Third generation ‘Harvest’

Grand Rapids health food grocery store expands into Holland
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Mitch and Emily Nol, third-generation owners of Harvest Health Foods. Courtesy photo.

Henry Diedering’s grocery store chain started at the intersection of “necessity is the mother of all invention” and “the key to starting a successful business is to fill a gap in the marketplace.” To say Diedering achieved the American Dream would be an understatement. More than seventy years after the Dutchman created Harvest Health Foods, the name and his legacy live on. That sort of thing doesn’t happen by accident. It takes dedication to a mission, and people who share the vision. For Diedering, those people are his heirs.

Diedering immigrated from the Netherlands in 1950 with his then fiancé, Tena. He began his endeavors in the grocery business delivering milk. After he’d been at it a while it became apparent that people from the old country weren’t satisfied with the offerings at the local supermarkets, himself included. They weren’t used to every last item being prepackaged. To many, there was nothing wonderful about Wonder Bread. They wanted the wholesome brown bread they were accustomed to.

As he was determined to work for himself, he set about sourcing the bulk items and unpackaged ingredients he wanted to see on local store shelves and started his own business. He began delivering Stone Mill label brown bread, door to door. Those efforts blossomed into what is now Harvest Health Foods, in business since 1952. Very soon after forming the business, Diedering was operating out of the very location where the 71-year-old Harvest Health Foods stands today, 1944 Eastern Ave. SE., Grand Rapids.

Diedering brought the whole family into the fold, merging his love for wholesome, healthy food with his dedication to a way of life centered around family. An excerpt from the company’s website (harvesthealthfoods.com) sums it up best: “His business was a natural outgrowth of his own traditions.”

Today, the interior of the original Harvest Health Foods store, at a glance, could be mistaken for any small corner grocery in any city. But look a little deeper; the rear of the store is home to an organic only produce section. A separate area off to the right  has the appearance of an apothecary shop. You see, brown bread wasn’t the only item missing from immigrants’ pantries in 1952.

“It began with herbs. We were the first place to be able to get dry, whole herbs,” said Harvest Health Foods Director of Marketing Silvia Atsma.

Sometimes referred to as folk medicine, home remedies passed down from generation to generation were important to the immigrants to whom Diedering delivered brown bread. Not only his fellow Dutch immigrants, but people from many different backgrounds wanted herbs and spices that, back in their home countries, they had used to flavor their food– and as medicine.

To this very day, Harvest Health Foods remains committed to providing items that may not be easily found elsewhere.

“We are here to offer alternatives. We even saw this throughout the (COVID-19) pandemic. We couldn’t keep things like NAC (N-Acetyl Cysteine) or Quercetin on the shelf. Some of those are very traditional and have been on the shelves a long time,” said Atsma.

With all of the information now available at people’s fingertips, the business is seeing an uptick and a wider range of customers trending younger than the 45-and-up crowd it was used to. People are interested in what they can do differently for themselves and also for the planet. And everyone is at a different entry point in the health food journey.

Whether it’s someone looking for alternatives to allergy medicines that make them sleepy, a new mother looking for the best quality food available for her child, people who have aging parents dealing with dementia or someone who wants to run a marathon looking for advice on dietary supplements, Harvest Health Foods is there with knowledgeable and friendly staff. The store even offers informational seminars, taught by qualified, certified educators.

“We are there with knowledge to meet people wherever they are at on their health journey,” Atsma said.

The growth of Harvest Health Foods
Henry Diedering’s daughter, Cathy, grew up at the Eastern Avenue grocery store playing with Barbie dolls in the back room as a child. She eventually became an accountant, and in 1991, after working alongside her father for 20 years, Cathy took over the business. Cathy’s husband, Henry Atsma, enjoyed a long career at Steelcase before joining his wife’s family business in 1997.

“That’s where our growth began,” said Emily Nol CEO, CFO, CPA and third generation owner of Harvest Health Food.

The Atsmas felt that there was a need for another Harvest Health to get to the customers on the other side of town. Emily’s father knew business. He had an MBA and brought that knowledge to Harvest Health. In 1998, Henry and Cathy Atsma opened a second store in Cascade. In 2004, they opened a third Harvest Health Foods in Hudsonville. Henry Atsma’s brother, Howard, and his wife Silvia joined the team.

