Walking into Hobart, Tasmania’s natural and wholefoods store Eumarrah, I was struck by the warm earthy atmosphere, the use of natural wood, and the breadth of natural and organic foods on display in the state capital’s biggest specialist natural foods store.

The city of Hobart, population 220,000, runs up the lower slopes of Mt. Wellington, is a major Antarctic ship base, and is an important showcase for Tasmania’s international fine food and wine industry. It’s also where the world’s first Green political party was founded in 1972.

Eumarrah first opened in 1985 in Barrack Street, Hobart as a response to the then Socialist Workers Party taking over the then Unemployed Peoples Union and its associated shop.

The one-stop shop of around 160sqm ranges a broad selection of organic produce, natural and organic whole foods in bulk, natural and organic groceries, beverages and wine.

“Several of us involved in the UPU wanted to create a community resource and we started from the premise of good food at affordable prices that was environmentally responsible”, says founder Alban Johnson.

“We didn’t have a lot of experience and made lots of mistakes, and at times lots of losses, and eventually I ended up holding the baby so to speak. Because we were in a small city we could not specialise on just one area, we had to improvise and get a broad selection of foods.

“So we chose natural foods, organic foods, ethnic foods, gluten-free foods, vegetarian and vegan foods, GM-free foods, and even just foods that interested us. Over the years we had a number of shops in the Hobart area, then about 15 years ago decided to start a consolidation process, to have one large store with a wide range of products.”

While most of the staff initially were volunteers, over time things changed and we needed greater specialisation and professionalism, Alban says.

He explains that the northern Tasmanian city of Launceston had a shop with a similar history to the UPU except that the SWP didn’t take it over, the UPU simply degenerated and then sold the shop to private operators who ran it.

“We bought the shop about five years ago and undertook a huge renovation,” Alban says.

There are around 4-5 specialist stores in Hobart city stocking organics, and a group of five gourmet grocers servicing the city consumers and competing with two huge supermarket chains.

“There are many specialist grocers in Hobart but not so many natural food stores and we are proud that Eumarrah Hobart is the largest and Eumarrah Launceston second largest organic and natural food store in Tasmania,” Alban says.

Eumarrah stocks about 450 self-serve (bulk) lines plus another 1500 or so other grocery lines, with organics important, but quality, origin, and many other criteria are also considered.

Being in Australia’s southernmost city where retailers need most food products shipped into the island state, is a disadvantage outside of fresh produce.

“Surprisingly organic production is not strong in Tasmania, although we do have excellent suppliers like Kindred Organics, Forest Hill Farm, Elgaar Farm, Callington Mill, etc, Alban explains.

“There are also some excellent chemical-free (organic but not certified) producers, mainly of vegetables. So much product comes from the mainland or from overseas. We are lucky in that we are large enough to be able to choose specific suppliers for specific products, rather than just buying everything from a wholesaler.”

Sales have been growing strongly since Eumarrah opened the consolidated Hobart store eight years ago. “Regular customers are more important than anything and to us every customer is an individual human being, a person to be respected and treated as an equal,” Alban says.

Some of the trends seen at the store include a move towards superfoods, raw foods and paleo foods, while most of the population is moving more slowly in their diet.

 “Of course people are more concerned about what they put in their bodies every day, but many are also interested in the environmental and social impact of their food choices,” he says.

 On the subject of expansion plans for Eumarrah, Alban says, “Watch this space”.