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Why we’re going to make this work

Does a gloomy economy mean you can’t open a new community health store? Not when you’ve got a vision like Kathy and Jeb’s. Alistair Forrest reports from Okehampton…

Last autumn Kathy James-Castle and Jeb Pleace reckoned the economic downturn was no match for community spirit, great communication and a wealth of natural health knowledge.

So they took over the lease of 52 Red Lion Yard in Okehampton, Devon, and the Health Foods & Nutrition ‘health hub’ was born.

“We got the key for the unit on September 30th. Our fantastic Thyme Store agent Sam Batten met me that evening in torrential Okehampton rain to give me Yogi tea bags and various goodies to hand out to passers-by,” says Kathy who has a background in health and social research, marketing and management while Jeb’s experience is in social care, retail and e-commerce.

“The next day we set up a table as part of our Saturday market which takes place in the yard outside our unit and introduced ourselves to people, offering them tea bags.”

Tea bags distributed, they turned their attention to making changes to the unit and over the course of a few weeks bought a till and started to order stock.

“We kept the door open and placed signs announcing that a new shop would open soon so as people put their heads round the door we could begin our relationship with them,” says Kathy. “We told them our aim was to be ethical, caring about the health of people and the planet.

“We established an identity of wanting to stock the things that people are familiar with as well as products that are new on the market.”

It wasn’t long before their fans asked for particular products to fill the new shelves and displays as they were installed. Thyme Store and Hunt’s (Queenswood and The Health Store) obliged.

“We have been lucky that customers have been patient and kind, directing us to products they want to buy and offering praise at our changes to the unit. We were directed to exciting products such as Truthpaste.” (This they found through along with other creative and ethical products for independents).

An AquAid water filter for free water bottle refills ticked the box of discouraging single-use plastic bottles and encouraged people into the shop to see a growing range of healthy snacks.

Shop local

Customers loved the bright and inviting shop that was emerging after opening up blocked windows and burning essential oils. A dark winter of viruses led to conversations about how to cope with low mood and energy, fixed with Lion’s Mane and Floradix among others.

“Some customers make us aware of the discounts that are available online through Holland & Barrett, yet we hear how much they want to support local shops, and how our personal touch and empathy make our shop a lovely place to go,” Kathy says.

“The demographic of our customers is very wide. Some of our customers use the local foodbank on a regular basis, while some are reassured of the quality of our products by their price. None of them want to feel tricked! We keep to RSPs and make that clear to customers to demonstrate our honesty. In this way we can make it clear that increases are external and we have no choice.”

An alarming electricity bill brought difficult decisions about frozen and chilled products. The pair decided not to stock vegan meat substitutes thus avoiding the purchase of a large fridge or freezer. There are three supermarkets on their doorstep which means they can’t compete on chilled meat substitutes anyway. So they have a fridge with a small range of drinks specifically requested by customers, such as Biona organic pomegranate.

January turned into a month of investment rather than profit and a focus on high-margin supplements while they waited for Spring sunshine to encourage new customers.

Cost of living

Kathy and Jeb refuse to complain while they balance listening skills with maintaining a healthy business.

“The woes of the country and the world are frightening,” Kathy confesses. “Customers have asked to stagger payment by putting their purchases ‘on the slate’ as it was called many years ago. We agree to this with customers we know and trust but we monitor it carefully. We are humbled by the Ukrainian refugees who arrive in the town with nothing and are making a new life.

“To avoid losing the customers who are struggling financially we keep stocks of low-priced items such as dates and bran even though there is negligible profit, and we keep prices of refills of plant-based cleaning products very low.”

Suppliers have been supportive, as they always are. There’s not a lot they can do about cost but they’ve stepped up to help the embryonic business, for example Thyme Store (samples), Viridian (samples, POS, and literature), Nature’s Aid (samples and POS), Holistic 6 (samples and POS) and Good Health Naturally (literature and samples).

“We’ve had many visits to the shop from our reps which helps with feedback on changes we’ve made and possible changes for the future,” says Kathy. “We’ve worked really hard on building relationships, making changes in order to stock profitable and ethical products, and making the shop a place people want to visit.”


A website,, was launched in January to coincide with an advert in a booklet distributed to all houses in the area. A Facebook page promotes products and themes to help customers understand the products and how they relate to their lives. New housing developments in the area mean an expanding community and in turn Kathy and Jeb are learning new skills to attract newcomers. They’ve also invested in technology that processes detailed analysis of sales so that in the shop and remotely they can consider patterns and trends to inform business and investment choices.

“Our aspiration is to be a health hub in Okehampton for our surrounding population where people can access advice, specialist sessions and products which are ethical and help people manage their health,” concludes Kathy.

“Growing the business through communication, collaboration, trust, and knowledge is how we hope to survive and thrive through the economic downturn.”

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