Lessons from Aunt GraceJun 26, 2019 05:38AM ● By J. Chambless
Harvest Market owner Bob Kleszics, center, is celebrating his 40th year in the health food industry. (Photo by Richard L. Gaw)
By Richard L. Gaw
Perhaps the largest irony of Bob Kleszics of Harvest Market in Hockessin is that he has not spent his entire life in the company of fresh produce, culinary herbs and nutritional supplements.
For a good part of his childhood, he ate the standard American diet of the 1960s and 1970s, a time when dinner tables displayed organ meats, vegetables from a can and iceberg lettuce, but the story of how Kleszics became one of the most recognizable leaders of the local organic food scene over the last 40 years is not one constructed from ironies, but by the appearance of influences.
To the young Kleszics, who spent a portion of his childhood in Ridgewood, N.J., a visit to his Aunt Grace’s home in northern New Jersey was the promise of a temporary break from the rich, fatty foods his English mother would serve. Instead, Aunt Grace’s dinner table would feature brightly-colored chopped salads and fresh vegetables, and the attention she paid to healthy food options did not end there.
“My Aunt Grace was an early reader of Prevention and Organic Gardening magazines, at a time when people were just beginning to incorporate healthier options into their diets,” Kleszics said. “I began to read through them, and everything just started to make sense to me.”
His family moved to Dover when Kleszics was in eighth grade, and by the time he reached high school, his early interest in organic foods had taken root. While he took jobs flipping burgers and frying fries at the local Woolworth’s and Friendly’s, Kleszics frequented a nearby GNC, where he purchased fresh-ground peanut butter and vitamins. Soon after, he received the book “Let’s Eat Right to Keep Fit,” by Adelle Davis, originally published in 1954.
“ In high school, my friends called me 'Mr. C,' because I would take my vitamins to school with me, and have them during my lunch,” Kleszics said. “I also taught myself to make my own yogurt, bread and bagels, but then, my only real exposure to healthy eating had been through my Aunt Grace, GNC and Prevention magazine.”
The key period of Kleszics’ formal introduction into the organic food industry came at a time when anyone professing the benefits of a healthy and sustainable diet was considered part of the counterculture, stereotyped in the form of long hair in tie dyed shirts, slurping on wheat grass juice and pounding down barley soup and brown rice.
To Kleszics, however, the “Hippies” were the open corridor to a world he had up to that point embraced in near secret, and by the time he entered the University of Delaware as an anthropology major in 1976, there they were, establishing the Newark Food Co-op, which was originally located on Haight Street.
Between his junior and senior years, Kleszics took a winter session course called Field Methods in Anthropology, which required him to study a particular group over the course of several weeks.
It was a no-brainer; he chose to study the staff at the Newark Food Co-Op. Every aisle seemed to burst with freshness and every ingredient or product on every shelf had its own story, one that every employee knew well.
In 1979, he took a job there. He took over the store’s produce department one year later, and eventually became its main buyer, assistant manager, head manager and board member.
He stayed at the Newark Food Co-Op for 16 years.
“I had my private food awakening first, and then had my counterculture questions answered soon after joining the Co-Op, and nearly from the start, it all started to make sense to me,” he said. “I began to learn that mass food distribution was coming from a system that wants to homogenize everything for maximum profit, at the detriment sometimes of people and the environment. The entire modern food system, I began to find, was littered with unintended consequences.”
Soon after deciding to leave the Co-Op to devote his time to being a stay-at-home father to his young son, he was approached by a fellow board member about the possibility of partnering on a new venture: establishing a new organic food store in Delaware. Yes, he said, but where? Kleszics pored through as much demographic information as he could find. He saw that Hockessin had the second-highest income and the highest education level of any town in the state – but no dedicated natural food store.
Harvest Market Natural Foods opened in Hockessin in 1995, temporarily in the Lantana Square Shopping Center and soon after, locating to Old Lancaster Pike until moving to its current location on Lancaster Pike in 2005.
While the store is partly defined by its row after row of organic and local fresh produce, grass-fed meats, nutritional supplements and personal care products, the real persona of Harvest Market is found in its staff, which has grown from two employees in 1995 -- Kleszics and his former business partner – to 62 employees today, who include department managers, kitchen managers, a marketing team and Lydia Sadauskas, the store's human resource director, who came to the Harvest Market from Lancaster Farm Fresh Co-op and Kimberton Natural Foods.
