In recent years, consumer demand for natural, organic and specialty foods has grown to the point where practically every major supermarket chain devotes at least one aisle to these items.

Organic, specialty and hard-to-find foods have been a major part of Mollie Stone’s Markets’ inventory since the company opened its first store in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1986. Unlike many of its competitors, Mollie Stone’s stocks these items throughout the aisles of each of its nine stores. Natural, organic and other specialty foods are often placed next to their conventional counterparts, with signage indicating how they may differ from the related items.

“We are cutting-edge and pioneers in a number of ways,” says President and CEO Mike Stone, who named the company after his late mother. “We were the first ones to really combine a conventional supermarket and a natural foods store under one roof.”

Stone refers to this model as a “Best of Both Worlds” philosophy - which features prominently in Mollie Stone’s stores, website and marketing materials. “Someone can come into one of our stores and do 100 percent of their grocery shopping - from conventional, name-brand items to hard-to-find organic and specialty items,” Stone adds. “We want people to know they can come here to find things they can’t find anywhere else, as well as the things they can find everywhere else, without having to go to two different places.”

Mollie Stone’s stores range in size from 9,000 to 45,000 square feet, with even the small stores offering an assortment of goods comparable to larger chains.

Each store also stocks items based on customer requests. “We understand what our customers’ wants and needs are and satisfy those,” Stone says. “None of our stores are cookie-cutter; we listen to what customers in each of our locations want in terms of product mix, quality and locally sourced items.”

The company’s stores and website also offer customers recipes and wine and beer pairing suggestions, among other services. “We’re introducing more and more natural foods and specialty items to our customers, and do a lot of sampling and product education in our stores through demonstrations and cross-merchandising,” Stone adds. “We pride ourselves on exceptional customer service. We want to make a difference in people’s lives through food.”

Ahead of the Trends

Incorporating specialty items into its offerings is just one way the company has led the supermarket pack in its region. “We think of ourselves as trendsetters, not trend followers,” Stone says.

Mollie Stone’s San Bruno and San Mateo, Calif., locations feature “Mollieland,” a free, supervised play area for children ages two to 12. Although the areas are supervised by trained staff, moms can view multiple televisions monitors throughout stores to keep their eyes on their children while they shop, Stone says.

The company also operates buses from two of its San Francisco locations. These buses offer rides home to shoppers who would otherwise need to navigate public transportation with shopping bags or give up their parking spots in the city to shop, Stone says.

The store recently became the first to offer electric vehicle (EV) charging stations in its region. The stations, at Mollie Stone’s locations in Palo Alto and Sausalito, allow customers to charge their vehicles for free for one hour.

“This area has one of the biggest user bases of electric cars,” Stone says. There are more than 48,000 electric vehicles registered in the state, with the majority of those belonging to San Francisco-area owners. “This is a convenience for customers that they can’t find in any other store in the Bay Area.”

The electric charging stations, provided by and maintained by ChargePoint, are just a few of several planned physical enhancements to Mollie Stone’s stores. The company later this year plans to begin building a new produce warehouse and training center, and anticipates remodeling a few of its stores soon. Renovations will likely include expanding the stores’ specialty cheese and prepared food departments, including adding self-service and pick-up counters.

“We want to expand our fresh food offering and make it easier for customers to find foods that will satisfy their palate and dietary preferences,” Stone says.

‘Fun and Positive’

Mollie Stone’s Markets’ unique offerings for shoppers are a reflections of the company’s customer-driven culture. “We are centered on customer satisfaction, passion, teamwork and treating people they way you’d want to be treated,” Stone says.

Stone encourages this culture through a hands-on management style. “I believe in having a lot of communication with employees,” he says. “Communication of our goals is always at the forefront, and that is really the crux of motivating people. Our employees want to participate, and it’s important for us to give them a way to express their opinion.”

Cultural training is a large part of the company’s training process. “We make sure everyone understands what our mission, vision and values are,” Stone says.

New employees are typically referred to Mollie Stone’s staff from existing staff members. Once hired, store employees tend to stick around for awhile, which Stone attributes to the company’s positive culture and benefits package.

“Our turnover rate is one of the lowest in the industry because we treat our employees very well,” Stone says. “We believe in providing a fun and positive environment for both our employees and our customers.”

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