Nature Is Nurture at Cambridge Naturals

Cambridge NaturalsCourtesy of Cambridge Naturals.

Inside the store that grew out of 1960s counterculture

Just inside the front doors of Cambridge Naturals is a black-and-white photo of two young adults—barely more than kids, really—whose hairstyles and fashion speak eloquently of the 1960s. 

They are Michael Kanter and Elizabeth Stagl. Now husband and wife, they met at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where they were nextdoor neighbors whose buildings shared a trash area. Like so many great love stories, the beginning of theirs was not particularly auspicious.

“She came over one day to say we weren’t taking out our fair share of the garbage,” recalls Kanter, a grin on his face. “I’d gotten really stoned earlier that day because I got a birthday card from a girlfriend who had dumped me the year before. So I said, ‘I’m in no condition to take out the trash,’ and slammed the door in her face.”

A few weeks later, they ran into each other at a party. This time, things were considerably more friendly. Dating soon commenced, then came love, then came marriage, and the baby in the carriage … and, eventually, one of Cambridge’s first health food stores.

Today you can find those two kids kicking around the store in the Porter Square Shopping Center. The hair may be a little grayer, the clothes more contemporary (though still fashionable), but in all the important ways Kanter and Stagl are still the same young progressives who met at SUNY Buffalo: Social activists who embraced the peace, racial justice, anti-war, and environmental movements.

They also happen to be successful entrepreneurs who built a tremendously successful business on those values, which they still live by today. Though for Kanter, the food-related values had a bit of a rough start.

“I come from a background where my parents started me on health foods when I was a kid,” he says, adding with a laugh, “I was mortified, embarrassed; nobody was eating that way. They used to take me to hole-in-the-wall health food stores and I’d hope none of my friends would see me.”

But this was also the era of the Vietnam War and “Silent Spring,” Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking book on pesticides. And once Kanter realized “we were spraying fields in Vietnam, destroying their fields so people would go hungry,” he made the connection that healthy, organic food was a worthy product for people to buy and, for that matter, to grow.

So after college—he took a degree in history, while Stagl was one of the first women to earn an accounting degree there—they came to Massachusetts, where Stagl worked at a nonprofit and Kanter got involved in his brother’s health food store, located in Arlington. 

Cambridge Naturals
Elizabeth Stagl and Michael Kanter. Photo courtesy of Cambridge Naturals.

A few years later, in 1974, the trio opened Cambridge Naturals. Stagl and Kanter bought out his brother 43 years ago, and they’ve been running and growing the store ever since. What began in a room of about 600 square feet on Mass Ave. is now a major tenant in the Porter Square Shopping Center, with more than 16,000 natural and organic products on its shelves. Strolling through the store is like taking an aroma-based walking tour of the world as you inhale the scents of spices, floral scents, chocolate, herbs, essential oils, tea—seriously, you could just stand here all day enjoying the smells, and nobody would blame you.

Those well-laden shelves carry a vastly different selection of goods than in ’74, and Kanter says one of the keys to Cambridge Naturals’ longevity has been its adaptability.

“My current title is chief visionary officer, and it’s because I saw these trends and I saw the hunger, the destruction of our environment and our soil, and that people were going to want to be part of doing something better for the environment and themselves,” he says.

So the food section has shrunk while other offerings have expanded: health and beauty products, CBD, household goods, teas and coffees—all sourced so that they meet the couple’s ethical standards for fair trade, natural ingredients, and supporting farmers, artisans, and workers.

“Our customer count is increasing so much due to the fact we have products that can help people with all kinds of issues,” says Kanter, “but the most significant issues of the last several years—particularly since Nov. 8, 2016—are stress and sleep. Those are huge.”

The store has also focused on products for women who want “to get away from products they don’t want to use in or on their bodies,” whether those address menstrual issues or skin care or their libidos.

“We’re not shy,” notes Kanter while standing next to a display of items dedicated to sexual health and pleasure. 

In one way, these are the products that best exemplify the philosophy that drives Cambridge Naturals: It’s about feeling good.

“People want products from companies they feel good about, that they feel are from good, ethical companies,” Kanter says. “Including, but not limited to, companies run by people of color, by women, and fair or direct trade. The reason people love us [is] we know those products, where they come from, and we need to, because customers are coming in really looking for deep advice on how to improve their lives.”

That requires a well-trained, well-informed staff—and that, Kanter insists, means a staff paid a living wage. He and Stagl have long been advocates of raising the minimum wage at the state and federal level.

“I was asked [in February] to be available to testify at a congressional hearing as to why I make the business case for raising the minimum wage,” he says. “I have done it at the Massachusetts State House, on radio, on TV.”

Almost five years ago, the couple’s daughter Emily and her husband Caleb Dean moved back to Cambridge from Portland, Ore., and joined the family business as “second-generation co-owners.” They run the day-to-day operations, while Stagl continues to handle the finances and Kanter researches trends and helps with oversight. 

That kind of hands-on family involvement, he says, has been key to Cambridge Naturals’ success.

“I think the one thing local businesses need to do is not just assume people will support them merely because they’re locally owned and independent,” says Kanter. “You still have to run a credible business, do awesome customer service, find products that are really good for your customers, treat your staff kindly, and do creative marketing. You have to run your business in a creative and thoughtful way.”

At Cambridge Naturals, that thoughtfulness continues to include the kind of social and environmental consciousness that emerged in the ’60s and which, if anything, has only become more resonant in the 21st century. And for Kanter, that’s a legacy he’s proud to offer his customers and his family.

“We’re both 67, almost 68,” he says. “There’s less time for us. We’ve got children, grandchildren, but even if we didn’t, we’re part of something much larger than selling a product. It’s nice to earn a living doing something we believe in.”

Cambridge Naturals is located at 23 White St. For more information, visit cambridgenaturals.com or call (617) 492-4452. There is also a location at 92 Guest Street, Boston.

This story originally appeared in the Environmental Issue issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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