“The number one compliment we receive from our customers – even more important than the quality of the products we stock – is the friendliness and helpfulness of our staff,” said Kleszics, who regularly sends his staff around the country to attend management training and nutritional seminars.“Our customer service is all encompassing. We treat our customers, our farmers, our co-workers, our delivery people – everybody – with the same respect and understanding.”
“During every interaction with customers, we get an opportunity to talk about the farmers and producers that we interact with,” said Holly Tyson, communications coordinator. “We take pride in serving as a point of education in the community, and people have come to respect our opinions. And, like our customers, we’re always learning, and when we don’t know the answers, we will look it up or ask someone on staff who knows the answers.”
Very often, Kleszics is that go-to resource for the Harvest Market staff. Laura Henderson, who has worked at the Harvest Market for the past three years, recalled the time when an organic dairy company pitched the idea of selling its milk at the store.
“They sent us some information about the fact that their cows were grass fed, and that the company treated their animals so well,” Henderson said. “Then I watched Bob go on Google Maps and look at the satellite image of the farm. He looked at the screen and told us, ‘These are the pastures where these cows that are supposed to be grazing. Look at how little room they have. And I see no cows in this picture.’”
“Bob gives us a sense of confidence in knowing about the products we carry, and in the choices we provide,” said produce manager Laury Moran. “It’s a constant absorption of information about seasonal produce, and how and why things grow. He is an encyclopedia of knowledge, and we go to him before we go to the web, and for people of my generation who go to the web first for everything we need to know, that says a lot about the knowledge that Bob has.”
At Harvest Market, it’s become more than just the nourishing, the healthy and the sustainable; it’s become convenient, as well. In 2013, the store opened its Harvest Market Kitchen, and ever since, it’s been a daily showcase of soups, salads, sandwiches sides and baked goods and desserts, all made from scratch with the same ingredients available throughout the rest of the store.
Like nearly every one of the 3,500 natural health food stores in the United States, Harvest Market does business in the wedge that divides the traditional, Western-based approach to health and the Eastern-influence of holistic, natural healing. Kleszics feels that while traditional medication is vital in the treatment of some diseases, they have contributed to the great cultural divide that looks at health as “disease management” instead of “preventive management.”
“At the core of this debate is ‘Is the health of the American people going to improve?’” Kleszics said. “People have choices, and what's missing is that Americans aren’t being exposed to those choices as easily as they should be. I was fortunate to be given the materials at a very young age to get me thinking about choices. I ate chopped salads from my Aunt Grace and I read books and I continue to experiment on alternatives.
Kleszics said the alternative is slowly becoming the norm.
“I see people becoming more interested in natural foods, and in that, I am beginning to see that there’s a growing allowance of space for the independent, natural food industry, and while it’s been great to see large supermarkets beginning to stock more and more natural food, who is there among those aisles who can readily answer the questions that they may have?”
In June, Kleszics received a Service to the Industry Award at the Independent Natural Foods Retailers Association’s (INFRA) national conference in Minneapolis, given annually to a store, individual or company who is doing outstanding work that is important to the independent natural food retail industry.
In her nomination letter to the INFRA Board of Directors, Kleszics’ wife and business partner Karen Ashley – who is also the Vice President and Finance Director at Harvest Market -- wrote, “Like many of his INFRA peers, Bob bootstrapped the operation, bought used equipment at auction and lived in a storage warehouse next to the store without a shower while developing the business.
“As Bob brought organic and local foods to the Hockessin community, he developed long-standing relationships of trust and transparency with growers and producers, and a reputation for his commitment to outstanding product quality, fairness and honesty with customers and employees.”
“Bob cares more about quality than any shop owner I have ever known,” Henderson said. “The reason why Harvest Market always has excellent produce is because Bob is poring through it to make sure that everything is top-notch. We have very high standards for everything that comes into this store. It’s attributed to Bob’s research and his desire to provide quality with great service.”
In her letter to INFRA, Ashley wrote that while Harvest Market has grown considerably since its humble beginnings, her husband has achieved something “even more valuable over the last 40 years: the confidence and support of the community members who have embraced a better way of life, for themselves, their families, and the future of our planet.”
Harvest Market's mission statement at their website is simple:
Harvest Market provides our community with the highest quality, most nourishing foods and related products available while conducting our business in socially responsible ways that are both sustainable and rewarding for our customers, our employees, our producers and our environment.
“Everything about why we decided to open Harvest Market, and what continues to motivate everyone here, is in that statement,” Kleszics said. “I came across the phrase 'Right Livelihood' several years ago, and since then, that's what I hold myself to – that what I am doing makes a difference in the lives of every stakeholder we have – our staff, our customers, our producers, the environment and the community.”
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].