Royal River Natural Foods

Continuing a two-decade tradition of organic foods and products

Entering Royal River Natural Foods is like walking into an artfully arranged still life. Three stand-alone wooden displays are piled high with seasonal crops: large-bottomed butternuts nestle against oblong spaghetti squash; across the aisle, Yukon Golds are perched near tiny red potatoes. In a refrigerated case, rows of dewy greens share space with baby bok choy and bump up against shiny purple eggplants. This scene provides a palate- pleasing palette that one could just as willingly paint as eat.

In addition to featuring an entirely organic produce section, Royal River Natural Foods in Freeport sells edibles of all varieties, as well as personal care and home products. Many of its items are grown or made locally. “We purchase from about 200 Maine farms and producers,” says store owner Tina Wilcoxson. “That’s a high priority for us.”

Founded in 1994, Royal River Natural Foods was originally located in Yarmouth, not far from its namesake river. It quickly outgrew two smaller venues and moved to its current location in a large, freestanding building on Route 1 more than a decade ago. “The first store was so small,” says Wilcoxson. “I don’t know how we managed. The back room was the size of a closet. When we were able to really expand, we could have customers come in and actually do their grocery shopping instead of getting just one little thing here and one little thing there.”

The store’s high ceilings and wooden floors create a sense of both spaciousness and intimacy. Neighbors stop to chat in the bulk foods section, one of them gathering almonds in a plastic bag as the other grinds coffee beans. At the cafe tables near the hot tea station, a mother and her preschooler enjoy a lunch of store-made chickpea miso soup and curried tuna salad. “My vision and my hope is that we’re really a haven for people,” says Wilcoxson. “I want customers to walk in and feel at ease.”

Wilcoxson has worked at Royal River Natural Foods for 20 years, spending time in every department before becoming the general manager. “There was always something new to learn, and I just loved it. I never found a reason to leave,” she says. Three years ago Wilcoxson purchased the business from its founder, Ruth Finch. “My intention when I bought the business was to run it the same way Ruth did,” says Wilcoxson. “I wanted to be as generous an owner as she was. Otherwise, I wasn’t going to do it.”

Wilcoxson is one of several longstanding Royal River Natural Foods staff members. The store employs 23 people, six of whom have been there for more than a decade. “I wanted to have a place where people want to stay,” says Wilcoxson. “I can give them good benefits and good pay, and it’s a fun place to work. It’s also great for the customers to see the same faces.”

A graduate of the University of Maine in Orono, Wilcoxson first became interested in natural therapies while waitressing in Bar Harbor. She experienced the benefits of massage after hurting her back while lifting a heavy pickle bucket. This prompted Wilcoxson to travel to New Mexico and enroll in massage school. Her training included herbal nutrition, supplements, massage, and polarity therapy. “When I came back to Maine, I wanted to use all of that,” says Wilcoxson. “While I was trying to build up a massage practice I started working at health food stores.”

Wilcoxson began her career in the supplement department of another local health food store. There she realized the importance of being a resource for customers—rather than simply operating a retail establishment. “You can have some pretty intimate conversations with people,” says Wilcoxson. “We get a lot of folks in asking about herbs and supplements.” The shelves at Royal River Natural Foods contain everything from organic elderberry syrup made by Maine Medicinals in Dresden to Chaga Mountain mushroom tincture, harvested and formulated in western Maine.

Royal River Natural Foods strives to provide both quality products and accurate information. “We get referrals from doctors and other health care providers, and we want to stay up to date,” says Wilcoxson. Becky Foster, the supplement manager for Royal River Natural Foods, regularly takes courses at Avena Botanicals in Rockport from master herbalist and Avena founder Deb Soule.

Wilcoxson strives for a high level of customer service throughout Royal River Natural Foods. In recent years, the store has installed additional registers, an updated scanning system at checkout, and new customer loyalty cards. “I get going on a project, and some of the staff are like, ‘Uh oh. Tina’s got a hammer in her hand,’” says Wilcoxson. “We are very collaborative at the store.” Wilcoxson collaborates with others outside of the store setting as well. She serves as the chair for the Retail Association of Maine board of directors; in 2015 she was named one of five finalists for the National Retail Federation’s America’s Retail Champion award.

Teamwork has been important to Wilcoxson from her earliest years. Originally from Limestone, she was raised on her family’s potato farm. “Growing up in a community where most people were farming, especially around harvest time, the whole town was in it together,” she says. Wilcoxson has the opportunity to reconnect with her agricultural roots regularly. “One of my favorite parts of the job is talking with the farmers because we have some real characters that come to the store with some really great stories.”

Maine farmers are well represented in every Royal River Natural Foods department. One can find jars of fermented Buxton Beets from Gracie’s Garden in Standish, packaged poultry from Tide Mill Organic Farm in Edmunds, and bags of Bibb lettuce from Springworks Farm in Lisbon. “In Maine, we have, really, an embarrassment of riches,” says Wilcoxson. “We’re so lucky. If you go to other states, they just don’t have that.”

Wilcoxson feels fortunate to collaborate with local farmers like Nate Drummond and Gabrielle Gosselin. Drummond and Gosselin have supplied produce to Royal River Natural Foods since 2007. They are the owners of Six River Farm, a 15-acre organic vegetable farm located on the shores of Merrymeeting Bay in Bowdoinham. “We’ve been working with them since we began,” says Gosselin. “They’re an amazing natural food store.”

The consistent demand for Maine-grown organic vegetables has enabled Six River Farm to build a sustainable business. “We’ve really been able to create the farm that we want and grow it at the increments that we’re interested in,” says Gosselin, a native of Amherst, Massachusetts, who met Drummond while they were undergraduates at Brown University. “We’re at a place where we can try some crops that perhaps aren’t quite as profitable but are fun, and we want to see what they do. We have flexibility at this point. I think that’s a pretty neat spot to be in.” Six River Farm now has 16 employees in the high season and, in addition to selling to Royal River Natural Foods, provides produce to the Brunswick Farmers’ Market and to Brunswick restaurants like El Camino, Tao Yuan, Henry and Marty, and Enoteca Athena.

“Farming has a lot of very small rewards,” says Drummond, who grew up in Winterport, the son of University of Maine insect ecology professors. “A lot of very small frustrations as well, but a lot of small rewards. I think that cumulative effect is significant on a quality-of-life level.” Six years ago, they bought a home adjacent to their farmland; two years ago they welcomed a daughter, Alice, to their family.

“Organizing the farm is like trying to figure out the process of making circles overlap,” says Drummond. “You have the big circle of production—of getting things to grow sufficiently well so that you have quality produce over a long period of time. Then a circle of getting things to sell, and then a circle of making it all sustainable: ecologically, lifestyle-wise, and financially.” The Six River Farm mustard greens and Red Russian kale at Royal River Natural Foods provide tangible evidence of their success in making these circles overlap.

To a former farm girl and now business owner, this type of growth is important. “I want us to continue to do well so that we can provide for the staff and the community,” says Wilcoxson. “I want to be a voice in the community for healthy eating and healthy living.” Beckoned back to the purple-top turnips and flame-colored pie pumpkins in the produce section, it is easy to believe that healthy living is just a vegetable away.