, matters had become a bit tricky. “I’d pretty much lost all my friends at the time, as none of them wanted to eat what I was eating, and I wasn’t in the mood for compromising!” This might have been the trigger for the challenge that Abrahams’ girlfriend, Loes, would suddenly set. “She said to me one day, ‘I’m going to change my diet to yours and prove there’s nothing in it!’. True enough, making those changes completely resolved some long-standing hair and skin problems and she was sold on it. So we both became health nuts, macro neurotics! More seriously, this new thinking became a central part of our lives.”

These lifestyle changes coincided with some less welcome events at work. “At the time I’d been moving up through the organisation and everything was becoming more politicised. I hated it.” A trip to England to visit friends in Bristol, and a chance discussion in a small deli in Bristol’s Clifton Down district, would be the catalyst for another life-changing development.

“I was talking to the owner of the deli about the difficulty of finding really good food. He in turn told me about his difficulty in finding enough people who wanted to buy it! He was selling the shop. I said, ‘OK, how much do you want for it?’, he named a price, and I said ‘I’ll have it’.

“I was talking to the owner of the deli about the difficulty of finding really good food. He in turn told me about his difficulty in finding enough people who wanted to buy it!”

“That was it. I suddenly had this little shop. So I phoned in my resignation in on Monday and in June 1980 I was up and running in two little rooms. Then it hit me that we’d taken on a dilapidated basement of a grade II listed building. It was a bare floorboards, sacks on the floor set up, finished off with some inexpertly made shelving. It was pretty ramshackle. So I closed the shop. I stripped it out, redesigned the layout and pushed it back into the kitchen. We were open for business on 1 January 1981.”

Mike grab 2 copyWhen Mike and Loes opened Wild Oats it was very much a wholefood store. “It sold all the things followers of a macrobiotic diet were eating – brown rice , all the seaweeds, pulses – peas, beans, lentils, a much bigger selection than you’d see now.

“Back then I was convinced that food supplements were a con and that as long as you had a good quality macrobiotic diet you’d be fine. But that view would change over the following few years. I realized that some health issues weren’t being resolved by diet alone. Some of the people I knew who were eating well, weren’t fine!”

But Abrahams’ first problem was a more immediate one. “Basically, there was no one buying anything we had! So we decided to convert one of the two rooms into a restaurant – strictly no sugar, no white four, nothing. And what we found was that if you offered people really nice food they become instantly interested, so we realized that if you could seduce people with the things they knew you could win them over to the healthier stuff – so we introduced white flour and sugar and milk into some of the food we sold.”

Looking back, Abrahams admits he was on a steep learning curve in those early days. “I now realize I came into it with the supreme confidence that is born out of total ignorance! It really was seat of the pants stuff – basically, I knew nothing!

“A few years later, I was given a video commissioned by one of the wholesalers. It showed how not to retail. It was like holding a mirror up to our shop – we were making every mistake in the book!”

Abrahams recalls the great idea they had to open a separate restaurant, in a property they took on Whiteladies Road. “We were cooking Indonesian, Thai and Indian food. Unfortunately, the vegetarians in Bristol came in looking for quiche and nut roast.” Despite a valiant effort, the restaurant came and went.

1987 was a milestone year for Wild Oats. It was the year that Abrahams had his food supplements epiphany. “I’d been suffering from hyperglycaemia. – a pre-diabetic situation. And one day I got talking with Skye Lininger, then at FSC, and he introduced me to the concept of chromium supplementation as a nutrient for controlling blood sugar. Almost overnight I was feeling better and my mood swings had stopped – a relief to everybody! I was blown away by how just one nutrient could make such a difference.

“It got me asking lots of questions and doing some experimenting. And that led on to us to stocking a small range of supplements. I had been won over by personal experience. And to begin with I would only stock things I’d researched myself.”

“I had been won over by personal experience. And to begin with I would only stock things I’d researched myself”

In the same year the building next door became available. “I knew we needed more space, so I bought the building. It effectively doubled the size of the shop.”

More health issues would, first, hinder the business, then re-shape it. “I developed a very nasty recurrent type of colitis, which hospitalized me and meant that Loes had to take over for quite a while. The experience really concentrated the mind and made me realize that I needed to properly understand how to heal myself. That fed through to an expanded supplements and remedies part of the shop – although it also convinced me, more than ever, that a diet based around macrobiotics was the right way to go.”

With the extra selling space, Wild Oats has been able to expand into natural skincare and cosmetics, and green household products. Its natural and organic food offer is formidable too, and carefully edited so that ‘good choices’ are already made for customers. All in all there are some 6,500 individual lines from 220 suppliers in a selling area of 1100sq ft. It makes for some complex logistics, demanding that the store’s five departmental managers spend a couple of days a week creating, or checking orders in

But it’s that comprehensive product offer, combined with small store convenience – and Mike Abrahams’ sheer passion for all things natural and organic – that has made Wild Oats such a popular fixture. But it takes a whole team to make the operation work. “None of this would be possible without a great team. And this team seems to gel by osmosis. There’s such a great attitude and energy. The team are the interface between the shop and customer. They’re great performers who really understand that the customer is there to be entertained.”

Take the Wild Oats store tour

As you walk in through the main door you first pass the tills (three, networked to the store’s computer system) and the main counter. It’s light, welcoming and somehow manages to feel spacious. It’s also where local artisan bread – from Hobbs House – is displayed, along with takeway foods and fresh produce in season. Almost everything is sourced from local businesses and suppliers. 

