Even though Natural Grocers has 142 stores in nineteen states across the country — twenty in metro Denver alone — the company doesn't consider itself a mainstream chain. "We are a unique, specialized store," says Raquel Isely, who works on special projects for the company. "We have different values and different standards for our products than most food chains."
In fact, Natural Grocers got its start in 1955 as a little local store named Vitamin Cottage. Founded on principles of high-quality food, a commitment to the community and nutrition education, Vitamin Cottage grew to a national outfit, but tried to remain true to its most basic tenets. Today it still offers free nutrition education lectures, sources its food locally and runs a donation program.
Natural Grocers had its alternative values in mind when it paired with local graffiti artist and entrepreneur Ratha Sok to paint large murals on the walls of three metro stores. "We want these murals to help represent us as a company," says Isely. "We try to make our stores friendly, inclusive and welcoming."
With vibrantly colored, earnest-eyed cartoons of anthropomorphic vegetables ambling through a forest, the mural on the Natural Grocers at 368 South Broadway, which just opened on May 31, is about as friendly as it gets. But the chain chose to work with Sok for more than just the eye-catching quality of his artwork; he's also a well-known community activist around Denver.
In 2011, Sok rated a profile as one of Westword's 100 Colorado Creatives. Growing up in the projects of Westwood, he'd found a voice in graffiti art before being sent to juvie after he was caught tagging. Years later, Sok channeled his passion into a street-art company, 2Kool, which made custom hats and T-shirts, then moved on to found Rawh, which works with local youth in graffiti workshops and collaborative mural production.
Isely learned of Sok through local rapper and health-food activist DJ Cavem, who worked with Natural Grocers in 2016 to make a music video for a healthy-eating campaign. Cavem wanted to feature art in the video and recommended Sok, who created the first mural on the Natural Grocers store at 3825 Tennyson Street. "Tennyson was our first try," says Krystal Covington, director of public relations and customer service, "but now we're hooked."
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Sok has created a mural at the Natural Grocers store in Boulder as well as the new location on South Broadway, and will soon work on a store mural in Klackamas, Oregon. In the meantime, he's in the midst of a large project at a store that will soon open in RiNo, working on the mural with at-risk high school students. "Working with Sok has been an excellent opportunity to give back to the community," Isely says, adding that Sok's support of the arts and youth involvement epitomizes her company's commitment to local communities.
The founding principle of Natural Grocers, she explains, is the idea that "everyone should be able to eat healthily," not just those who can afford it. Having local high-schoolers help Sok paint his mural exemplifies what Natural Grocers hopes to achieve at its stores: Young people who can't afford expensive organic foods will find an affordable, inclusive space at Natural Grocers.
Sok doesn't normally sign his murals, but the kids who work on the RiNo project will leave their signatures on it. "When they walk by the mural and see their names," Isely says, "they'll be able to say, 'I participated in that.'"