Customer loyalty has gone a long way for one local business owner looking to expand.
Four Seasons Natural Foods is urging customers to pay now for groceries they won’t receive for at least another month. The gutsy request has exceeded expectations. In the past 10 days, 26 customers have happily ponied up more than $23,000.
The reasons are simple for any longtime customer of the Saratoga Springs health food store and café on Phila Street. The money they contribute now will be used to fund an expansion of their favorite health food store to a space nearby with even more grocery selection. They also get a return on their investment in the form of a 5 to 20 percent discount when they do eventually get their groceries. And, there is one more reason.
“Short of us going to Mexico and never opening, there’s really no risk,” said Four Seasons owner Richard Frank with a chuckle. “So far, they’ve been happy to do it.”
The fundraiser has been dubbed The Moving Day Fund, dreamed up and organized by Jonathan Greene, a friend of Frank’s and co-publisher of the Saratoga Wire. Greene knew that Frank had been interested in expanding his store for several years, so when plans for an expansion became reality, the two worked together to come up with a creative way to pay for it all.
It’s part Kickstarter, part community-supported agriculture (CSA) and part crossing their fingers that customers like Four Seasons enough to help out.
“I sort of borrowed from a bunch of fundraising models,” said Greene. “We could have run this through Kickstarter, but you don’t get as much flexibility and we wanted our focus to be on micro-loans from people within a very specific geographic range. It’s similar to a CSA model, in that we have all this upfront cost and farmers rely on customer support in the beginning and pay them back once the food is grown.”
In Frank’s case, he’ll be paying his customers back and then some come June. The goal is to open by June 1, he said.
Four Seasons opened in 1988 on Broadway and moved to Caroline Street briefly before opening in its current Phila Street space in 1990 — the year Frank joined. He bought the business from Bob and Isabel Landis the next year. As the health food craze grew over the years, Four Seasons remained largely unchanged while the need for more space became increasingly apparent.
“We haven’t done anything in 25 years, essentially,” said Frank. “It’s going to be real different in that we’re really tight and cramped and cozy in our space now. The new place is way bigger.”
The plan is to move the business’s grocery retail component to a space five times as big on Henry Street — the former Warren Electric building near the Hampton Inn. The remaining café will then be expanded into a full-service restaurant with beer and wine offerings, more seats, a larger kitchen and a new baking area.
Frank declined to disclose how much the whole project will cost, but said it will be paid for with a mix of cash, loans and fundraising. He’s had his eye on the Henry Street building for some time, but it didn’t become available until late 2012. He was able to lease it at a “pretty reasonable price per square foot” because of the extensive renovations it required, he said.
“It was a shell of a building,” he said. “We’re replacing windows, doing insulation, flooring, ceiling treatment, lighting, adding refrigeration and coolers. It’s everything basically. But it’s a unique building. It’s got parking and great natural light. It’s the right size. We can do gardens outside and have outdoor things going on. We knew we never wanted to leave downtown.”
With a larger grocery space, Four Seasons will be able to offer more than its usual organic produce. It will stock conventional produce and increase its local naturally raised foods. It will also offer fresh “grab and go” foods, like sandwiches, which will be made at the Phila Street café.
This promise of more selection is part of what attracted loyal customers to contribute to the fundraising campaign.
Customers are invited to load money onto one of three fundraising cards available at the store or online at www.movingdayfund.com. Those who pre-buy between $50 and $199 worth of groceries now will get a 5 percent bonus when the store opens. Those who pre-buy between $200 and $1,499 will get a 10 percent bonus. Those who pre-buy more than $1,500 will earn a 20 percent bonus.
It’s extremely rare for a customer to buy that many groceries at once, Frank said. But so far, the average customer is contributing a few hundred dollars. Several customers have contributed $1,500. One customer has ponied up $5,000.
“Even if it takes you two to three months to buy that much groceries, it’s worth it if you look at the return on investment,” Frank said.
Greene said the goal is to have a large number of customers pitch in smaller amounts, rather than fewer customers pitch in large amounts.
“When you involve the community, I think there’s a real sort of camaraderie that develops,” he said.
The cards have only been available for 10 days, and already $23,200 has been raised.
“They’re definitely putting their faith in us,” said Frank, “and it feels good.”