After almost 40 years, Richard's Foodporium original store is still operational on Ringling Blvd in Sarasota. Its 15 “sister” locations dot the SW coast of Florida, with one store on the east coast. Originating in 1979, founder Richard Downey started his first store as Richard’s Whole Foods. Richard grew the business to six locations, but passed in 1991 and his wife took over operations. In 1997, John Rorer, current owner of Richard's Foodporium, along with two partners, purchased the business from Richard’s wife, Charis. Rorer shares the story behind his inspirational journey and how, despite many ups and downs, he and his team have grown Richard's Foodporium to 15 stores, all supplying a wide array of specialty and natural foods, vitamins and supplements, gifts and aromatherapy.
"I'm originally from Charlottesville, VA, but I've been in Florida since the late 70s," Rorer said. "I toyed around with a few different entrepreneurial efforts but, at the time, I didn't have a whole lot of focus. I succeeded in some and failed in others. In the early 80s, I was a massage therapist when a friend of mine talked me into coming to a board meeting of a local nonprofit natural foods co-operative. They were going through some political upheaval, and he wanted the moral support. After a crazy meeting that involved the manager and president of the board being fired and the cops showing up, I was asked if I would manage the store temporarily while they did a manager search, which I did to help out. One thing led to another and six months later, I was still there. I don’t think they seriously ever looked for a permanent manager, and after a while I realized I really enjoyed the natural foods industry, the customers, and the feeling that it was a career path that I call 'right livelihood'. I could feel good going to work every day, knowing I was helping others live a healthier lifestyle. As years passed, I developed a good reputation in the industry as a manager. I left the co-op in the mid to late 80s and went to work for a major vitamin manufacturer and distributor as a sales representative. I traveled the state and met a lot of people. One of the retailers in St. Petersburg wanted to start a new natural foods store and asked if I would manage it for him and his partner. My original salary request was too much for him, so I proposed an idea where I would agree to work for a subsistence salary of only $300 a week (even then that was minimal), and once the business was able to pay them back for their investment, I would become a one-third partner. That’s how I got started as an owner-operator.”
Less than two years later, as they were already expanding a new store, Rorer heard that Richard's Whole Foods was for sale. At the time, the chain didn't have the best reputation in the industry. It was a very “raw” operation, with no credit cards, refrigeration, telephone for customers to call nor groceries. His partners first balked, but Rorer felt strongly that the small chain offered a unique opportunity. There was some work to be done, but Rorer and his partners saw the potential. Together, they were able to arrange a very creative financing proposal with the owner that, in effect, allowed them to buy the operations with no money down. The new team added credit cards, groceries, refrigeration, telephones and upgraded store merchandising. As a result of these efforts, they were able to double sales in two years. Over the years, they continued to add locations and operations were trending in the right direction, when in 2005, Rorer's entrepreneurial instincts kicked in, and he found himself questioning some key decisions.
"The partnership was working out great, but we had some very typical differences in vision," he said. "They liked the larger store format, and I liked the smaller, neighborhood concept. My partners were very resistant at first, but eventually I got them to hold the paper on a loan to buy them out of Richard’s, and give up my equity in the larger store we had started together. This actually left me in a very risky position with so much debt, but it was one that allowed me to maintain complete ownership. If I had missed a single payment, they could have taken back the entire business. Nevertheless, I felt confident that I could make it work if I decreased expenses, increased margins and focused on a few other key areas. Then the recession hit. Here I was with a huge mountain of debt and facing the worst recession since the Great Depression. The bank loved me, but wouldn’t loan me more money until I reduced the debt. I had to figure out a way to grow. That's when I came up with the franchising model as a growth strategy."
Rorer and his team started slow, tested the water and had a go at the franchise model, but things didn't pan out as planned. They learned a lot about what worked and what didn't, and eventually put franchising on hold. Today, Richard's Foodporium is still focused on growth, but a surge in the popularity of natural foods has shifted some of that focus to dealing with new competition in a crowded market.
"Back in the early 80s we were idealists and our dream were to bring natural food to the masses," Rorer said. "Well, we succeeded, but now it's coming back to bite us. For some reason, all of the major national natural food retailers have decided that Sarasota is the new mecca. In general, Florida was late to the natural food scene, but now the retailers are making up for it by piling into Sarasota. Something like a half dozen have either moved in or expanded in just the last year, in a market that already had some 40 different natural retailers. There's wealth here, but we don't have the rooftops to support this influx of natural retailers. I’m not convinced some of them did their proper due diligence, or knew that they were all entering such a small market at the same time. The market is now completely over-saturated, and is quite potentially the most hotly contested small market in the country. We'll survive, but there will undoubtedly be some attrition along the way."
Looking ahead, Rorer shared that he is starting to look at a possible exit strategy. He'll be 65 in January, has survived cancer and other health challenges, and would like to spend more time gardening, landscaping and pursuing some other entrepreneurial, as well as personal interests. He wants to remain involved in business, but would like to shift to being an investor rather than an operator. To that end, Rorer has started investing in some small startups as an angel investor and consultant to help aspiring entrepreneurs, as well as to keep his mind active and continue an income stream. Rorer also aspires to write a few books based on his remarkable journey from “wayward youth” to successful entrepreneur.
Rorer laughed, “Oh yes….I was more than a little bit of a delinquent as a kid. Always in trouble. I’d love to one day help youth at risk, in part by sharing my story of how I was able to turn my life around. People are always amazed when they hear my story, and often tell me I should write a book about it.”
Rorer offers up some insightful and honest advice for aspiring entrepreneurs looking to start their own business. "Before you leap into something because you think it's a good idea or that can make money doing it, I would do a lot of self-introspection. Ask yourself questions like, 'Am I really an entrepreneur? Am I really cut out to be a business owner? Do I have that mindset, and the necessary skills?’ These are big gut check questions. Owning your own business requires a lot of sacrifice and sweat equity. It takes perseverance and long hours. Before you jump in, make sure it's really for you. Additionally, ask yourself what you’re passionate about. What do you enjoy doing so much that it wouldn't be like work? You'll have days you're up and days you're down. On down days, you still want to be glad you're doing it. Also, you have to be willing to take risks. If you’re not, then I’d suggest avoid owning your own business. However, if you're passionate, willing to take risks and make sacrifices, there are few things as rewarding as owning your own business, and it will open many opportunities. I'm a big believer in creative visualization, and that we fully create our own life path. What we say, think, read and who we hang out with are all little parts of building who we are. Our choices all add up and tend to create our future path. If you have an idea and are passionate to own a business, then dream about it, visualize it and affirm it. See and feel yourself in that role. Over time, these thoughts will crystallize, bond with other elements on our path, and your dream will become your future reality."