Jacksonville native, Aaron Gottlieb, launched his visionary business 21 years ago.
Before the proliferation of national chains in the industry, Gottlieb, now 42, and his wife, Erica, saw the need for a natural and organic foods supermarket.
They launched Native Sun Natural Foods in a small Mandarin location.
Since then, they more than doubled the size of that San Jose Boulevard store, opened a Baymeadows supermarket and two years ago expanded to Jacksonville Beach. Native Sun now has about 160 employees.
As a privately held company, it does not publicly disclose sales.
You were a college student when you decided to open a natural and organic foods market. Why?
I grew up with the average American diet. My father worked all day and my mother would make dinner or pick dinner up, and we became a fast-food family.
When I got into college, I had peaked at 220 pounds and I looked in the mirror and said, “I need to change my lifestyle.”
I found a job at a natural foods store and started looking into a quality-of-food lifestyle. At the time I had decided to go vegan, which is consuming no animal products. Just by making that leap, I dropped 80 pounds.
How was it accepted in Jacksonville?
There were small natural foods stores serving the community and doing a great job, but there was nobody as a grocer focused on organic ingredients.
Through customer service, we were accepted fairly quickly and we developed a strong core.
Twenty years later, I would tell you the majority of that core still shops at our locations.
It was a lot of hard work to educate people, listen to their needs and start teaching them all the different approaches they could take to their own diet.
They’d go to their doctor, find out what was wrong with their health and then ask what foods we have that could accommodate them.
We were quickly embraced by the Mayo Clinic and quite a few of the other hospitals in the region who realized we were not poisoning the well, we were expanding the options.
There has been a proliferation of natural food stores. What is your strategy to compete with the national chains?
Getting to know your competitors is a good thing. It’s great to see natural food expanding. I’m thrilled from a health perspective that people have access to healthier options.
What I’m dismayed about is the lack of clarity about what is actually healthy. The fact that we are privately owned, and we can be transparent, is a great asset for us. It keeps us nimble.
There’s a lot of support for local businesses in Jacksonville. We were here creating a market before these chains were.
The more that we get innovative and the more that we pay attention to the customers’ needs and what they’re really asking for in the changing market, the more success we have.
Were there any surprises when you opened your stores?
I’m always in disbelief that people assume we are more expensive because we’re a local independent grocer.
We have a lot of contacts in the industry and we have always been a value-priced company.
When I look at the prices at the competitors opening up, or the longstanding businesses that have been in town, successful, on the items that are important to people, we are always the price leader.
You do a lot of research on what you carry. How do you do that?
We have a full research department. We wait until we can guarantee the product is meeting our standards.
While it’s a long process, we keep putting new measures in so we can be first to market while also ensuring the safety and transparency to our customers.
Did you envision Native Sun getting as big as it has? Will it get bigger?
One of the things my father taught me about business was try to keep everything in one building, because you have the ability to control it. I wish it worked for retail grocery, but it doesn’t.
I remember having seven employees and thinking, “Man, I don’t know if I can handle this.”
My wife and I originally thought one store would be what we were working toward.
When I decided to open up the second store, I realized this is going to be a journey. After experiencing running two locations, I said, “This is not for me.”
Fast forward to two years ago and I go, “I think I can run up to five.” I put everything in place and learned some hard lessons. I was ready for three.
We have been working with our team to provide processes to keep the quality as our customers expect it, to deliver new experiences and also to give a good employee experience.
Do you plan more stores?
Yes. We have some work to do to maximize the efficiencies so we know that we can be nimble, but we’re about two years into the work and feel really good about it.
We will be reviewing what the next stores look like in the near future.
Your father is Mel Gottlieb, and he has been running Martin Gottlieb & Associates, a medical billing company that he took over after your brother, Marty, passed away. What did you learn from your father, who recently retired? And continue to learn?
I do continue to learn from him. He never had the ability to work with me because he didn’t see the connection between natural foods and his business experience.
As we grew, he started to find the alignments and one day he saw me a little overworked in a planning session and he goes, “What are you doing? Let me show you where I’m good at business.”
He started expressing the needs for some of the procedures that I hadn’t put in place to scale the business without sacrificing quality.
He works with me about one day a week to come in and just look at our processes from an outsider’s point of view and tell me where he sees a better way to align our resources.
I moved back to Jacksonville because my father said, “If you want any advice and help in the business realm, I want you to be in my backyard, because I want to live as close to my family as possible.”
I honored that and I’m so blessed that I made the decision to move back and be around my parents.
