BayouIcon: Angie O’Pry Blades
Success Comes Naturally
Article by Kay Rector
Photography by Martin G Meyers
Long before “organic” and “gluten-free” became household words, Angie O’Pry Blades understood the correlation between nutrition and health. For decades, she has touted the benefits of natural foods and wholesome, organic products. At Fiesta Nutrition Center in Monroe, Blades provides customers with long-standing favorites, as well as the latest offerings in whole foods and nutritional supplements for optimal health and wellness.
What began as a part-time job eventually grew into a life-long vocation. As a college student, Blades worked after school at Fiesta Nutrition Center, Monroe’s only health food store. Established in 1976, Fiesta was at that time a small retail outlet, tucked away in the courtyard of Twin City Plaza, near the entrance to Twin City Mall on Louisville Avenue. In those early days, Blades recalls, business was slow. “We were on the fringe,” she says, with demand for health food products limited to a loyal, but very narrow, customer base.
Blades attended what was then Northeast Louisiana University, majoring in Home Economics. Although her degree emphasis was interior design, she really enjoyed her nutrition classes, especially the “food labs” where students explored food from a scientific perspective. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the health food industry was not yet the lucrative commercial enterprise it is today. Despite the lack of widespread acceptance of a holistic approach to health, Blades followed her passion and learned all she could about nourishing the human body. She loved her job at Fiesta, selling natural food products and nutritional supplements.
Following graduation, rather than pursuing a career in interior design, Blades continued working for Fiesta owner, Ed Arnold. Blades and Arnold negotiated an arrangement for her to buy the store upon his retirement. She became the store manager and learned to handle all aspects of the business operation, while keeping up with trends and changes in the field of health food and nutrition. Arnold passed away before retirement, but his family honored his agreement with Blades, and she became the owner of Fiesta Nutrition Center. The timing of her acquisition was favorable, with healthy food choices and natural alternatives to processed foodstuff slowly becoming more popular among consumers.
Blades was also experienced, having grown up around retail food sales. Blades’ grandparents owned a grocery store in Eunice, Louisiana, where she spent lots of time as a young girl helping her grandmother. “It was an old-fashioned grocery with a meat market and smokehouse on the premises. They owned it together, but it was really my grandmother who ran the business,” Blades says. “She was the shopkeeper. She had a good memory for people, and people trusted her opinion. She was a really hard worker.” Blades loved going to her grandparents’ grocery store. She also recalls that as a child, before moving to Monroe from South Louisiana at age 13, she would play “store” instead of dolls, setting up a pretend shop from which the neighborhood children would “buy” goods.
Like her retail grocery experience, Blades’ knowledge of the health food industry and its history has served her well. “The health food movement started on the West Coast, in California, back in the days of Paul Bragg, Jack LaLanne and Gayelord Hauser, all pioneers in the industry,” Blades explains. “The first products we carried were Blackstrap Molasses, Braggs’ Apple Cider Vinegar and Brewer’s Yeast.” She notes that herbal teas have always been popular, with many of the recipes handed down through generations. Blades remembers young mothers calling the store looking for catnip tea, because a grandmother recommended catnip for a baby’s colic. She says that a lot of information was passed from one generation to the next.
Before the Internet, health and nutrition information was not as readily available to consumers. People would read books, but they also relied heavily on their local health food merchant for information and suggestions. “We never prescribe or make claims,” Blades stresses, “but we do recommend. In this business, you really become familiar with your customers and their needs. Now, with the Internet, it has catapulted into something totally different. Customers are more informed and do research on their own,” Blades says.
Blades acknowledges that the attitude of acceptance that health food merchants now enjoy is a vast improvement. “Back when we started, when someone said ‘health food’ most people thought of granola and a bunch of hippies,” Blades laughs. “That really was never the case. Most of our customers have always been educated, good people interested in improving their health.” Blades says that even now, people are often surprised at what they find when they come in the store. “We are on our fourth generation of customers here,” says Blades. “That is one of the most rewarding things. I see young people come in with babies, and I have known all four generations of the family. I have some customers in their 80s and 90s who have been shopping with us for thirty or forty years.”
Several years ago, as her business thrived, Blades began looking to expand. She had always admired the building at 1211 North 18th Street that formerly housed The Woman’s Shop, a popular high-end clothing store, and thought it would be a great location for her business. Built in 1965, it was one of the first buildings along the North 18th commercial corridor. “As a teenager,” Blades remembers, “I used to drive by and look at the show windows at The Woman’s Shop and think ‘someday I am going to be able to afford a dress in that place.’” She never dreamed that she would one day own the building.
Al Peterson, realtor with John Rea Realty and a Fiesta customer, took her to see the North 18th Street location. Blades recalls that when she walked in, she knew instantly that it was perfect for her business. “If I had thought about it too long, I probably never would have done such a big expansion,” she laughs. “My banker, Rick Siudy at Origin Bank, discouraged me. He was afraid it was too big.” She says that Siudy and others were skeptical, asking her what she was going to do with all that space. These days, Siudy just smiles and shakes his head when he comes in her store, happy to see that Blades proved him wrong.
With the move, Blades tripled the floor space of Fiesta Nutrition Center. She hired additional staff, eventually expanding from two employees to twelve, added departments and products and put in a lunch café. Fiesta’s inventory has increased substantially in both volume and variety.
