Aaron Gottlieb’s second-story office at Native Sun’s Baymeadows location oversees a packed store where vegans, vegetarians and carnivores alike can snag organic and GMO-free food.

In 2015, Gottlieb looked to Jacksonville Beach for the third location. Gottlieb is the founder of Native Sun, the independent natural foods store whose Jacksonville Beach location, which opened fall 2015, won the New Hope Network’s award for “Best New Store” last month.

Native Sun has plenty of awards, but he’s quick to point out a New Hope Network award isn’t “just another” award. They have the two largest natural foods trade shows, Expo East and Expo West.

“They understand that innovation and food comes from small businesses and entrepreneurs,” Gottlieb said. “Big corporations are good at using systems that make those ideas work, but they’re not usually the new idea generators.”

He added that New Hope Network not only places emphasis on independent ownership at a time when big box stores have recently entering the natural foods markets. They look at other factors like how the business treats employees, how they make sustainable packaging or how they judge raw manufacturing of materials.

“This is a team award, not an owner award. To me, it represented teamwork and community,” Gottlieb said.

The first Native Sun opened in Mandarin and in 2006, Gottlieb expanded to a location off Baymeadows. Gottlieb’s office is covered with pictures of his children and wife Erica (whom he co-founded Native Sun with in 1994). Gottlieb told me his desire to open his store came from a menial job at a health food store in Atlanta where he would memorize the labels. He thought the experience could be far better.

In 1994, there wasn’t a clear definition of what a natural food store was bringing the consumer.

Aaron Gottlieb- Courtesy of Native Sun

Aaron Gottlieb — Courtesy of Native Sun

Gottlieb, a Jacksonville native (hence the name Native Sun), was only 21 when he conceived the idea, though it took about two years to “figure out how to get food on the shelves and figure what building we were going to be in.”

Aaron and Erica shared a $20,000 salary doing what they loved. Success soon followed, as most of the other natural foods stores weren’t food-focused and Native Sun was easy to access for people coming from out of town. Native Sun was the first store to bring organic milk to Jacksonville. They had customers driving from Palm Coast and Georgia.

“I couldn’t believe how many hours people drove to get to us every day. They brought their coolers,” Gottlieb said. “These customers are still Native Sun shoppers because they learned [of] our story early.”

But the Jax Beach location is a tad different, a “pilot store” as Gottlieb refers to it. The Mandarin and Baymeadows stores sit near different sections of Highway 295, but the Jax Beach store is in the center of the Beaches community.

Community is the theme resonating through the majority of conversation (Gottlieb must have mentioned it a dozen times). Community means different things to different people, and different ways for interaction.

“We stopped ourselves at the word community. We like the old-school philosophy as a neighborhood market,” Gottlieb said.

I accidentally went to a Publix adjacent the Baymeadows location. I tell him for some reason (“Why would you go there?” he laughs). He’s not abrasive or bitter when he talks about large chains encroaching into the natural foods market. But he said it’s clear why chains entered the foray — money.

“These big box stores are opening up to capture arteries and veins, they aren’t trying to capture community,” Gottlieb said. “They’re trying to capture financial growth that their shareholders are asking for where the growing markets and ripe opportunities are.”

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Gottlieb said chains might give people a version of natural foods, but that isn’t necessarily what people expect. People want natural foods to be truthful, Gottlieb said. They want ethical food, affordable food (to a degree), and they want easy access to that food.

As for the award-winning Jax Beach store, Gottlieb said it represented a more defined community and lifestyle, a community that customers could walk and bicycle to and embrace Native Sun.

“I’ve always felt that Beaches have been an established people’s community, meaning they watch out for each other, they support each other’s businesses, they support each other’s personal missions,” Gottlieb said. “A company like Native Sun is so in-line with the values of the beach community that I can’t see myself not wanting to be there.”

The types of interactions Native Sun had with people confirmed Gottlieb’s thought process of opening the location as soon as they opened the doors, that people wanted a community destination for a natural foods store.

“We’ve gotten such overwhelming community support,” Gottlieb said. “We couldn’t ask for a better response from the Jax Beach, Neptune Beach and Atlantic Beach community to look at a business and go, ‘They’re really here for us.’”