Mastel’s Health Foods, St. Paul, MN
An Island in a Storm: Mastel’s Health Foods provides a weary community reassurance and health.
When asked to comment about her employer, Elizabeth Wilhelm, a sales associate with Mastel’s—Vitamin Retailer’s 2021 Retailer of the Year—made a special note to explain that the store’s garden is a great place to hang out.
Located in the store’s backyard, “It’s been tended to over the years by different staff members, but Roberta [Benson, sales associate, buyer, gardener and “handy man”] has been the star gardener these last two years and it looks beautiful! My favorite plants are our lady’s mantle, the giant lovage … and rocket (arugula) for snacking. There’s also a hammock for lunch breaks.”
Wilhelm added that the store’s staff fostered a “caterpillar-turned-chrysalis-turned-monarch butterfly” at the beginning of the summer and released the transformed insect in the garden. “I like to think she visits, as there is plenty of milkweed to be enjoyed!”
Wilhelm’s garden story is an apt analogy for the retailer’s place in the community. For Minnesota’s Twin Cities, Mastel’s has also provided a nurturing place for its hurting residents in need of growth and release. While dealing with the overwhelming responsibilities of adjusting to pandemic life and business practices, the store’s staff has guided through, literally in the middle of, a combustible scene of civil unrest.
Located on St. Clare Avenue in St. Paul, the store is roughly nine miles away from the spot where George Floyd was arrested and killed in May 2020. Called the “Minneapolis uprising,” the resulting protests spilled over into St. Paul and quickly inspired a global protest movement against police brutality and racial inequality. Over a three-night period, the Twin Cities also sustained extraordinary damage from rioting and looting.
Lauren Gaffney, Mastel’s general manager, recounted the monumental events of the past year. “As the breadth of the pandemic became clear in the beginning of March 2020 we looked to our fellow businesses and tried to make the best decisions for protecting ourselves and our customers from the coronavirus,” she said.
Alina Hornfeldt, marketing manager, said, “The very earliest beginning of the pandemic saw record breaking levels of customers coming through the doors, panic buying everything they could get. It’s hard to think back now since so much has changed so quickly, but people were really scared.” On March 16, Gaffney said the store closed to the public and began offering a curbside pickup model for shopping, as well as mail orders (which it always offered). “We thought about trying to make an online ordering option work, but ultimately decided we would concentrate our efforts on the customers that were calling and coming to the door. Soon we were back to our regular operating hours yet still curbside.”
And then on Monday, May 25, George Floyd was murdered by the police in Minneapolis. “We watched as the uprising began over the next few days, and it became clear that the protests had turned to rioting and looting,” Gaffney said. “By Thursday, businesses along the main commercial strip in St. Paul were being burned down and we didn’t know how far the damage was going to spread. There was heavy smoke in the air as I drove into work Friday morning, past randomly charred buildings and so much broken glass. The three of us who were here that morning agreed—we needed to secure the building and get home safely. I was able to find some good Samaritans who drove half an hour just to find plywood that was still available, and we boarded up the front of the store. We finished right as the 7 p.m. curfew was called. I made the decision to stay closed through the weekend, to give our people a chance to be with their communities.”
Other retailers did the same. “So many grocery stores were closed that food started to become scarce for many people very quickly,” Gaffney said. “Even though we only carry limited grocery items, I came in over the weekend while we were closed and emptied our cooler and freezer with all the eggs, ground beef, cookies—anything I could think of for the food distribution centers that were popping up all over the city. Over the next weeks and months, we were able to provide donations several times to the herbal medics that were aiding the ongoing protests and demonstrations. It was a life-changing, historic moment to live through, and we are here to support all of the work that still needs to be done.”
“The most challenging (and rewarding) for me,” said Wilhem, “has been placating fears that some customers express about the pandemic and the world in general. Also helping people manage their stress and anxiety with herbs and lifestyle choices; some feel like they have nowhere else to turn and Mastel’s has been a steady, reputable presence in the area for so many years.”
Indeed, the store has been a longstanding presence in the Twin Cities. Independently owned and operated since 1968, the business began because of the founder, John Mastel’s, own struggle.
“John opened the store after spending almost two months very ill in the hospital,” Gaffney noted. “He was given a copy of Prevention magazine and that marked the turning point in his life and health. He rented a small storefront, consigned some product from another health food store in Minneapolis, and Mastel’s Health Foods was born. He kept his day job at the state highway department, and in the evenings would come to the store to learn with and educate his customers.”
And since, the store has evolved. Mastel, although still the store owner, has handed over the reins to the current staff.
Carolyn Rush, inventory control specialist, recalled that when she first started working at Mastel’s in 1992, there were few, if any, places in town selling classic, old school “health food” items, such as bee pollen, wheat germ, yogurt starter and brewer’s yeast, in addition to cutting-edge foods, such as frozen wheatgrass juice, almond butter and gluten-free bread. “Since these items are now sold at truck stops and hardware stores, we have shifted our focus to supplements.
