Akron’s Mustard Seed grocery chain continues to sprout

By Betty Lin-Fisher
Beacon Journal business writer

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Portrait of the leadership team of the Mustard Seed Market taken at the store on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014, in Bath Township. (back row from left) Jon Fiume, newest addition to the team, Abraham and Gabriel Nabors, sons of (front from left) founder Margaret and president Phillip Nabors. (Ed Suba Jr./Akron Beacon Journal)

When Margaret Nabors started a little shop in the Merriman Valley in 1981, selling healthy and natural foods and vitamins was not the norm.

Nabors had been working at Zardow’s, which was primarily a vitamin shop, when she told the owner she wanted to open a store and also sell natural foods. The owner told her it would never work.

“Doing natural foods in the early ’80s in Akron, Ohio — where people ate meat and potatoes — was really tough,” Nabors said. People “acted like they had dropped into Oz.”

That shop, Mustard Seed Market, now has two stores in the Montrose area of Akron and Solon, and a third under construction in the Highland Square neighborhood of Akron.

It also has announced plans to continue the family-owned businesses’ growth.

Now there’s a lot of competition in the natural foods category, from organic sections in traditional grocery stores to national organic retail stores.

That competition just validates the category and the passion for healthy living that Nabors and her family have tried to practice for years, they said.

“Our plot to change the world is working,” jokes Phillip Nabors, Margaret’s husband. “We want everyone to eat organic food.” Nabors said the grocery business is such where new stores or offerings of organic food impact Mustard Seed and others, “but against a backdrop of a growing category, we’re solidly way ahead of where we were.” The family declined to disclose sales figures for the business.

For the first eight years while the shop was in the Merriman Valley, Margaret Nabors ran the store by herself.

Phillip Nabors helped, but did not get involved in the day-to-day business until the family decided to move and build its Bath Township store in 1989.

The strip mall that now houses Mustard Seed was just being built and the Nabors were among the first tenants. Phillip Nabors, an Akron native, remembers riding horses across what is now state Route 18, from the store.

“People called us crazy to move all the way out here, but Montrose built up around us,” he said.

The company, which is owned by the Nabors and extended family, is poised to continue its growth — and with additional talent in its leadership.

The family has hired Jon Fiume as the new chief operating officer. Fiume, 45, an Akron-area native, was vice president of retail operations and natural products for Ritzman Pharmacies Inc., and serves on the board of the Natural Products Association.

Fiume, who began on Jan. 6, will run the day-to-day operations and is part of the leadership team with the Nabors family.

However, among his responsibilities is also to serve as a mentor to the Nabors’ next generation of store owners, Abraham, 31, and Gabe, 26. Both sons joined the family business after graduating from Ohio University, even though they never had the “official” talk with their parents about their future plans.

“We didn’t want to steal their dreams or shove ours down their throats,” Phillip Nabors said.

Still, they were thrilled when both sons said they wanted to pursue careers with the business.

“I live this lifestyle,” Abraham said. “Mustard Seed has given us everything we know in life.”

Abraham oversees classes and the Mustard Seed Cafes and Gabe oversees marketing. They also both serve as assistant store managers.

Margaret Nabors, 67, said she is “99 percent” retired from the business and is focusing on working at the family’s 14-acre farm in Loudonville, called Blueberry Hill Family Farms, where she spends a few days a week during off season and practically lives there full-time during peak season.

The farm, which has recently earned organic certification, has supplied some blueberries and garlic to the stores and will be offering vegetable and herb seedling starts to stores this year.

Phillip Nabors, 58, remains president and will focus on long-term visioning. Marcella Kanfer Rolnick, Margaret Nabors’ daughter from Nabors’ first marriage to GOJO Chairman and CEO Joe Kanfer, serves as an adviser for Mustard Seed and vice chair of GOJO.

Phillip and Margaret said while they have been successful in growing the business, they knew they needed some outside management expertise and a plan to prepare their sons for the future.

Even though the family used its national network to search for the next executive, ironically, their search led them to their longtime friend and nearby neighbor, Fiume.

Fiume said his first reaction when Phillip Nabors approached him was to say no. It took about six months to convince him.

“It’s not too often that an opportunity comes your way to build a business and be a mentor and do it with something you’re passionate about,” Fiume said.

Mustard Seed’s plans include expanding its number of stores.

Using its smaller upcoming Highland Square store as a prototype, the company wants to grow within Northern Ohio.

There are no specific plans until the Highland Square store is up and running.

Margaret Nabors said she feels that she and her husband have given her children a good starter company, which employs about 240 and will employ about 300 with the new store.

“Now I’m anxious to see what they do,” she said.

Betty Lin-Fisher can be reached at 330-996-3724 or blinfisher@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/blinfisher and see all her stories at www.ohio.com/betty.

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