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Norm Carpenter Natural Innovation Helps Him Spark Natural-Foods Store

Mon., May 19, 1997

For years, Norm Carpenter pestered executives at Rosauers Supermarkets Inc. about opening a natural foods supermarket.

For years, they didn’t bite.

Finally, he convinced Rosauers leaders to visit other natural foods supermarkets around the country.

“By the end of the second day, their enthusiasm had come up five-fold and they were bringing up issues like, ‘What are we going to call it?’ ” said Carpenter.

Less than a year later, Huckleberry’s Fresh Market was born.

A 17,500-square-foot store opened on the South Hill in December. Then a 35,000-square-foot store opened in April in a refurbished Rosauers store in the Spokane Valley.

As head of general merchandising for Rosauers, Carpenter was watching the natural foods industry explode and certain it would take off in Spokane. He had experimented with products such as vegetarian hotdogs and blue corn tortilla chips in Rosauers stores and had watched them catch on.

“There’s a huge awareness about taking better care of ourselves,” said Carpenter, who grew up a self-described “meat and potatoes guy.” Since starting Hucklberry’s he and his family have paid more attention to natural foods and remedies. “There are more people who want to be more thoughtful about their bodies,” he said.

Carpenter, 51, was named marketing and operations manager for Huckleberry’s. His personal touches are present throughout the new stores.

Gone are the long rows of grocery aisles lined up like lanes of a freeway. Some areas are shaped like cul-de-sacs - a definite no-no in the grocery business because people have to stop and turn around. A library encourages consumers to peruse books on nutrition and cooking.

Carpenter didn’t want people visiting Huckleberry’s to zoom through the store, trying to finish the chore of shopping as quickly as possible.

“I wanted to slow people down,” he said. “Every area feels kind of private and quiet.”

Plans to expand Huckleberry’s in Rosauers four-state market should provide Carpenter plenty of opportunities to use his creative skills. He wouldn’t reveal where the next Huckleberry’s would be, just saying there’s lots of room to expand.

The nation’s two leading natural foods supermarkets, Whole Foods, based in Texas, and Wild Oats, in Colorado, only have 68 and 44 stores, respectively. Neither has entered the Spokane market.

“There are huge pieces of the country that are totally unexplored by this industry,” Carpenter said. “We can own this market before anyone else thinks about coming in here.”

The attention Carpenter put into Huckleberry’s has paid off. Parking lots at the two stores are busy and Carpenter’s file cabinet is filled with notes from customers thanking Rosauers for creating Huckleberry’s.

His office shelves are crowded with new products he’s considering introducing in the store.

“What’s kept me interested in this business is starting new things,” Carpenter said. “I like to find out what’s possible. No matter where I’ve worked, I’ve eventually been the person they’ve tapped for the innovative projects.”

That’s a long way from his “scratch-poor” childhood in northeastern Ohio. Thoughts of higher education were not common in his family, Carpenter said.

A straight-A student and star athlete, Carpenter left home at age 15, traveling to California to live with an uncle. He got a job at Safeway boxing groceries and paid his way through high school graduation.

He entered the Air Force Academy in Colorado Srpings, but realized after two years that the military was not for him.

He returned to the grocery business and worked for 12 more years at Safeway and Albertson’s stores in California.

“I came out of a history of really big poverty. The grocery business is forever. It was a security blanket. I wanted to know that I was getting a paycheck every week,” Carpenter said.

Carpenter moved to Spokane in 1975 and worked for the grocery wholesaler URM as dairy coordinator. Supermarkets then were expanding rapidly, adding in-store delis, bakeries and other amenities. Carpenter’s ability to get new operations up and running fast honed his reputation as an innovator.

He went back to school at EWU in 1977, earning his bachelor’s degree in American literature in 1981. He had dreams of teaching, but practicality kept him in the grocery business. “By the time I got a degree, I was making a third more than I could as a beginning school teacher,” Carpenter said.

He joined Rosauers in 1987 as director of the produce and floral departments and rose to director of general merchandising. Last year, he was asked to start up Huckleberry’s.

“We’re just trying to be their best alternative if they want to vote with their checkbooks, with the way they shop,” Carpenter said. “Huckleberry’s is an important piece of this community. We’ve filled an awful lot of needs.”

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