Reviews

Publishers Weekly (4/14/14) was the latest to kick in with a few nice words.

Marketing executive Dobrow charts the remarkable growth of the natural food industry over the past 15-plus years in this enlightening volume. Having worked with companies such as Fresh Fields, Whole Foods, Balducci’s, and Sprouts, he offers valuable insight on how consumer demands evolve and the ways in which organic food producers work to meet these changes. Dobrow introduces key moments and players, combining history and sociology with “biographical memoir, and corporate profile.” He explores the influence of widespread critiques chemical agriculture such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and, more recently, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The author also profiles the forerunners behind particularly successful natural food brands including Mo Siegel, who started Celestial Seasonings in Colorado, Bob Moore who turned Bob’s Red Mill “into a $120 million business selling a wide variety of wholesome stone-ground grains, flours, and cereals,” among others. Their stories prove interesting and their continued success reflects the increasing popularity of the industry as a whole. (Feb.)

 

The Brown Alumni Magazine ran this very nice review by Beth Scwartzapfel in their March-April 2014 edition:

The  milk you put in your granola this morning could have come from a myriad of sources: perhaps it was soy milk, or calcium-enriched Lactaid, or organic milk fortified with omega-3 fatty acids. And even if it came from your local dairy, writes Joe Dobrow ’85 in his new book about the health food industry, “local” likely means several hundred miles away. “Your grandparents’ milk? It likely came from the milkman,” Dobrow points out. “Or from the cow.”

In Natural Prophets, Dobrow traces the cultural and economic forces that in the course of a single generation have drastically changed how we eat. He celebrates a movement—small and marginal at first but now a $100 billion industry firmly entrenched in the mainstream—that aims to take us back to a diet our grandparents would have recognized. Sort of. (“If the consumers want organic Twinkies, then there should be organic Twinkies,” Dobrow quotes Cascadian Farm founder Gene Kahn as saying. “Organic is not your mother.”)

The book is packed with funny anecdotes about the quirky characters who collectively built today’s natural-foods juggernaut, usually through dumb luck, outsized hubris, or both. Dobrow begins with the iconoclastic health nut J.I. Rodale, who launched Organic Gardening magazine in 1942, seeding a large publishing empire that even includes the publisher of Dobrow’s book.

He traces a path from macrobiotic pioneers Michio and Aveline Kushi (founders of Erewhon) to Mo Siegel, whose foraging led to Celestial Seasonings teas, and Gary Hirshberg (husband of Meg Hirshberg ’78), whose early years as cofounder of Stonyfield Farms involved “milking cows in the morning” and then driving around town with a cooler bin to deliver the milk. “We just drove fast,” Hirshberg told Dobrow. “Who could afford refrigeration?”

Dobrow tells the story of a retired Los Angeles teacher, Sandy Gooch, who in 1977 founded Mrs. Gooch’s health food supermarkets. The California chain was the first to establish “natural” standards and eventually wielded such buying power that, before manufacturing a product, companies confirmed that a product was “Goochable.” Just fifteen years later, aided by a Harvard MBA and capital from Goldman Sachs, Mark Ordan established Fresh Fields in Maryland. By 2001, however, Texas-based Whole Foods had bought both Fresh Fields and Mrs. Gooch’s, as well as New England’s Bread & Circus and other natural-foods grocery chains across the country, forming a daunting retail behemoth.

Dobrow was marketing director at Fresh Fields and Whole Foods (among other places), and his loyalty to Corporate Organic is plain. He portrays the men running these companies (the only women he features are Gooch and Oregon Chai founder Heather Howitt) as saviors, improving not only our personal health and environmental well-being but also the very ethics of doing business in America. Today’s social entrepreneurs seeking a “triple bottom line” (economic, social, and environmental) have these “natural prophets” to thank, Dobrow says. (As an example he cites the beverage company Runa, which Tyler Gage ’10 and Dan MacCombie ’08 created from a business plan they formulated in a Brown entrepreneurship class.)

Dobrow observes that most of the food brands born of hippie idealism have since been subsumed by megacorporations. Cascadian Farms, for instance, is now owned by General Mills, and Coca-Cola owns Odwalla. “It was,” Dobrow writes, “an ineluctable journey from co-op to co-optation.” He grapples with the contradictions inherent in Corporate Organic, but ultimately concludes that getting natural foods onto our tables is the important part—and if big business helps, then we’ve made “tremendous progress.”

In the end, Natural Prophets adds up to a lively historical mosaic, one that answers the “sort of open-ended rhetorical joke that often went around the co-ops … in the earliest days of the natural-foods revolution,” Dobrow writes: “What happens if the mission actually succeeds?”

 

Library Journal (2/1/14) may not have gotten my gender right, but they liked the book:

“Some buy strictly organic whereas others have been known to count Twizzlers as a
serving of fruit, but we’re all increasingly concerned with what we eat and where
the food we eat comes from. Executive Dobrow’s first book focuses on the business
side of the organic and natural foods industry in the United States. While only
five percent of food sales are “natural” products, that number still constitutes an enormous
market (and one that’s growing at an increasing rate). This is the story of how
“health” food stores have evolved from the hippie co-ops of the 1960s, with their emphasis
on bulk bins and macrobiotics, to the gleaming food emporia of today. VERDICT  While primarily
focused on companies and their founders, Dobrow succeeds in relating
changes in the natural foods industry with concurrent social and dietary movements.
Her surprisingly interesting, well-written, and well-researched chronology offers a social
and corporate history spotlighting large U.S. natural food stores and manufacturers.
Purchase where there is interest.—Susan Hurst, Miami Univ. Libs., Oxford, OH

 

Kirkus Reviews (1/15/14) had this to say:

Marketer, management scholar and journalist Dobrow chronicles how natural and organic foods were transformed from the pursuit of a few idealists to a thriving, multibillion-dollar industry.