“And then our purchaser Bill Rieffer came on,” said Emily. “It would be hard to name everyone. Honestly, it’s a family. It’s through the whole team we are able to do what we do. We all bring different views and strategies. Each store plays off the (local) demographics and the store directors are like part of the family. We are one company, one culture, have one goal.”

In 2019, Henry and Cathy retired. Luckily, for Harvest Health Foods’ customers, just as Emily’s mother grew up at the store, Emily had put in her time, too, and was in a good position to take over.

“I loved the cash register, bagging groceries, ringing people up,” said Emily, who studied accounting at Hope College. Her mother had been an accountant for the company, so it was a good fit.

And Emily had a dedicated partner ready to help grow her family’s legacy. She met Mitch Nol when they were both still in high school at South Christian. His parents were also small business owners and his mom, who was always very health conscious, was a regular Harvest Health Foods customer. The pair bonded over growing up with only “healthy” snacks in the cupboard.

A passionate people person, Mitch began working at the Cascade store when he was in college at Grand Valley State University. After three months, he had made such an impression, he was made the assistant manager.

“I’m very thankful for Mitch. He’s committed to this business and this lifestyle,” said Emily.

And it is a lifestyle– one that requires a lot of education and attention to the health food ecosystem and the changing needs of customers.

“We have pages and pages of standards,” said Mitch, referring to ingredients allowed in the food and other products the store carries. “No artificial dyes, perfumes.”

All of the products sold at Harvest Health Foods are free of artificial flavors, artificial colors, artificial sweeteners, high-fructose corn syrup, harmful chemical preservatives, partially hydrogenated oils, bleached and/or bromated flours. Their produce is certified USDA organic. Body care products have to meet specific health and beauty standards. All of the products they carry have been produced without the use of irradiation. The meat and dairy products the store sells are free from added hormones and routine antibiotic use.

They know the farmers they source from and use local products whenever possible. In an effort to continually provide the best and healthiest food available, the company supports the NON-GMO Project.

“It’s been built on relationships, vendors, local people, ingredients. We’re not going to compromise,” said Atsma. “If we wouldn’t eat it, we won’t sell it.”

Holland and the Future of Harvest Health Foods
When Mitch and Emily took over in 2019, they wanted to expand but also wanted people to know they were committed to the neighborhood.

“My parents owned the business for 30 years and we wanted to continue the commitment to the communities we were already in,” said Emily.  “We wanted to grow in multiple facets, so we looked to technology.”

The first piece was the creation of an online shopping system called Harvest Cart, and then launching delivery in 2020, just in time for the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2021, Mitch and Emily had the original Harvest Health Foods store remodeled. “We wanted people to know we’re committed to the corner,” said Emily, referring to the store’s ultra-urban Seymour Square location, where Eastern Avenue meets Burton Street in the southeast quadrant of Grand Rapids.

Like her parents before her, Emily wanted to open more stores and had her sights set on Holland, the city where she attended college. ‘I spent four years in Holland and fell in love with the community,” Emily said.

In 2022, Emily and Mitch purchased a 16,000 square foot property, located at 12683 Greenly St. in Holland, which will become the fourth Harvest Health Foods grocery store, slated to open by the end of 2023.

“It’s really fun to see that third generation put their signature on the new store,” said Atsma. “We did our work.”

The Harvest Health Timeline
1952 – Diedering starts the business that would eventually be called Harvest Health Foods.

1991 – Diedering’s daughter, Cathy, who worked with her father for 20 years, takes over.

1997 – Cathy’s husband, Henry Atsma, joins the family business.

1998 – Harvest Health Foods opens a second location at 6807 Cascade Rd. SE.

2004 – A third location opens at 4150 32nd Ave. in Hudsonville. Henry Atsma’s brother, Howard Atsma, and his wife, Silvia, join the family business.
2019 – Cathy and Henry Atsma retire. Daughter, Emily, and her husband, Mitch Nol take over.
2019 – Emily Nol, a Hope College graduate, and CPA by trade, becomes CEO and CFO. Mitch, a Grand Valley State University graduate with a finance degree, becomes President.

2020 – Harvest Cart, an online shopping experience with in-store pickup and delivery options is launched.

2021 – Henry Diedering passes away at the age of 95 on Sept. 24. Mitch and Emily Nol start renovating the Eastern Ave. location.

2022 – Harvest Health Food holds its 70th anniversary, purchases a 16,000 square foot property, located at 12683 Greenly St. in Holland, which will become the fourth Harvest Health Foods grocery store.

 

 

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