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Real Food Market & Deli Works On ‘Building Community’ In Helena, MT

Real Food Market & Deli

Laughing Water, owner and general manager of Real Food Store Inc., dba Real Food Market & Deli in Helena, Montana, does not have a traditional grocery industry background.

He started practicing yoga at age 13. A Presidential Scholar in high school, he earned a degree in philosophy and psychology at MIT. His graduate studies took him to the University of Illinois and the California Institute of Asian Studies, where he immersed himself for two years in Eastern and Western psychology, Zen and Tibetan Buddhism and the natural food scene in Berkeley, California.

Laughing Water headshot
Laughing Water

“My grocery career actually started in 1972, when I worked at Earthworks Natural Foods in Champaign, Illinois, and that provided me some background to start the Real Food Store.”

Founded in 1975, the store was an outgrowth of the Feathered Pipe Ranch, which was just beginning as a world-known yoga center. While there, he met the yoga instructor, India Supera. 

With India’s last $2,000, they started the store, which Laughing Water has managed since day one, according to the store’s website. The two were married a year later and remained business partners until India’s death in 2019.

“I had come to the ranch to cook in exchange for a three-week yoga workshop and was asked to stay as the chef and to help open a natural food store to supply healthy food for the ranch,” he recalled. “We started it with $2,000, and it was a very bare-bones operation, even for Last Chance Gulch in Helena, Montana, offering bulk foods and other basics.”

Between his various personal and academic interests, Laughing Water said he came to the natural food industry “via the human potential movement, the challenge of living life to the fullest. That’s also my definition of health.”

The store grew very slowly, but “eventually we and the world caught up with each other, as we enjoyed the mainstreaming of natural foods and natural healing.”

Real Food Market & Deli

Twenty years ago, the store moved to its fourth – and present – Helena location in the Hustad Center, where it features a full organic produce department, popular deli and fresh meat department.

For the past 10 years, it has drawn direct competition from Natural Grocers, as well as the wider availability of similar products in conventional stores and online. Much of Laughing Water’s current work is writing software for the store and “exploring computer potential in conjunction with human potential.”

A self-proclaimed avid programmer, Laughing Water said he and one of his assistant general managers have developed much of the store’s software. They are planning to deploy their own POS system soon.

“We use FileMaker for that and a host of other applications. I’ve found ChatGPT to be very helpful in writing software in various languages, researching for articles and getting answers to questions about health and nutrition – always worth cross-checking.”

While supply chain is not a current issue, the tight labor market remains a concern. “We seem to be succeeding in building an excellent team by paying higher wages and having a culture of caring for each other and our customers,” Laughing Water said.

He added that inflation has “put a damper on business generally,” and he has had to pay closer attention to updating prices.

The personalized service offered by Real Food Market & Deli helps differentiate it from competitors. This includes special orders and making custom sandwiches, Laughing Water said.

The company wants to take serious steps on fighting climate change. “These can include better insulation, installing solar panels and heat pumps, electrifying our kitchen, getting off gas generally and revamping our refrigeration.”

Real Food Market & Deli plays a big role in building community.

“These are crazy and divisive times, and we have the opportunity to heal our community in each encounter,” Laughing Water said. “As an organization, we embrace Marshall Rosenberg’s system of Nonviolent Communication, which is a powerful tool not just for resolving conflicts but discovering how to meet everyone’s needs. So there are key values and messages we share through our interactions and our public communications.”

The store also supports several local organizations, particularly through its bag-reduction program, “which has kept nearly a half-million bags out of the waste stream and has provided tens of thousands of dollars to Montana Shares.”

Laughing Water has served on the boards of the National Nutritional Foods Association and Provender Alliance, and currently sits on the Independent Natural Food Retailers Association board.

“I get particular pleasure from my involvement with INFRA, which is a truly excellent organization. As a cooperative of independent natural food stores, we can look at ourselves not as part of a chain, but as part of a movement toward healthy people and a healthy planet.

“I got into this business through the human potential movement. Right now, we live in explosive times, and it’s an explosion that can either blow us apart or propel us into a better future. A lot depends on our food system.”

He said his favorite thing about being an independent grocer is interacting with people. 

“Seeing people I’ve known nearly half a century as they’ve become, as I have, parents and grandparents. Working with a team of people as we grow and learn how to be of greater service. Dreaming of the future we can create together. One of our slogans is ‘Feed your dreams with Real Food.’”

Read more market profiles and other independent store news from The Shelby Report.

About the author

Treva Bennett

Senior Content Creator

After 32 years in the newspaper industry, she is enjoying her new career exploring the world of groceries at The Shelby Report.

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Featured Photo PLMA Annual Private Label Trade Show
Donald E. Stephens Convention Center
Chicago, Illinois
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