In 2019, when Jamila Owens-Todd made the decision to purchase the Golden Grocer, which has been a go-to source in St. Louis for herbs, vitamins, health foods and natural skin care products for more than 40 years, she had no idea how much interest in preventive health would increase in the coming year.
“We’ve all been affected by this pandemic in so many ways,” says Owens-Todd, “but one of the things that’s universal is people wanting to take control over their health.” In addition to staying apart and wearing masks, people have flocked to Owens-Todd and the Golden Grocer to find out what else they can do to improve to their wellbeing and boost their immunity while grappling with the pandemic.
“I don’t love the fact that we’re in a pandemic,” says Owens-Todd, “but I do love the fact that people are understanding that it is up to them to keep themselves healthy and to keep one another healthy.”
For Owens-Todd, the roots of natural health and healing run deep. In her 13 years as a naturopathic physician, she treated patients holistically, considering not just their present ailments but their overall health. Her treatment plans for patients often included referring them to the Golden Grocer for the vitamins, herbs and healthy foods that would help prevent them from returning for future visits.
While some might be surprised at the path from practicing physician to store owner, Owens-Todd saw acquiring the Golden Grocery as a natural evolution of her work, and another avenue to spread the message that preventive health care through healthy eating is one of the best ways to take care of yourself.
“I can only see so many patients per week,” says Owens-Todd, “but having a store and the customers, I feel like we’re an extension of that practice.”
The Golden Grocer opened in 1976. Owens-Todd first became a regular at the Golden Grocer when she was studying chemistry at the University of Missouri – St. Louis, before she embarked upon her career as a naturopath. The store was her main source of herbs that she experimented with at home.
When Owens-Todd started her naturopathic practice, she not only referred her patients to the store but the store also frequently referred patients to her. So when the opportunity arose to purchase the Golden Grocer in 2019, she jumped on the chance to take ownership of the store. Then COVID-19 hit.
“We became a huge resource for people in the local community,” says Owens-Todd. As people looked to protect themselves from the coronavirus, and hearing that vitamins and supplements could boost their immunity, demand increased so much that the Golden Grocer couldn’t keep enough elderberry, vitamin C and vitamin D on its shelves.
As she navigated a new business during the pandemic, a key source of support for Owens-Todd was the St. Louis Regional Chamber of Commerce Diverse Business Accelerator, which she joined in September 2020. (It was originally offered through the St. Louis Regional Chamber of Commerce, and is now a program of Greater St. Louis, Inc.) The accelerator is for ethnically, racially and gender-diverse business owners, and helps participants plan actionable business goals, market and communicate their services, and make meaningful connections to further the growth of their business.
“It felt good to have that community support,” says Owens-Todd, “but it was also great because you had just so many tools at your fingertips, whether it was chatting with the HR specialist or a CPA or getting legal advice.”
In addition to learning how to manage a new business, she was also dealing with the challenge of moving the store to a new location. Formerly in the Central West End, the Golden Grocer is now in the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood. Owens-Todd hopes the store will make an even greater difference in its new community, especially for people of color who have also been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
“There are so many disparities that we experience when it comes to health care and practitioners,” says Owens-Todd. “Historically, we have not had the best track record with Black folks in the health industry and medical science — being given shoddy treatment or led to experimentation or just not being truly considered or heard.” This history pushes Owens-Todd to help empower her patients and customers to be advocates for themselves.
“When I think about being a Black woman in the health field and championing other people to be their own health advocates,” says Owens-Todd, “that is second nature to me.”
It’s something that she hopes Golden Grocer customers take away from their experience with the store.
“I would love for that message to be kind of interwoven into the store,” says Owens-Todd, “where it’s like, yes, these options are for you. Trust yourself and come find what works best for you.”
Building up the reputation for Golden Grocer as a trusted space for everyone is one of Owens-Todd’s most important goals for the future. Another is making space on her shelves for more local and Black-owned businesses, as well as being a resource for those business owners.
“I want the Golden Grocer to be the business that supports other businesses,” says Owens-Todd. “That is something I want to be more visible with, and really intentional.” Currently, the store supports two organizations through proceeds from its community days: Dear Fathers, which works to elevate the community of Black fathers, and Jamaa Birth Village, the Ferguson-based midwifery clinic that aims to improve health outcomes for Black women and infants.
What Owens-Todd wants most for her customers to take away from their experience with Golden Grocer is that while the store and its team are a resource and support for their health, each person can take on a more active role in their own health and healing— from listening to their bodies to advocating for themselves.
“I truly do believe that we are all healers,” says Owens-Todd. “I just want folks to know that is where healing starts.”