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Traditional Sylva feed and seed store seizes chance to fill modern organic niche

It’s not everyday that you can shop at the local feed and seed store for organic foods and produce, but that’s the case these days in Sylva.

Last year at almost exactly this time, Deb and Randy Hooper took a significant business risk. The couple used the back portion of their building on N.C. 107 and expanded the 40-year-old Bryson Farm Supply by adding a small organics grocery. That means folks can pick up their fertilizers and shovels and other gardening needs from Randy Hooper, then shop in the Natural Food Store section of Bryson’s for that night’s dinner from his wife.

The Natural Food Store carries such hard-to-find delicacies as grass-fed local beef, natural pork, goat cheeses, free-trade coffee from the Cherokee-based Tribal Grounds, bins of grains and beans, locally raised trout and more.

Time has proven the Hoopers’ business hunch a good one: There is a definite local clientele for organics and naturally and locally produced foods, as also evidenced by the rapid growth of the county’s popular Saturday farmers market on backstreet in Sylva and at St. John’s Church during winter months.

The community has been hugely supportive, Deb Hooper said. That includes some free help from residents eager to see the business survive and thrive. Kolleen Begley of the Village of Forest Hills helped build a website for the business,, free of charge.

“I did their website as a type of community service and really had fun doing so,” Begley said. “I’m thrilled to see this small, local, family owned business carry the local foods as well as organic and Amish foods, and I support that — I hope to see them expand that part of their business.”

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Deb Hooper also has her hopes set, perhaps, of one day growing the store still larger. The size of Earth Fare in Asheville, she said, referring to one of the region’s largest natural food-based grocery stores.

But, don’t expect that kind of growth anytime soon: the couple wants to build the organics portion of their business slowly and wisely.

“This is still a work in progress,” Deb Hooper said, gesturing out toward the Natural Food Store, complete with its large coolers, stock laden wooden shelves and bulk bins. “We want to move forward with even more here, first. But I’d love to get big.”

It’s that kind of willingness, one of being open to forward motion after carefully calculating business opportunities, that often spells the difference among local businesses that endure and survive this tough economy and those that don’t, said Paige Roberson, head of the Downtown Sylva Association and head of economic development for the town.

“They’ve changed as needed over the years,” Roberson said of Bryson’s, which Deb Hooper’s parents opened in 1972. “They try and meet customers’ desires for certain products.”

Roberson knows a good bit about the hardware store business: her family once ran Roberson Supply, a hardware store then located a mile or two on N.C. 107 from Bryson’s.

Deb Hooper said opening and running a Natural Foods Store has proven quite an education. She and her husband are eating more local and naturally grown foods themselves these days, supplementing vegetables raised in their home garden.

“He settled right into it,” Deb Hooper said of her husband’s agreeability to try new foods that the expansion into organics has led to.

In addition to meats and bulk foods, the Natural Foods Store purchases and sells local honey and fresh eggs. Deb Hooper tried selling vegetables but discovered that her clientele is apparently made up of the same people who visit and support the farmers market. Seeing no need and little business opportunity, Hooper reversed course on the vegetables, limiting herself at least for now to other product lines.

Running a grocery store seems to come easily to Hooper. Though she openly acknowledged “I never thought I’d be doing any of this stuff,” her grandparents in fact owned and managed one of Sylva’s most popular groceries, Ensley Supermarket, for years.

“This is really my heritage,” Hooper said.

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