December 15, 2018

It’s only natural: Grassroots Natural Market & Kitchen

If Willy Wonka ever started a health food store, it might look something like Grassroots Natural Market & Kitchen.

Its sprawling display of unusual products and foods includes jungle peanuts (grown in the Amazon on vines above the ground), chakra teas, jaggery powder (unrefined and unprocessed cane sugar) and tiger nuts (root vegetables originating from Africa that are rich in prebiotic fiber).

The sweet scent of patchouli wafts through the air in this business on the corner of a shopping center in South Pasadena. Over there is Pruitt’s Tree Resin, an antifungal, antiviral and antibacterial for the skin, and Emptiness, a mix of fermented herbs that cleanses the colon. There’s a product called ProViotic, made using Bulgarian snowdrop flowers, which assists in digestive and immune issues. To top off your visit, you can get a drink made from yerba mate on tap, featuring the naturally caffeinated leaves of the South American rainforest tree.  

For 30 years, this hub for healthy food and alternative health care products has been run by the Puni family, led by Israeli-born Meir Puni, 60, and his wife, Marla, 58, a Los Angeles native and registered nurse.

The Punis have raised their three children at the store in much the same way that Meir grew up in his family’s Tel Aviv bakery. His grandparents, along with their seven children, came from Poland to Palestine at the turn of the 20th century and opened a café and bakery that still exists today. 

“My father would have to get ingredients, flour and sugar, on the black market because of the rationing that happened during the English mandate,” Meir said. “He had to make deliveries at night; if he got caught, they probably would have shot him.”

Never did he imagine that someday he would be running his own restaurant and market — especially one filled with health foods. It wasn’t until Meir moved to New York in 1979 and stayed with his vegan cousin that he really thought about issues of nutrition. He said he tried eating “her way” and felt noticeably better. He’s been a vegetarian ever since.

Still, it was a long, winding route to South Pasadena and Grassroots. Meir spent months around New York working odd jobs, including time as a gas station attendant and a security guard for El Al Israel Airlines at John F. Kennedy International Airport, before heading west to study hotel management at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. It was there that he met his wife at a Jewish singles party. 

While Meir was working as an assistant manager at a hotel in Monterey in 1987, a family friend from Marla’s hometown of South Pasadena told them about an opportunity to buy a small health food store. They jumped on it, even though running a health food business was totally foreign to them. 

“I am a certified Israeli nut. I am not a homeopath or have any titles. I just did a lot of reading, went to seminars, listened to customers and experimented with my kids,” Meir said. “These days, if you do what I do, you have to go to school and get a certificate. I kind of evolved. I still read all the time … there is just too much to know.”

At first, it was rough going — the store was lucky to have even three customers a day. And shortly after acquiring the business, Meir was thrown into the kitchen when the head cook quit, although that turned out to be a blessing, he said. The Punis stopped serving ham and cream cheese sandwiches and revamped the menu with healthier vegetarian and vegan alternatives inspired by Israeli and Mexican recipes. (The first cook the family hired was their daughter’s Mexican baby sitter, and she stayed for 25 years before retiring.) 

Parts of the new menu were puzzling to customers at first. 

Customers peruse menus at Grassroots, which offers wraps, burritos, chili, salads and more. 

“I remember the first time that we offered tofu. Nobody knew what it was, so we handed out a piece of paper that talked about all the health benefits,” Meir said. 

For reasons like this, one of the Puni children, Noah, 27, said growing up in the health food store made him feel like an outsider. 

“My friends would come over and open the refrigerator and see all these foreign food substances and names that they couldn’t pronounce,” he said. “It wasn’t your typical fare. I had no Oreos, soda or cereals. Everybody at school didn’t know what to make of my lunches.” 

Kombucha tea is available, and the store also features an organic juice bar and smoothies.

These days, he works as the business’ chief visionary officer, overseeing advertising, marketing, social media, community outreach and events. Free educational seminars are provided almost monthly, and a health expo celebration is planned for Oct. 1 in the shopping center parking lot. 

“I didn’t appreciate it for what it was when I was younger, and now I can’t appreciate it enough,” Noah said. 

The store more than doubled in size — growing from 1,500 to 3,300 square feet — when the Punis acquired the adjacent vitamin store in 1995. Still, they must be choosy as to what makes it onto their shelves. Grassroots focuses on sometimes hard-to-find paleo, vegan, vegetarian, raw and gluten-free products, and it restricts items with canola oil, hydrogenated oils, pure sugar, and artificial and genetically modified ingredients. 

“A lot of stuff in the health food industry is junk,” Meir said. “Just because it is on the shelf at Whole Foods or at a mom-and-pop health store, you still have to read the ingredients. You can’t assume that it’s healthy.”

The business also acts as an incubator for new, local small companies and balances that with reputable companies that use wholesome ingredients, are socially conscious, environmentally responsible and economically sustainable.

Fruit-and-nut muffins at Grassroots are made daily from an original recipe.

The Punis spend a lot of time sharing information with customers, giving personalized advice and listening to people’s ailments and concerns. One regular visitor, Rosalyn Kahn, called Meir a “local shaman.” Kahn said there’s a unique human touch to the store, not to mention other intangibles that mass merchandisers can’t match.

“You might pay a little more, but there is no other burrito that I have ever had that tastes as good as the one that I have had here,” Kahn said. “It’s good, good stuff.”

All of this was put in jeopardy on the eve of Yom Kippur in 2007 when a fire destroyed seven businesses in the shopping center, shutting down Grassroots for 14 months while it was rebuilt and the business started over.

“I was raised never to give up,” Marla said. “You just don’t. … I’m a fighter. We had perseverance and we survived.” 

She called the outpouring of support from the community during that time “truly remarkable.” That’s when the Punis realized just how much of a loyal following they had cultivated over the years. 

“We are very appreciative and humbled, as we have put everything into this business. It’s like our baby,” Marla said. “This is our livelihood, our life and our lifestyle. We aren’t just health food store owners. We are like extended family to so many people.”