“Before the internet,” she added, we were also a source of information, and had a huge book section, plus filing cabinets full of xeroxed magazine articles covering a variety of topics and health concerns. Our customer base has also shifted over the years, from hardcore, fringe-dwelling visionaries who were years ahead of the pack to now absolutely every type of person under the sun.”
According to Gaffney, the store’s mission statement is to provide a safe and welcoming environment in order to assist customers in achieving their health goals through education, guaranteed high-quality supplements and natural products.
“We work mostly one-on-one with the majority of people who come through our door, whether that is to catch up with a regular customer, or to show a new person around the store,” she said. “From a practical standpoint, the amount of product in a relatively small store can be hard to navigate, no matter how neatly it is organized, and of course things move around from time to time. But more often, a simple question turns to a deeper discussion, getting to understand why someone might want a certain supplement, and how best to resolve an issue, or promote a certain feeling—while being DSHEA (Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994) compliant, of course.”
Store Profit and Details
Regarding store earnings, Gaffney noted that it’s difficult to have a comparison of profit in the past few years “with 2019 being a banner year as interest in CBD peaked, then fell off somewhat, and then the pandemic buying shifts. The store saw record breaking days ($10K+, average is more like $5K/day) at the beginning of March, followed by six months of restricted hours/curbside only. We are about 80 percent supplements, 8 percent HABA, 8 percent food—mostly grab-and-go snacks, meat, nuts and eggs, 4 percent household and miscellaneous. We are on track to hit $1.8 million in sales this year,” she said.
The space has remained much as it is now for the past 20 years, and has a staff of 14, Gaffney said, with the biggest difference being that it used to have the biggest selection of health related books in the state. “But as the internet evolved, we pivoted to helping people navigate those sometimes confusing online waters,” she noted. “We have always been a destination for helping our customers find good quality information, and then helping them decide which supplement might suit them the best.”
Standing Out With Simplicity, Caring and Humor
As so many brick-and-mortar retailers have found, online retailers are Mastel’s biggest competition, offering pricing and variety that is virtually impossible to match. “We differentiate ourselves by carefully vetting all of our products and offering personalized service. It helps that our store is located in an area where people value independent, local businesses,” said Rush.
“There is a Whole Foods a mile down the road, and the Twin Cities has the highest rate of food co-ops per capita in the whole country, so there are lots of those around,” said Gaffney. She added that Mastel’s stands out from the rest based on its ability to provide one-on-one customer service to pretty much everyone who comes through the door. “We also have almost 5,000 unique SKUs packed into 800 square feet, so chances are we will have what someone is looking for, otherwise we can usually special order the item. It is not uncommon to have surrounding stores refer their customers to us when they can’t find or don’t have something.”
Sales Associate Sylvia Vandenberg-Daves pointed out that the staff is available to be knowledgeable guides in people’s health journeys, create a welcoming environment and keep the store moving by selling product. “But we also try to know our community and the wide range of resources and other places that may carry a particular product and support other small local businesses in the community whenever possible. I think our leadership does a great job of budgeting where it counts and keeping things simple where they don’t need to be complicated. For example, we have a wonderfully efficient POS system, higher-tech than many small businesses our size, but we still do our special orders on paper, write each other notes, and ask for time off on paper: simple, cheap and very efficient.”
The store provides a positive work environment, she said. “I’m a big believer in simplicity and I’ve been so impressed by how easy and streamlined our processes are. In our staff, I see a true dedication to and love of the people we serve. We have amazing leadership who truly care about their employees and show their trust and belief in us in tangible ways. At Mastel’s, I have never felt disposable or understaffed and overworked in the way you feel working at larger chains and even large, corporatized co-ops. This healthy environment for workers translates to supportive and beneficial relationships between coworkers, more passion for the work we do; for me it truly has translated into being excited to go into work and give the best of myself to this job and to our amazing customers. Mastel’s is a workplace that fosters friendships, laughter, continual learning and growth, community care, and health of body, mind, and spirit. I am truly proud and grateful beyond measure to be a part of this dynamic, hilarious, passionate and dedicated team.”
Sales associate, Ryan Creel, agreed. “Mastel’s has always provided the right amount of balance for staff members such as me. They are definitely well structured, but also have managed to balance that structured work environment with a laid back, enjoyable work atmosphere. It feels like we are a team here and are available to help each other out when life happens. Benson added, “As a store we are warm, welcoming and open hearted; as professionals we are efficient, informative, strong educators and frequently very humorous.”
Through the years, Mastel’s has been fortunate to have a variety of staff members representing various educational backgrounds, such as ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicine, herbalism, nutritional and health sciences, said Creel.
