Oh, Mama! 25 years on the Westside for natural-food store
Kent and Sue Sasinka had no elaborate concepts when they started Mountain Mama Natural Foods on the Westside in 1979.
Sue had gotten interested in herbs, and the couple liked the idea of having a place “where we'd feel good about going to work,”
as she put it.
They never expected the store to survive so long, both said with a smile in a recent interview. So they definitely appreciate celebrating its 25-year anniversary Saturday, Sept. 18 - offering free tastings, food samples and other specials for customers. Mountain Mama is located at 1625 W. Uintah St., in the Uintah Station shopping center.
The Sasinkas didn't know it at the time, but they'd already made one of their best business decisions several years before starting the store. That was their daughter, Julie, who was a pre-teen when the store opened and has since evolved into an ownership partner and principal manager.
“When I was little, I would play in the store and hang out,” Julie Sasinka recalled. “As I got older, I started helping out and doing some of the tasks. In high school, I would come into work and see employees screwing off and told my parents I could do twice their work for half the pay. They said all right. And as time went by, it became more and more my baby.”
“We're very lucky she wanted to be in the family business,” Sue observed. She recalled her daughter at age 8, solemnly asking her mother how much they were paying in rent.
Commented Kent: “She whips this place in shape better than I ever did.”
Things were different in the days when Mountain Mama opened. There were no chain stores or restaurants offering natural foods or drinks. And items like crunchy granola or organic produce were yet to be found in big grocery stores.
If the Sasinkas had one main merchandising goal at the outset, it was to be a bit more of a “one-stop shopping” location than the five or six natural stores then in the city, according to Kent. Even now, Mountain Mama shoppers can find fresh produce, herbs, bulk foods, deli, bakery, supplements, coffees and various packaged ingredients for meals.
The store's first location was about 800 square feet in the standalone building in front of the Uintah Gardens King Soopers. It wasn't an easy go in the early years. For a long time, the Sasinkas didn't pay themselves salaries. “But we were stubborn and stuck with it,” Sue said.
Julie recalled one turning point was when her dad started baking bread. “It became the essence of what the store was,” she said. “We were next to Furr's Cafeteria, where older people went to eat. They liked the high fiber in our bread, and we gained a following.”
By 1986, the store was doing well enough that when the Uintah Station shopping center went in just east of Uintah Gardens, its owner asked Mountain Mama to become the anchor store in the corner site nearest the street. The Sasinkas gambled on the new, larger location, and expanded again not long after when the Hungry Howie's Pizza in the next-door unit closed suddenly.
Now the store is 5,000 square feet, which is plenty big enough for the time being. The Sasinkas once toyed with the idea of adding an east-side location. “I'm glad we didn't,” Sue said. “We'd have doubled our headaches.”
Added Julie: “We're just trying to provide quality natural foods. We're not trying to conquer the world.”
As it is, she said, with frequent changes in consumer tastes, “we have to tweak things here and there.” For example, “during the low-carb craze, our bread took a hit.”
Kent is amazed that the natural-foods industry has grown as much as it has. In the early days, he said, many of the store's suppliers were “mom-and-pop” businesses too, and often “there weren't enough products to fill the shelves.”
The owners concede that from a pure price and volume standpoint, Mountain Mama can never compete with the big natural- food chains, which began appearing in the '90s with the space, staff and corporate infrastructure to offer a vast spectrum of products.
“We're just one family,” Sue said. “We can't have every flavor of everything.”
Yet Mountain Mama continues to thrive, employing 18 people who serve a steady flow of customers seven days a week. According to Kent, the continuing support of Westsiders is “the thing that's kept us here. The people here are wonderful.”
Westside Pioneer article