Natural Wellness Pioneers: NOW Foods

An old photo of Elwood Richard working in his lab

The natural wellness business is booming. In 2017 alone, US retail sales for natural and organic products hit $207 billion. Not so long ago, the choices we now take for granted didn’t exist. Those who sought a healthier way of life were called “health addicts,” “health nuts,” or worse!

Luckily, the vision and determination of America’s early health advocates has led to the current bounty of products aimed at helping people achieve optimal health.

The Story of NOW Foods

In 1949, Paul Richard, a trained pharmacist from the Chicago area, bought a soybean product company called Fearn Soya Foods. At the time, soybeans were almost unheard of in the US. By 1950, Paul was selling a chocolate soy protein powder, one of the country’s first protein supplements. His three sons, Elwood, Lou, and Bill, all credited the product with improving their cross-country running times in high school.

When Paul and his wife, Verna, died in 1960, the sons took over the company. As eldest, Elwood, then 29 and a chemist (see photo above), was primarily in charge. Always a scientist and tinkerer, Elwood began experimenting to make the family business more successful. Before his death in 2017 at the age of 85, four related businesses had been added to the fold.  

In 1962, Elwood opened a health food store in Elmhurst, IL, to better understand what the public wanted. He initially kept the store a secret from distributors, a strategy that allowed him to monitor how they were duplicating Fearn products in their own private brands. Over the years, that store grew into a chain of 13 called The Fruitful Yield.

The Birth of NOW Foods

In 1968, Elwood founded NOW Foods, which stood for Natural, Organic, and Wholesome. The company began packaging natural foods and vitamins to be sold in its stores at low prices. Other health food stores followed suit, and 50 years later, NOW is still going strong. About 40 family members still own the business, including Elwood’s wife, Betty, and their children, David, Sharon, and Dan.

What began as a modest family venture now employs 1,400 workers and offers about 1,500 dietary supplements, functional foods, sports nutrition items, and health and beauty products. It owns several manufacturing and distribution facilities in the US and Canada.

The Role of NOW Foods in The Industry

Harvest Health Foods of Michigan has stocked NOW products in its retail space for 50 years. “Since day one, we’ve been purchasing from them,” said Mitchell Nol, Harvest Health’s director of technology. “NOW offers high-quality products at very reasonable prices.”

NOW understands the challenges faced by retail store owners, such as keeping up with consumer trends, he said. “By the time we’re asking for it, NOW Foods is making it.”

The Legacy of Elwood Richard

In 2005, Elwood “retired,” and a new president was chosen. That year, the corporate name changed to NOW Health Group, and NOW’s slogan became “Nutrition for Optimal Wellness.”

Elwood remained chairman of the board and still came in to the office. “He would work 80 to 100 hours a week most of his life,” said his son, NOW Vice President of Global Sales and Marketing Dan Richard. “He was constantly seeing that the glass was half empty in our business, which I think is what drove us. It was, ‘Why don’t we do this?’”

Growth and Change to Meet Demands

Meeting customer demand has always been an interesting challenge. In 2012, Dr. Oz discussed six NOW products during different episodes about “belly-blasting supplements” on The Dr. Oz Show. The mentions of those items—7-Keto, Black Currant Oil, L-Carnosine, Relora, Red Mineral Algae, and Rice Bran Oil—caused each product to jump well over 1,000 percent in sales.

“The sales deluge was so extreme that NOW’s overall inventory service level dropped enough to be our next major corporate problem!” wrote Dan in the book he penned about the family business, Beating the Odds.

Rising to The Challenge of Fukushima

A different demand occurred in 2011 after Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdown. As radioactive radiation spread, people began asking NOW for potassium iodide, which is used for radiation poisoning.

“We had never produced or sold potassium iodide before, but with the emergency scare in full force, all departments at NOW worked together to quickly research, test, purchase, manufacture, and bottle 75,000 bottles within just two weeks of the nuclear accident,” wrote Dan in Beating the Odds.

Being part of a financially solid, privately held company “allows the leadership team at NOW to be very adaptive and agile,” said Jim Emme, who’s worked for the Richard family for nearly 24 years, becoming CEO in 2014. “We are a large company, yet we can think and act quickly in an entrepreneurial manner.”

Retail in The Internet Age

The Internet has changed the way NOW and The Fruitful Yield stores do business. “Amazon is really killing retail everywhere,” said Dan. “It’s a terrible competitor because they don’t make money on what they do. At least not on packaged goods.”

The changes to the way people shop have been challenging but have also resulted in strong brick-and-mortar retail store survivors, Dan said. He points to thriving natural products stores that are affiliated with health experts such as chiropractors, certified nutritionists, or naturopaths, and ones that offer special features such as smoothie bars.

“Every store needs some kind of niche that they’re really good at. You can’t get that online,” he said.


Lynn Tryba

Chief Content Officer

Lynn aims to empower people to make informed decisions about their health and wellness by presenting the latest research on exercise, nutrients, and supplements in reader-friendly ways. She has a deep respect for the power of food as preventive medicine and believes that small steps in the right direction make a big difference.