About three weeks before the world shut down, Gather Natural Market opened, smack dab in the middle of the tsunami. Grocery stores were still allowed to keep their doors open as essential businesses, and Gather followed the regulations as they changed by the day (and often by the hour).
Gather's been my main food hub since Day 1 back in February.
"Can we use our own bags, Brett?" I would ask the owner, stopping for eggs and milk, which I'm always out of.
"I think so! I checked this morning," he'd say, ringing me up at the counter with the natural lavender hand sanitizer. I don't like chemical hand sanitizer—I prefer good ol' fashioned soap—but like everything else at Gather, I like their hand sanitizer.
When they opened, many of us Atascaderans were on social media talking about what we call "our store" now. I started to see their shelves fill up with food that's made, grown, or ranched locally. First came the brown bag stacks of Loaf Osos organic whole grain sourdough, then the grab-and-gos from SLO's Bliss Cafe and Templeton's Fig at Courtney's House. And Trina's organic produce from Templeton Valley Farms, Joebella Coffee from a few blocks away, Miss Teaberry's gluten- and dairy-free vegan doughnuts from Los Osos, and more. Then the fridge filled up with kombucha, yogurt, and eggs—and my go-to wellness potion: BlissRiver Organics Elderberry Syrup made in SLO.
The surprisingly affordable organic food store gave new life to a 10-years-vacant former drug store and wine pallet storage unit. Unlike the typical independent natural market, which is usually on the smaller side, Gather is blessed with high ceilings, large windows, and wide aisles. On top of that, the laid-back vibe embodies the "aloha spirit"—good feelings that originate from the mind and heart, possibly since the owners' previous residence was in Kauai.
"We want a place where people can feel connected with each other," Arries said. "Even through COVID, and people being quarantined at times, people would walk in and say, 'Oh! It's so great to see you—even though I can't hug you and I have to stand 6 feet back,' and we want to be a place where that happens."
"People gather around food in so many ways," she added. "And though they can't sit in our seating area or talk for long periods of time with each other right now, part of our mission is to be in service of that."
- Photo Courtesy Of Emmet Arries
- AIRY AND SPACIOUS Gather Natural Market is just down the road from Downtown Atascadero on El Camino. There's always plenty of parking, and the high ceilings, large windows, and wide aisles, make shopping like a breezy walk in the park.
Husband-and-wife team Rilyn Arries and Brett Lamberson began Gather with their two sons Emmet, 19, and Dakota, 15, with an intention to provide an affordable organic food store that both supports local food production and the
Arries was born and raised in San Luis Obispo. A graduate of Arroyo Grande High School, and Cal Poly, she moved on to get her master's degree in clinical psychology in Santa Barbara. Retail and grocery was never her plan, she said—she wanted to become a farmer.
Her grandmother owned Vita Nutrition on Garden Street in SLO in the '70s, and little Rilyn grew up hanging around her natural food store, with the smell of nutritional yeast and the taste of her favorite sour kefir.
"We want to make the organics as affordable as we can so that we can keep changing the food system," Arries said. "Supporting independent farmers who are growing organically and really, more regeneratively, is the word now, is the plan. And in turn we can support every part of the ecosystem, and the people who live in it."
She met her husband, Lamberson—who moved to SLO County from Portland, Oregon—at Paulding Middle School in Arroyo Grande. They married in their 20s and bought their first home in Atascadero in '96. Lamberson has a background in shipping and receiving supervision, something that comes in handy in this line of work.
"I'm obsessed with efficiency," said Lamberson, who streamlines everything involved in inventory and receiving behind the scenes. "It's how I think about things. When we started this, we knew in order to make it affordable, we're going to have to run it as lean as we possibly can."
Their son, Emmet, created and runs the website, including the super-easy online ordering. He works full time and takes classes at Cuesta, while his brother, Dakota, who is homeschooled, helps with the store whenever he can while working on his homework upstairs.
- Photo Courtesy Of Emmet Arries
- ORGANIC FOOD, AFFORDABLE PRICES Gather Natural Market focuses on food—you'll find everything from oat milk to local produce. Buying from local farmers, ranchers, and food purveyors is their priority, and the owners are passionate about supporting sustainable, regenerative farming practices. Here, Olivia works the register.
Before Gather, Arries and Lamberson ran a health food store in Kauai for six years. Their island model, which focused on eliminating food waste and only importing what people wanted, has served them well on the mainland.
Arries said they source as much as they can seasonally and locally, and they use services like women-owned, sustainable practice, award-winning Veritable Vegetable, an organic distributor out of San Francisco, for the rest of the produce.
In the early days of sheltering at home, I gauged the pace of the entire food supply from Gather. It was interesting to observe shopping patterns in the community.
"The whole distribution system had to do a pretty big re-working," Arries said. "You order 3,000 products, but not everything comes," she laughed.
They'd put up a sign that they'd be waiting for certain items. Her store was being affected by LA, which was being prioritized for shipments. By the third week, they were getting a 40 percent fill rate (down from about 95 percent).
Currently, the store is in good shape, and Arries gave me a new shopping tip. They just started carrying beyond organic, regenerative local lamb from Paso Robles, a project Arries is excited about because the rancher rotates the sheep on native grasses.
"We have Templeton Hills [beef] back in stock right now," she added, "and we have RobinSong Farms squash and potatoes too, and he's bringing us watermelon. Even though everyone wants watermelon in June, our local watermelon season just started."
Which means we can all stock up on the last local harvest of summer fruit a week before the first day of autumn ... perhaps strange for some, but what's normal in 2020? Δ
Flavor writer Beth Giuffre is making a normal grocery list. Send tasty tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.