Blades attributes much of her business’ growth to the burgeoning popularity of natural and organic products. Record numbers of consumers, realizing the negative effects of chemical pesticides, are opting for organic produce. They are shying away from foods high in sodium or laden with artificial ingredients. “In the past decade, there has been a surge of people demanding clean, healthy food and also truthfulness regarding the food they feed their families. People are looking for foods raised without pesticides or artificial growth enhancers. Even among young people, this is happening,” Blades says. “People are concerned about what is in the foods they are eating, and are willing to pay a little more for a superior product.”
Blades finds it exciting to see such an emphasis on healthy food choices and natural products widely available to consumers, even though that means more competition. “We were the first to bring some of these ideas and products to Monroe,” says Blades. Health foods are now being offered everywhere, and customers can often find items like organic produce, gluten-free and non-genetically modified alternatives and even some supplements at Brookshire’s and Walmart. “What makes our business a success is the personal service,” Blades points out. Blades and her staff offer a wealth of knowledge for local shoppers looking to improve the way they fuel their bodies and minds.
Blades is very careful in selecting Fiesta’s inventory. If a product appears on the shelves of her store, one can be certain she has researched it before placing it there. In many instances, Blades has actually visited the manufacturing plant where the products are created. Many manufacturers allow retailers to tour their facilities, and Blades began taking these tours years ago as a way of learning more about the products she sells. “We are able to see the whole process and the progression from raw material to bottled product on the shelf,” Blades says. “It is really fascinating. When you see how a company tests the materials it receives at the back door, to be sure that it really is what they say it is, before sending it on for processing, it is definitely a loyalty builder. The bottling facilities in these plants are pristine and you have to suit up before entering to avoid contamination. Samples of the different batches are kept in archives, so if ever there’s a problem they will be able to address it. So much goes into creating a good product.”
Blades feels fortunate to have an array of options. “Product lines are much more plentiful than they used to be,” she notes. “The products we carry are backed by scientific research and adequately and truthfully labeled.” Blades also points out that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has a much greater presence now than it once did and is more likely to prohibit distribution of products that are inferior or do not live up to accepted standards. Blades says that the health food industry is also self-regulated by quality companies that demand superior products and truth in labeling. Blades buys from companies that participate in a True Labeling program. She explains that these organizations buy products anonymously and test them, reporting the results. This process leads to better labeling and better standards in the marketplace.
Blades and her staff try to stay up-to-date and well-educated about industry trends and new products. “We read journals and go to classes and seminars,” she says. Blades has served on the board of the Natural Products Association for a number of years and was President of the Southwest Region for two years. She is a current board member of the National Natural Products Association and is involved with its lobbying efforts, traveling to Washington, D.C. to advocate on behalf of the natural products industry. “It is important for our legislators to recognize the consumer’s right to buy good products,” Blades says, “and to insure that labeling is regulated.”
Blades’ food philosophy is that, as a general rule, “[i]f God made it, then it is good. Whenever man has a hand in it and alters it, that is where we usually start going off track.” Brilliant people, she says, often manufacture or genetically alter foods and pass them off as healthy alternatives to the real thing. That is why she considers lobbying efforts on behalf of the natural foods industry so important.
Blades says she was fortunate to grow up in a family that cooked, served and even grew healthy food. “My parents and grandparents always cooked, and they had gardens. We always had fresh fruits and vegetables from the garden, meats from my grandparents’ meat market and fresh fish that they caught themselves.” One of her goals is to introduce as many children as she can to fresh food. Blades speaks to children’s groups and school classes, and is sometimes shocked at her reception. She laments that she encounters some children who have never seen or tasted spinach or avocado or bellpepper. Even today, with all of the information being disseminated about the benefits of healthy food, many children still live in what Blades refers to as a “food desert,” without access to natural, whole fresh foods. “The really sad part is when children of means aren’t introduced to anything fresh, either because of their lifestyles or their parents’ choices. That is a real tragedy to me,” says Blades.
For individuals and families looking to improve their eating habits, Blades suggests a gradual upgrade. “It isn’t necessary to throw out everything you already have. But as you run out of something, replace it with something healthier, like organic apples instead of the ones you normally buy.” She recommends introducing new foods a little at a time and trying new things. She finds that customers are usually pleasantly surprised by the taste, as well as the health benefits, of different food options. She points to yogurt as an example of something that, not so long ago, only “health nuts” ate. Today, multiple varieties, flavors and brands of yogurt are purchased by mainstream grocery shoppers every day.
Fiesta employees regularly conduct in-store taste tests, so that customers can try new products before buying them. Fiesta also offers an organic produce box program through which customers receive assorted, seasonal fruits and vegetables. Blades says this program can be a great way to try out different foods. Her store also sources eggs from a local farmer whose chickens are raised in a natural environment and fed an organic, chemical-free diet.
When she is not ordering, stocking and selling food and supplements for her health-conscious patrons, Blades enjoys cooking and even does small catering jobs for friends and customers from time to time. When traveling, Blades loves to try new restaurants and visit other health food stores and farmers’ markets. As a retailer, however, her time is very limited. Fiesta Nutrition Center is open six days a week, Monday through Saturday, from 9:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. Even when the store is closed, there is much to be done to keep her business running smoothly. Lately, Blades has been focusing her efforts on the remodeling and expansion of Fiesta’s café. Look for the reopening of Fiesta’s lunch spot in early 2017, with fresh ideas and new concepts.
Although owning a retail business can be challenging, Blades finds it rewarding. She loves her job and looks forward to starting each day. To this she attributes much of her success. “Just showing up each day and allowing something to happen,” Blades says, is crucial to success in any endeavor. “Every day is different. In a day’s time, I may see every walk of life, men and women of every age, race and socio-economic status, all looking to better themselves.”