If you’ve never heard of them before – and I hope that you have – Erewhon is a wildly popular, Instagram-famous health food chain in L.A. known for its high-quality (and high-priced) natural and organic food wares. Despite its relatively recent Instagram fame, Erewhon has been around since the mid-1960s, with humble beginnings as a tiny macrobiotics health food store in Boston. But this humble little store became a trail-blazer, eventually establishing the natural food grocery store as we know it today.
Erewhon may be a crazy-popular grocer now, but they weren’t always. And even so, their humble beginnings made a big impact on the organic and natural food industry. To be straightforward, Erewhon is the reason we have Whole Foods and other natural grocery stores at all.
Erewhon began as a tiny retail store selling macrobiotic and natural foods, established in the spring of 1966 by Michio and Aveline Kushi in Boston, Massachusetts. Michio and Aveline Kushi were fervent followers of George Ohsawa, who taught them and many others the macrobiotic philosophy.
The macrobiotic philosophy is a “spiritual-philosophical tract drawing on both Eastern and Western thinking in which Ohsawa laid out his theory of the opposing forces in the universe and their application to a diet, based in part on Zen monastic cooking,” explains Nina Renata Aron.
The Kushis became early pioneers of the macrobiotic philosophy and diet, and Erewhon was the retail location they used to sell their macrobiotic and natural foods.
Even Erewhon’s name can be traced back to the Kushis’ idol, George Ohsawa. The name “Erewhon” (“nowhere” spelled backward, but with the “w” and the “h” switched) comes from Samuel Butler’s book by the same name, a favorite of Ohsawa’s.
By 1969, Erewhon had grown into the first natural foods distribution and wholesale company in the United States. The Kushis saw it as a macrobiotic company, but many of the young Americans who helped build Erewhon saw it as a natural foods company, too.
Once Erewhon had demonstrated that the grocery store model could be brought to natural and macrobiotic foods (i.e., easy access, good availability, reasonable prices, low margins, and high turn), they’d made it possible for producers and growers to expand and the retailers to exist. They had effectively created a distribution model that enabled both.
Over time, Erewhon introduced many new things, including whole cereal grains and beans as a bulk commodity in natural food stores. Many items, such as whole wheat flour, natural peanut butter, and packaged granola, were introduced to the natural food market via Erewhon.
Despite all of its innovations, Erewhon was eventually forced to file bankruptcy due to debt totaling over $4 million. Since then, Erewhon has closed its Boston location, now residing solely in Los Angeles, California, and has changed ownership several times.
In 2011, Erewhon was purchased by Josephine and Tony Antoci, who own it to this day. They’ve since expanded, adding three more L.A. locations: Calabasas, Venice, and Santa Monica. And according to their website, they “have more locations planned!” There are rumors of a downtown L.A. location in the works for 2019.
So what makes Erewhon so special? Well, their mission, listed on their website as “to make healthy, pure, nutrient-rich foods and products available to all and to inspire people to eat better, eat less and live longer,” certainly helps them stand apart from their mega-corporation competitors (Amazon now owns Whole Foods, after all).
Their commitment to natural, healthy foods is evident in not only what they say, but also what they do. Check out this list of ingredients you’ll never find in a product on an Erewhon’s shelf:
“The following products, which are commonly used as ingredients, additives, preservatives or flavorings in the food industry, will NOT be found here at Erewhon:
- Refined Flour
- Refined Sugar
- Yeast Extract (unless Organic or non-GMO)
- Corn Syrup
- Corn Starch (unless Organic or non-GMO)
- Soybean Oil (unless Organic or non-GMO)
- Rapeseed Oil (unless Organic or non-GMO)
- Canola Oil (unless Organic or non-GMO)
- High Fructose Corn Syrup
- Sodium Benzoate
- Maltodextrin (unless Organic or non-GMO)
- Monosodium Glutamate
- Natural Flavors (unless source is stated and approved)
- Artificial Flavors and Colors”
So the next time you find yourself hungry in L.A., pop into an Erewhon’s location and see for yourself what all the hype is about.