“I think it’s safe to say that those who work here at Mastel’s have a deep interest in, as well as a passion for Natural Health and Wellness. In addition to this, Mastel’s has always had policies in place that encourage and support the continual education and development of our staff member’s knowledge and understanding within these fields,” Creel added. “For example, one of the optional down time activities available for our staff members is to do research into subjects relating to health and wellness. In addition to this, employees are welcome to loan any of the books from the ‘Mastel’s Library’ selection if they wish to take them home to read. The idea is that through helping to support our staff member’s interest and knowledge in the various aspects of health and wellness they can, in turn, offer better customer service through sharing helpful knowledge and helping customers make a more well-rounded, and informed decision regarding their consumer choices. I think this is one of the major reasons why customers have been and keep coming back to Mastel’s—because they are getting valuable information which helps them to make better consumer choices, and as a result, are more likely to experience successful results with their supplement choices.”
Benson noted that the staff members at Mastel’s are highly educated in the natural health fields. “Many of us are practitioners on the side; we’ve had herbalists, nurses, nutritional therapists, body workers, ayurvedic specialists and a former owner of a natural health store. We continue learning through multiple in-person and remote trainings and it’s common to find staff with their nose in a nutrition book or in an online research article during store downtimes.
“Over the years we have had many practitioners work at Mastel’s, Gaffney explained. “At the moment we have two massage therapists, a few herbalists, and a student in an ayurvedic practitioner program. The rest of us have learned a great wealth of information in our personal lives and on the job. Downtime on the sales floor often involves in-depth conversations with co-workers sharing information, educating each other about the things we are passionate about.”
Sylvia Vandenberg-Daves, sales associate, said she had about three years of herbal medicine experience coming in. “I was very happy with the way that was reflected in my starting pay.”
Wilhelm said she has completed her Ayurvedic Health Counselor certification and will continue as a student practitioner in the fall 2021. “More customers are expressing interest in ayurveda and incorporating it into their lifestyles. Prior to working at Mastel’s, I worked in wellness in a large food co-op in the Pacific Northwest and also interned with herbalists in that region.”
“I think all of our staff are passionate about good health and are personally motivated to learn more about it,” said Sales Associate Therese Goddard. “Our customers either know this or find it out very quickly. Customers seek our input in their supplement choices and trust that the products that we have on the shelves at Mastel’s have been thoroughly vetted for quality.”
Some of the store’s top supporting suppliers are NOW, Natural Factors, Jarrow and Reliance Vitamins, according to the staff.
“One of the great things about our brands is that we can be confident in the aisles that label claims are being met, and especially in the case of patented ingredients, there is scientific evidence that backs up those claims,” Gaffney said. “It’s also a selling point when you can point out for instance, a B-Corp like Country Life, or the ISURA certification from Natural Factors, and the extensive testing and purity of a company like Nordic Naturals. Sometimes things like environmental consciousness and social awareness of a brand translates more to a customer than the nitty-gritty science of it all. We are very focused on education and knowledge here, so brands that provide trainings are the best. You can see it in the sales numbers when the staff is excited about the products. As a single location brick-and-mortar store, companies that enforce a MAP policy and don’t price gouge online will always be prioritized here.”
EuroPharma is another standout, Wilhelm added. “They are like neighbors—always at the ready with help and information. Mastel’s customers trust their products. Oregon’s Wild Harvest, Eclectic Institute, Banyan Botanicals—they are reputable and responsible. Great quality herbs and freeze-dried blends; the majority of our bulk selection comes from OWH & Banyan. The trend in less packaging and herbs as a part of one’s daily regimen are some of the ways these companies resonate with our customer’s values. NOW, Country Life because they are also some of the originals. Professional, reliable and overall great partners. They’ve been around a long time, like us.”
The store partners with Reliance Vitamins for its private label supplements. “Reliance offers top-level communication, their safety and testing standards are excellent, and the company’s fulfillment rates are above the current industry standard,” said Purchasing Manager, Michele Anderson. “Reliance offers great prices while maintaining high quality standards. We are thrilled to partner with a brand that can offer the best of both worlds to our consumers. We receive excellent feedback about our private label brand and have plans to expand the line in 2021.”
The health issues facing Mastel’s customers run the gamut, from a customer getting a probiotic to use during and following an antibiotic, to a customer supplementing with CoQ10 because they are on a statin drug, to a young woman needing an easily absorbed and non-constipating iron supplement, according to the staff.
This year, the staff has seen a lot of customers ask for help with stress and sleep health supplements, so the store responded by expanding its selection of stress/sleep category to meet a wider range of customer requests. Recently, there’s been an increase in customers wanting blood pressure and blood sugar maintenance, superfoods, information on ayurveda, and of course, immune boosters.
