When Natural Grocers opened last month at 304 S. 24th St., the number of organic markets in the city expanded to five. All are located in downtown or the West End. None are in the Heights.
“When a business hopeful wants to put up $100,000 or more for building and inventory, then there will be a health food store in the Heights,” said a staffer at one health food store.
Billings’ natural food stores are Bonanza, Good Earth Market Cooperative at 3024 Second Ave. N., Mary’s Health Foods at 2564 King Ave. W., Montana Harvest at 1710 Grand Ave. and Natural Grocers.
Main line stores such as Albertsons and IGA are beginning to stock an increasing number of organic foods. Also, Yellowstone Valley Outdoor Farmers Market opened July 21 at Skypoint at Broadway and Second Avenue North. The seasonal open air market runs until Oct. 6.
The five most commonly purchased food items in the United States are non-alcoholic beverages, proteins (meats, poultry, fish and eggs), dairy, cereals and bakery, fruits and vegetables, according to Aaron McNary, an economist at the Montana department of Labor and Industry in Helena.
A Billings specific market basket using the five items from the Federal Consumer Price Index was created Wednesday, July 11. Prices ranged from 39 cents a pound for ripe organic bananas to a high of $9.29 for a frozen boneless chicken breast one-pound package.
The Organic Prairie brand from Wisconsin contained no added salt water, according to labeling. No one natural foods store was consistently cheaper than any of the others.
All sell bulk foods including spices, herbs, grains and cereals. These tend to cost less than in the main-line grocery stores since the consumer can buy exactly the amount desired, rather than a box or carton with a much larger supply.
Bonanza and Mary’s carry only limited amounts of fresh or frozen foods, with Bonanza carrying only a few items in its cooler. Mary’s specializes in locally grown meats from surrounding ranches. Dairy items in most of the stores are long on the supply of yogurts and short on cottage cheese and some types of milk, due to low demand and rapid expiration dates. Buyers planning to fill their complete shopping list at one store would be wise to call about specific items.
Each store has unique customer benefits. Good Earth Market Co-op charges a membership fee, which includes a monthly 15 percent discount on all items, plus a 15 percent discount for seniors. GEM provides bicycle racks and loans out a bike pump. It is the only store in Billings to offer free electrical charging while the car owner shops.
Deli soups, sandwiches and salads may be eaten in comfortable dining accommodations, in the midst of frequently changed original art. The co-op hosts various small meetings and supports various social causes with a lengthy bulletin board and publications.
Bonanza offers a purchase card with the fifth purchase 20 percent off. Montana Harvest on Grand makes shopping a quick “in-and-out” with a lot of customers stopping in on their way home from work.
Natural Grocers has an enormous inventory and an abundance of newly hired employees eager to please.