July 22 2015 12:00 AM
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“The Food Network Effect” has created booming interest in the wheres, whys and hows of food production, as well as a seemingly unending hunger for organic, glutenfree and GMO-free foodstuffs. Thanks to infotaining shows that highlight specialty dishes and ingredients from around the world hosted by larger-than-life chefs, once marginalized foods have suddenly gone mainstream. Congratulations, kale — it’s your day in the sun!

But there’s only so much room for all of the beet greens and garlic scapes hitting the shelves — not to mention antibiotic-free beef and wild-caught fish — and local stores have scrambled to make space. For Tedd Handelsman, owner of the Michigan-based Better Health Store chain — which has two Metro Lansing locations — that demand was the tipping point for him to invest about $1 million to expand the sales floor of his Frandor store. But the timing, he said, is entirely coincidental with the looming grand opening of a certain organic food market chain location across town.

“This was in the deck long before Whole Foods announced they were coming,” Handelsman said about the national chain store under construction in East Lansing. “It’s been 15 years and (our building) needed a refresh anyway. We’ve been getting so many requests for some of these items that it only made sense.”

Handelsman will move the interior rear wall of the 17,000-square-foot store back by 20 feet, opening up about 2,000 square feet of new floor space. The back of the store will continue to be a bank of coolers. (The area behind that had just been used for storage until now.) The kitchen, which is now tucked back in the northwest rear corner, will quadruple in size and stretch along the entire right side of the store.

“You’ll be able to either to stop in and pick up freshly cut (sides of) grass-fed beef and free-range chicken, or you can have it cooked in-house,” Handelsman said. “This new setup will allow us to offer much more variety.”

Handelsman has 14 Better Health Stores in Michigan and employs about 300 full-time workers. He said he does about $40 million in annual sales and expects that number to increase as interest in healthy eating continues to grow.

“People are much more informed about their food nowadays,” Handelsman said. “It’s great to see all this interest. And we make it easier, because we don’t allow products in the store that don’t meet our standards for healthy eating. It makes it that much easier to shop because you don’t have to read every label.”

That luxury, of course, comes with a price. It costs a little more to shop at Better Health Store than somewhere like Meijer or Horrocks, but Handelsman says the organic, gluten-free and antibiotic-free food he sells— which inherently has significantly higher prices than preservative-laden fare — is still reasonable.

“You definitely pay less (at Better Health Store) than you would at Whole Foods,” he said. “We compete with the Whole Foods in Detroit, and if you compare receipts, you’ll see the difference. Being family owned and operated gives us a little more flexibility to be able to do that.”

Handelsman got into the health food store business after his family sold its longtime dental supply business — once the third largest in North America — in the late ‘90s. Initially, he had envisioned an online vitamin store, but the dot-com crash made him reconsider his options. Instead, he purchased a small chain of vitamin stores starting in the Metro Detroit area and slowly expanded them into health food outlets. The expansion into to mid-Michigan happened in 2000 after he purchased Randall’s Health Food, 305 N. Clippert Ave. across from Frandor Shopping Center; the West Lansing location, 6235 W. Saginaw Highway, opened concurrently.

The renovation work, which is scheduled to be completed by Oct. 1, will also include an all-new electrical protocol system to reduce energy consumption. Additionally, the dining area will be moved next to the floor-to-ceiling windows up front.

“It will make it a nicer place to eat, and our kitchen will become much more visible,” Handelsman said. “We’re also adding new floors, new colors, new signs to really (enhance) the shopping experience. It will look like an all new store.”

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