Eco-friendly and Best Community Practices
“At Mastel’s we have a strong commitment to the environment and sustainability,” said Benson. “For in-store we use eco-friendly soaps and cleaning products along with unbleached and post-consumer recycled paper products. Through city-wide industrial scale composting we compost as much of our paper and food waste as possible.”
The crown jewel of the store is the garden, she added. “ Behind our store we cultivate a pollinator friendly garden. In this small space we grow many perennials, flowers, fruit and herbs, both culinary and medicinal. Evening primrose, French lavender and meadowsweet are all in bloom right now. Each year we plant annual veggies for staff use. Tomatoes, arugula and peas are the usual suspects here. We also judiciously permit a sampling of common “weeds” to flourish. Many of these wild plants are examples of botanicals we sell in the store. It is a treat for staff and the occasional customer to learn about these plants. Burdock, comfrey, stinging nettle, motherwort and yellow dock are a few examples.”
While the majority of its regular customers live in a five mile radius of the store, the staff also gets customers that drive up to a couple hours to purchase specialty items. “We also have mail order customers that buy from us while they snowbird in Arizona or Florida,” Hornfeldt said. “In addition, when people move out of state, occasionally they will continue to have a phone and mail order relationship with us.
“Here in the Twin Cities, we have significant refugee populations of Somali and Hmong people, as well as immigrants from all over the world,” she continued. “We as a small independent can accommodate bringing in specialty herbs and supplements that are valuable to many different cultures.”
During the course of the social uprising, the local Target, Cub Foods, Aldi, as well as pharmacies, restaurants and retail businesses were burned to the ground or severely damaged, Hornfeldt noted. “This created an immediate need for pop-up food banks to serve our neighbors. Mastel’s was able to provide hand sanitizer, fresh eggs, meat, and other food staples at these stations as a way to support our distraught community and provide quality nourishment.”
The staff said it looks for unique, helpful, and valuable ways to serve its community. “We work with grassroots BIPOC groups, as well as established organizations such as Herbalists Without Borders to get supplies to communities in acute need,” Hornfeldt noted. “We also have an ongoing partnership with Community Driven Foodshare, a small local organization, to donate our expired and surplus supplements to local food banks. We have gotten great feedback from them that people are so excited to see natural remedies, supplements, and herbs on the shelves and available to them. It has also been an efficient way to reduce waste here at the store, which is a high priority.”
Social media has played a key role in how the store attracts a new-to -the-store, and younger, customer base, according to Hornfeldt. “Letting customers know that we have new wellness items that you can’t find anywhere else in the Midwest is key in people finding out who we are and what we do. I also use social media as a tool to connect with our brands, often finding out about new launches before even our reps do! Following trends as part of my job as marketing manager heavily relies on social media trends—keeping an eye on things that get continuously mentioned more and more, such as sea moss, NAC, etc. so we can stock up and have those items ready to go before people start coming in asking for them. Feeling out what the next big thing is going to be keeps me on my toes. Making sure that even our Google business page is kept fresh, current and exciting helps draw people in whether they are in town visiting or moved to our area.”
Goddard explained Mastel’s “C-discount” program, which began more than 20 years ago, to help customers who are battling cancer. “So many of the immune and nutritional support products that they wanted to purchase are expensive (e.g., mushroom extracts) and we offer them an everyday 15 percent discount on these supplements. The customer can sign up for a one year period, by giving us their name and address, and if they are still in treatment, they can “re-up” for this discount as needed,” she said.
There are other incentive programs like offering a free premium magazine, such as Cooks, The Sun, Mindful, The Townsend Letter, What Doctors Don’t Tell You, etc. with a purchase of $150 or more. “We also have a physical punch card or digital “points” system with Fivestars,” said Hornfeld. “When you spend $200 you receive a 15 percent discount off all regular priced items on your next purchase. We also have partnered with Minnesota Public Radio (MPR News) to sponsor their programming. This has been great to get the word out about our store while people have been tuning into the news during the pandemic, election and social justice movements. Feedback from vision impaired and blind customers has been great as a result of this partnership.”
A Time for Reflection
Hornfeldt credits flexibility and customer loyalty to the store’s success during a tumultuous year. “Our customers appreciated us greatly during this time, even offering tips, cards, and kind words,” she said. “ Staff and customer safety was our priority, and we will always be forever grateful for our community sticking with us and supporting us when it could have been easier to just shop online. Flexibility was a great strength during this past year and our staff and customers have adapted and accepted changes that sometimes had to happen very quickly. For the time being, our mask mandate has been lifted here and masks are not required. We love seeing our customers’ smiling faces! It was a difficult year, but the staff really worked hard to support each other through the tough times. It felt like we were able to make a difference in the lives of our customers, many who were elders that are high risk and isolated at home, even if it was connecting over the phone for a bit. Being an island in the storm gave people some reassurance that we would always be here, and that health and wellness shouldn’t be taken for granted.” VR