The author examines the whole food movement from the postwar period, when alarm bells began ringing about the proliferation of chemicals and nuclear waste. He traces its “philosophical but impractical development by idealistic children of the sixties” to the 1980s and ’90s, when an ambitious group of opportunists laid the foundation for “its current state as a bubbling crucible of mission-driven entrepreneurial activity.” Calling it “one of the great ironic twists in modern history,” Dobrow chronicles how the vision of the early counterculture, which embraced environmentalism but rejected the capitalist get-rich-quick ethos, was transformed into the successful business plan of “some of the most successful capitalists of our time.” In the process, the author introduces a fascinating cast of characters less well known than the heroes of Silicon Valley but arguably equally influential in transforming the way we live and work. Including the CEOs who put Whole Foods, Stonyfield Farm and Trader Joe’s on the map, they have made a “larger contribution to the health and sustainability of the planet and the humans who ride on it than just about anyone else in the modern era.” Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, one of the key players, typifies this group of mission-oriented business leaders. He has fostered a highly competitive leadership group with an eye to the bottom line while maintaining the quality of the produce on the shelves of an expanding empire of stores. Mergers, acquisitions, vertical organization with private labels and branding were all important. These days, conventional food manufacturers such as Quaker and Kraft are also marketing health foods, yet with “natural foods only represent[ing] 5 percent of total food sales,” there remains much to be done.

A lively, informative look at the transformative potential of a mission-driven niche industry.

 

Also check out some of the reviews people have written on Amazon — and for God’s sake, please add your own!

 

Here is some of the advance praise for Natural Prophets:

Joe Dobrow’s account of the birth and boom of America’s natural/organic food industry is not merely about a spectacular business phenomenon. It is a very human story that introduces us to the minds and hearts of entrepreneurs who created gastronomic empires out of high-flown ideals. Their improbable rise to fortune and fame, keenly framed in the context of the late 20th century’s cultural upheavals, is history at its most compelling.

– Michael and Jane Stern, authors of Roadfood, NY Times bestselling Elvis World and The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste, and weekly contributors to public radio’s “The Splendid Table”

 

Like all good Bible stories, Joe Dobrow’s history of the Natural Foods movement starts in the darkness and moves to the light.  It makes the connection between what we take in, and the quality of what comes out.  Thanks Joe, I feel better already.

– Paco Underhill, author of Why We Buy and What Women Want and founding president of Envirosell

 

At last we have the story of how the natural products business evolved from a scattered bunch of mostly struggling producers and retailers into the major industry it is today.  But this is not a dull business narrative. It is about idealistic people who believed they could change the world, how those people met sometimes through luck and circumstance, how they created a shared vision, then through hard work have indeed–even while competing–changed and are still changing the world. Dobrow is a masterful narrator, and even if you know nothing about natural products, even if you know nothing about business, you will be drawn into the lives and stories of the disparate group of people who created from scratch an industry that changed the way Americans eat.

– James A. Autry, author, The Servant Leader and Choosing Gratitude 365 Days a Year, and former president of Meredith Corporation’s magazine publishing group (Better Homes & Gardens)

 

Natural Prophets is a beautifully written, factually rich account how a handful of fascinating people built the natural foods industry, and how that industry influenced other businesses into believing that missions and causes really do matter. It’s an intriguing read for anyone who grew up in the 60s and 70s and then lived through the business transformations of the 80s and 90s.  And it’s a must read for anyone with an interest in natural foods or triple-bottom-line entrepreneurship – including today’s business students who dream of becoming tomorrow’s conscientious leaders.

– Carol Cone, cause marketing pioneer and Global Practice Chair, Business & Social Purpose at Edelman

 

In my lifetime of reviewing books about American Western and 20th century social history, Joe Dobrow’s Natural Prophets is one of the most important, original, revealing and significant books I have ever read.  Based on two decades of archival research and repeated live interviews of hundreds of the able, imaginative founders of organic farming and producers of fresh, natural foods, Dobrow shows how these “pioneers” fought the use of lethal chemicals and pesticides in farming and food production.  The author deserves high praise and recognition for providing all Americans with a fuller understanding of the reforms achieved by the whole foods industry that helped shape and affect every aspect of our lives today.

– Howard R. Lamar, former President of Yale University and Sterling Professor Emeritus of History

 

“There is no better guide to the ever-evolving world of natural and organic food markets than Joe Dobrow.  He has had a court side seat to this fascinating chapter in the history of American Food.  Joe approaches his subject with a passion that is equally met by this insightful analysis of what it takes to get ‘the message’ out there.”

 – Katy Sparks, Executive Chef, Tavern on the Green, New York, New York and Principal of Katy Sparks Culinary Consulting