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Shelves at Natural Grocers were waiting for only a few minor items Monday morning as employees readied the store for its grand opening at 8:56 a.m. Tuesday.

“We like to let people get here a little early,” Andi Valdez, the team leader for operations, said with a laugh on Monday. She added that they close at 8:04 p.m., so customers have a few extra minutes to shop.

Natural Grocers, at 3061 N. Montana Ave., is the 61st store in 13 states, and the third in Montana to open. The Colorado-based business was founded in 1955 by Margaret and Philip Isely, who believed that consumers should have access to affordable high-quality ingredients to help manage their own health, and the knowledge of how to use those ingredients.

“We’re not just offering high-quality healthy products, but we have groups that monitor the ingredients and the sources of them,” said Nancy Flynn, the company’s marketing director. “We are the biggest label readers in the market and track all of the ingredients.”

Laughing Water, owner of Helena’s other organic grocer — the Real Food Store — welcomed the new business.

“We’re happy to see that organic and natural food are catching on as well as they are,” he said. “We know competition can be good for business and it inspires us to serve our customers even better. We’ve been part of the Helena community for 37 years and we hope people appreciate the value of supporting a local business.”

Flynn notes that the new store is “green” from the ground up. Located just south of Custer Avenue, it was constructed with a high-efficiency heat exchange system, commercial-grade LED lights and energy-efficient motion-sensor lights. The company quit using plastic bags for groceries in 2007, and stopped offering paper bags a year later. Instead, the store has bins of boxes by the five check-out counters, and also offers re-usable grocery bags for sale for between $1 and $5.

“We encourage people to bring their own shopping bags; we’ll donate five cents on their behalf to the local food bank. We pay that every quarter,” Flynn said. “That adds up to hundreds of thousands of dollars we’ve given — of our money, not the customers — to food banks.”

Valdez, along with assistant store manager Tony Thebeau, proudly showed off some of the other store features. Valdez said they don’t have a specific gluten-free section because they have so many of those items. Instead, they’re sprinkled throughout the store, with bright purple stickers making the gluten-free foods easy to spot.

They carry a wide variety of hormone-free meats, claiming to come from “pasture raised” livestock. The store also stocks a wide range of alternative meat products for vegetarians and vegans.

Valdez pulls out a six-page list of what people won’t find at Natural Grocers, which includes items like artificial sweeteners, human growth hormones, antibiotic soap and monosodium glutamate.

“We’re very strict about what we carry,” Thebeau said. “We investigate the products and are selling only stuff that we believe in.”

Flynn added that they also try to keep costs low.

“Everybody should be able to afford to eat healthy,” she said.

Pointing to various products, Valdez notes that they try to use local vendors whenever possible. The farm fresh eggs come from the “Egg Lady” in Elliston; the milk, with cream still on top, is from Victor; and Sweet Rita’s soap is made in Helena. They also carry Wheat Montana bread from Three Forks.

“We try really hard to find local products,” Flynn added. “People can submit ideas to our website — naturalgrocers.com — because we’re always looking for local products to expand into our store.”

In the back of the store, behind large glass doors, is a kitchen and an area where shoppers can sit to watch cooking demonstrations. Valdez said they’re recorded and also can be viewed again at the company’s website.

Natural Grocers also employs a credentialed nutritional health coach, who will give free consulting sessions for people who are trying new diets.

“She’s like a nutritionist and will have an office, work in the aisles and give free coaching sessions and cooking seminars,” Flynn said.

The store also has four aisles of health supplements, as well as a special health and beauty corner. In addition, it has a community space with Wi-Fi where people can enjoy free coffee or tea. The store also offers “grab and go” items that they can microwave in the back of the store for a snack or light meal.

Initially the store will employ 20 people. Flynn said that could double as the store grows.

During their grand opening week from Jan. 6 to 12, the store will host free food samples and daily prize drawings, with a grand prize drawing for one of seven items on Jan. 31. Natural Grocers also has recently opened stores in Billings and Missoula.

“There are a lot of factors involved in choosing where to open a new store, but we focus on places where residents seem to be caring about value and health, and look for options to help their families be healthy,” Flynn said. “We feel we can move in and be a big part of that community.”

The store’s phone number is 442-1000.

Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or eve.byron@helenair.com. Follow Eve on Twitter.com/IR_EveByron

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