Next up it’s a well-selected wine selection, then soft drinks and chilled dairy products. On the facing side are the main chiller cabinets – recently installed, they feature modern, energy efficient sliding doors. Just in front of the chillers is a dedicated chocolate section.

“This area of the store is all about seducing the customers with lots of things they are comfortable with – except that the quality is much higher,” says Abrahams.

As you move deeper into the store you come to frozen foods, and a book shelf feature. “The special offer at the moment is Be Your Own Nutritionist by George Copper – it’s the book I’d love to have written myself!” Then you’re into an extensive remedies and beauty and section. Dr Hauschka is the flagship beauty brand, but the bay has a full spectrum of products from premium to budget. Local Bristol brand Yaoh is popular and proof that the ‘buy local’ approach extends beyond food. “Think ‘beauty miles” or ‘health miles’, says Abrahams name-checking another Bristol brand, Pukka.

Located at the back of the store in the remedies and supplements area is Wild Oats’ advice desk. “We found that customers are full of questions. What can I use this for? What’s in it? Why does it work? So it became clear that what we needed was an advice point where people could come with their questions – it’s an incredibly popular feature of the shop.”

He adds: “If we don’t think we can provide a customer with the right product for them, quite often we’ll send them away without a product. We’re not here to sell, sell, sell. We also give out lots of diet sheets – we have what we call a ‘go for’ rather than ‘avoid’ approach.”

“If we don’t think we can provide a customer with the right product for them, quite often we’ll send them away without a product. We’re not here to sell, sell, sell”

Taking a right hand turn at the front of the store takes you into ambient foods. Superfoods are first up. “We try to keep up and give people what they’re asking for. To help encourage experimentation, Wild Oats has a ‘try and see if it works for you’ policy. If it doesn’t, you’ll get your money back. Most suppliers are happy to back the store up with their own no quibble guarantee. The advantage, says Abrahams, is “you take all the risk away fro, the customer”.

General grocery is bristling with familiar natural and organic brands, and that leads on to green and household products – everything from household cleaners to nappies to natural firelighters, via “some real basics, like vinegar and bicarbonate of soda”. There’s an impressive Ecover refill station. “We were one of the first in the country to offer it. It goes extremely well. We’ll often go through two or three cases of a particular product in a day.” Wild Oats also offers a good range of Faith in Nature refills, an increasingly popular option “and a great marketing tool for Faith”.

Go down a few steps (this where things start to become labyrinthine) and you’re in the cooking ingredients area. There’s a thriving baking section where specialist products like almond flour, quinoa flour and chick pea flour do well, along with all the conventional flours, pectin and lemon juice and dried fruit. Opposite you’ll find herbs and spices and then Wild Oats’ comprehensive teas section.

Finally, in the store’s deepest recesses, you come to the room known as the granary. The real gem here is the self-service section where you can help yourself to as little, or as much, of 70 different products – from nuts and seeds, to mueslis and pulses. Abrahams designed the bin system himself based on a design he’d seen in Holland in the 1970s. “It’s old school, but it works and it’s popular. The advantage is that a student can come in and buy 10p worth of nuts, or a large quantity – 5kg if they want – to save money on the pre-pack prices”. And for those who like the convenience of pre-packs, there’s a wide selection.

Wild Oats is itself a real gem. It has evolved and renewed itself over the years – experimenting and researching new ideas are in its DNA – but it also allows the best traditions of wholefood and health food retailing to thrive. It’s been designed to be easy to shop in, but it will also you take you on a journey that will show you how to live well, shop ethically and stay healthy.

Thinking aloud – opportunities, threats and some top tips!

Mike Abrahams shares his thoughts on future opportunities – and threats – for natural products retailers, and offers some top tips.

Competition is always going to be there. If you’re a successful shop there will always be others who want a piece of the action and will move into the territory. You have to keep your edge, listen to customers, see what’s becoming available, spot new opportunities.

We’re pioneering, we take risks. Sometimes you can go into a partnership with a supplier, and they’ll share the risk.

We always aim to keep the store looking fresh, clean and informed.

Over the last three years there have been at least 10 different diets. But a lot of dietary advice hasn’t changed one jot! It’s just as valid now as it ever was.

Some things don’t change. And you don’t always need to change to be ahead of the market

“Some things don’t change. And you don’t always need to change to be ahead of the market”

Take chances and introduce new products. It’s one of the independent’s key points of difference. Accept that there’s a critical mas of popularity, at which point a product will move into the supermarkets. That’s life.

Know your products inside out. Don’t take manufacturers’ specs for granted. Ask them questions. Make absolutely sure you know what you’re selling, why you’re selling it, and what benefit it gives to the customer. It has to have benefit for the customer.

There’s a growing awareness that the reason so many people are becoming ill and filling up the NHS is because of the stuff they put into their faces – I wouldn’t deign to call it food. That’s a great opportunity for us.

It means that more and more people are questioning their food. If you have the answers to their questions you can sell the products.

The other big opportunity is the way it is so easy nowadays to to get information out to your customers, through facebook and so on. We’ve invested in that. And it’s worked. It’s completely turned around a decline in customers. In the face of all the competition we have, we’re increasing customer numbers by the week.

Social media works best when you’re telling stories. We always get the biggest response when we tell a story, involving real people, and which might also reference a product too – rather than, saying ‘today we’ve got this product at half price’.