The Most Interesting Person We Know | Mustard Seed Market co-founder Margaret Nabors

[su_note]The print version of this article very incorrectly states that it was written by Sophie Hamad. In truth, Elizabeth Tyran, who also pens the “Only in Akron” column, is the author of this piece, and I think she did an excellent job. Let me express how sorry I am to have I screwed up the part of my job that requires giving credit where it’s due. Please don’t be mad at me, Liz. – Chris [/su_note]

From just one seed a local icon grows…
by Elizabeth Tyran

How did the Mustard Seed Market begin? One name: Margaret Nabors. In a way, it started with an unborn child. When she was pregnant in 1971 with her first child—her daughter Marcella—living a healthy and organic lifestyle became a priority.

“It was one thing to be responsible for my own nutrition,” Margaret said, “but now I was responsible for someone else’s. So I started by just cutting white bread and pop out of my diet.”

Then, as she was driving one day, Margaret had what she describes as a voice inside of her, beckoning her.

“It was a like a Noah’s ark experience,” she recalled. “Only instead of go build an ark, it was go build a store. So, I said, ‘Alright! I’ll go build a store!’”

PHOTOS from the Mustard Seed Market's website.
PHOTOS from the Mustard Seed Market’s website.

She had no trouble finding help.

Phillip, who is her husband now, was her boyfriend at the time and already lived a vegetarian lifestyle, so he was completely on board with the idea. Even her ex-husband Joe and his family were very supportive. They shared custody of Marcella so both families continued to get along, and they still travel and vacation together today. Joe’s aunt and uncle, who owned GOJO Industries, were like surrogate parents to Margaret.

So Margaret met with realtors and ordered equipment for the store, even though she didn’t know how to pay for it. That’s when Joe told her that his uncle was offering to help cover her start-up costs.

“When were you going to tell me that?” Margaret said.

Joe replied, “When you asked.”

In 1981, that first store came to fruition in the Merriman Valley and Margaret—or Maggie, as her friends and family call her—is proud to say she was able to pay back every penny of that loan, with interest.

As we spoke, I was taken by her honesty about herself, her business and her life while also being extremely warm and personable. Without a hint of boasting, she described the hard work it took to open what has become a community icon, explaining that in the beginning “you do everything yourself, you just make it work.”

Phillip rocks the stage at Musica. (PHOTO: Liz Tyran)
Phillip rocks the stage at Musica. (PHOTO: Liz Tyran)

Phil agreed and even added that they made a lot of mistakes and failures along the way, “but you just keep at it.”

Eight years after opening in Merriman Valley, she and Phil opened the Montrose store and hired Bruce Grimm as their new produce manager, tasked with finding “local farmers and support organics here in Ohio.” Bruce had worked produce in conventional grocery stores and wasn’t particularly interested in organics at the time. But that started to change when the skin on his hands, which had always been cracked and sore from constantly handling produce sprayed with chemicals, healed once he switched to organic produce.

After Phil took Bruce to the Organic Farmers Conference in California, Margaret says Bruce returned having “found a new religion: organics.”

At that point, Margaret says, “Both Phil and Bruce were off to the races to cultivate a fairly wide community of organic farmers.”

She also credits an Amish farmer named Alvin who led a movement for Amish organic farming. He would take a buggy to the bus station followed by a bus to Cleveland or Akron, sometimes spending the night at Phil and Margaret’s house only to get up at 4 a.m. to start all over again on his quest to distribute. She says a lot of organic Amish farmers followed what he was doing in 1989 and 1990.

Today, the Mustard Seed uses refrigerated trucks to make multiple weekly trips to area farms to retrieve fresh organic crops. But that doesn’t afford the Nabors family special privileges when it comes time to stock the pantry at home.

“I’m a shopper just like everybody else,” Margaret says. “Everybody in our family has to go through the checkout line. There’s no grabbing off the shelf and just taking things home. Everybody’s accountable.”

The author, Liz, and subject, Margaret, after the article went to print. They'd never met before running into each other at Phillip's concert. (PHOTO: Liz Tyran)
The author, Liz, and subject, Margaret, after the article went to print. They’d never met before running into each other at Phillip’s concert. (PHOTO: Liz Tyran)

Since she shops during normal business hours, Margaret will run into customers who remember her bringing their first son Abraham to work.

“I’d be rocking him in his carrier with my foot while I rang them up.”

Now he and his brother Gabriel are taking over the family business. Margaret says she and Phil never pushed them in that direction but were happy their sons did.

“It’s wonderful,” she says. “The business can now stay in the family.”

It gives her an opportunity to reflect on her own experience with the market.

“I feel very blessed and lucky that I got to do something that satisfied my value system. I was excited to go to work every day. Our employees became our family. Not everyone comes in a believer and not everyone leaves a believer, but some come in and their eyes are opened, and that’s a beautiful thing to see.”

Margaret may be retired but she hasn’t stopped working hard. Her current project is a blueberry farm. She says it’s a “wonderful retirement package.”