They’re constantly teaching me. I look at their health and I’ve realized how much I’ve taught them as well. Their lifestyle problems have been solved through eating habits being changed, through exercise habits and also learning to calm their minds.
The other things that I’ve learned are to be honest, not accept anybody in your world who isn’t going to be honest with you and the importance of loyalty.
There are lessons to learn for giving people a chance. If you can trust them, you should always continue to explore how far you can take your relationship.
Talk about growing up in Jacksonville.
I was one of those naysayers who couldn’t wait to move away to a big city.
Growing up, I went to Douglas Anderson School of the Arts. I was a theater major, and I spent a lot of time in San Marco, Riverside and the Beaches.
I enjoyed what I could out of it, but I always thought that there was more.
I had an older brother and a younger sister. My brother, Marty, would share with me what clubs were available and at the time there was a club called Einstein a Go-Go, where we were able to cut loose and not be in a bar atmosphere, but see a lot of great music.
I moved away to Emory University in Atlanta. The first thing I realized was I was a number and I didn’t enjoy the congestion of a large city.
When my father talked to me about moving back for business, I found what I loved about Jacksonville.
It’s one of the most beautiful cities, it is growing and it’s paying attention to larger markets, but taking what’s good and trying to leave as much of the bad behind.
The cost of living is lower than the average large city and the entertainment and the restaurants are definitely increasing.
What is your advice for city leaders?
I’ve thought a lot about Jacksonville and the way the city is growing up. One thing that I find I struggle with is the city supporting local businesses versus how they support corporate entities moving into the market.
If local businesses had the opportunities and the know-how to gain the services that larger corporations have, I think you would see a lot of internal growth.
So the first thing I’d like to see is the support that I see when a large chain comes in and they’re offered tax breaks or parking, or specific rights that all of us didn’t know were rights, and really return those back to the community.
The second thing that we need to focus on is what community is. Jacksonville is a large piece of land and we don’t really have strong community as a city. We have strong communities and that’s plural.
We need to find the bridge that brings us all together and spend more time figuring out how we can make the city better.
What does your family do for fun?
With two children that are eight years apart, we do a lot of stuff separately and support our children in all of their passions and loves.
We’re an outdoors family. We do a lot of kayaking, a lot of running. My son plays soccer. Theater, for my daughter who followed in my footsteps, is one of the things that we try to focus on.
Jacksonville has a lot of great parks, so my wife and I try to spend a lot of time letting them explore what the city has to offer.
Do you see either of the children joining the family business?
I can’t predict 20 years from now, but I can say that my son has a passion for being a leader, has a passion for food and when I mentioned it to him — he is 8 — he is very excited at the thought of running Native Sun one day.
I have a feeling my daughter will go in the area of journalism. I can see the writing on the wall.
So, you see Native Sun as a long-term opportunity for everyone.
Aaron Gottlieb, 42
Owner, Native Sun Natural Food Markets
Emory University, B.A., 1995
Founded Native Sun 21 years ago
Kayaking, running, cycling, reading and family time
Wife Erica, daughter Edyn, 16, and son Asher, 9.
Current: Independent Natural Foods Association board member Previous: South East Natural Products Association board member and search committee for executive director of the Jacksonville Jewish Center
Best advice received
Hire people that are smarter than you. It’s much easier to direct a team toward success when they all have something valuable to add to the company. It is difficult to generate fresh ideas from a team that doesn’t have a clear understanding and experience.
Biggest surprise in your career
Organic foods moving into the mainstream channels. Our industry started as a grassroots movement and I don’t think anyone expected its rapid growth.
I am happy to see healthier foods becoming more accessible to all consumers.
With that said, it does come at a cost, finding stores that are focused on the consumer’s expectation vs. sales has become difficult.
Native Sun still stands out among the competitors that have moved into our market by maintaining a product selection that is focused on organic and non-GMO foods, freshness and great flavor.
Spark of wisdom to share
Leading and managing are not the same. If you want to be a successful leader, you must continue to educate yourself on the best ways to communicate, motivate and help others be the best they can be.
This does not come from knowing how to do a job. This comes from the desire to be a leader.
One decision you would take back
Trying to assume two very different leadership roles in the company at the same time. Each one was a full-time job. The lackluster results have a negative effect on the whole team.
A decision you wish you had made
To buy the property adjacent to our Baymeadows Road location. I had a personal crisis and missed an opportunity to purchase land that would have given Native Sun additional parking.