TUSCALOOSA’S FIRST NATURAL FOOD STORE STANDS BY CORE VALUES AMID POTENTIAL CORPORATE COMPETITION XX

After 35 years in the business, Manna’s commitment to customer service and the local community remains strong despite concerns surrounding The Fresh Market grand opening
Two men sit at a table over plates of warm, fresh food discussing how the Crimson Tide defense will stack up against Ole Miss during the upcoming weekend. Although there are many tables left in the open dining area, another man suddenly interrupts them.
“It’s good to see you again. Mind if I sit down?”
The men are regulars at Manna Grocery & Deli in Tuscaloosa, Ala., a locally sourced, natural food store. Manna, which opened its doors in 1980, was the first of its kind in the community, and conversations like this one have been happening between its faithful customers for 35 years.
David Arnold, a chemical engineering professor, started coming to Manna 25 years ago – he thinks. It could be closer to 30 years, he says. He’s lost track. Most weeks, he comes two or three days for lunch in the deli. He knows the entire staff, who call him by name as he orders at the counter.
“We don’t even get numbers. They just bring us our food,” Arnold said.
This hometown atmosphere developed over time because of the mission of Manna’s owners, Earle and Frances Drennen, who dove into the concept of natural foods and holistic health over 40 years ago. But now, after almost a half century in the business, corporate competition has moved in just 1.1 miles away.
Despite this, Earle is confident in Manna’s success. He explains it this way – “If you’re producing a good product at a good price, you will create a loyal customer base.”
Their product is not only the groceries and supplements stocked on their neatly-lined shelves, but customer service as a whole.
“Our mission is very much about educating people and being an information center where, if people are interested in changing some things in their lifestyle, we have information to give to them,” Earle said.
Another core value of Manna is their commitment to supporting local suppliers.
“One of the things that we’ve done over the years is to try and buy locally. If you go out in the hallway in the back of the store, we have all the local and regional people [on a map] that we use,” Earle said.
Manna’s produce comes primarily from three local growers, but Earle says they have a source for organic produce from their main grocery supplier too. Along with the price, under each produce item on their shelves is a label informing customers where the product was grown.
Although the Drennens were pioneers in their health world for Tuscaloosa, their claim as “the only source of natural, organic, and local food, dietary supplements and vitamins” is now only partially true due to the opening of The Fresh Market, one of the newest businesses to move into the Shoppes at Legacy Park.
While The Fresh Market as a whole isn’t fully organic, it does have many organic and specialty food options similar to that of Manna. According to The Fresh Market’s corporate website, they are “committed to being an active part of the communities where we do business, and our employees enthusiastically support local organizations that are important to the communities and our customers” – a statement similar to the mission that Earle has stood by for the entirety of his business.
Earle is assured, however, that The Fresh Market’s competition isn’t Manna.
“I’m glad that Fresh Market is here. They are filling a niche because there’s really not a traditional grocery store on this side of town. They’re really a specialty store. I’d say their competition would be more Publix than it would Manna Grocery,” he said.
Alina Coryell, a Tuscaloosa native whose mother began taking her to Manna for lunch as a young child, strolls the aisles of The Fresh Market with a cart
full of groceries. This is her fifth time in the store since its Aug. 12 opening, and she plans to continue coming back
faithfully.
“I love it. It’s nice to have a market in town instead of those big-box grocers,” she said.
She used to go all over Tuscaloosa to different locations for groceries – lettuce from Publix or meat from Winnie Dixie, for example – but now she has one place to go for it all. Despite her enthusiasm about The Fresh Market, she is assured she’ll continue to frequent Manna as well.
“They are different places for different things. Manna has a lot of advice. I could go and say ‘I’m having trouble sleeping,’ and they would recommend a product for me. They have a lot of expertise,” she said.
This is what Earle says will keep Manna alive for many years to come, regardless of any potential competition that floods into Tuscaloosa.
“What we will continue to do is be an educational center – try to have available information to people that they’re looking for in relation to their health,” he said.

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