Welcome to Podcast Episode Number 7 of the Mobile Alabama Business Podcast with Jeff Sheldon. My name is Marcus Neto. I own Blue Fish, a digital marketing and web design company based in downtown Mobile on Dauphin Street. I'm the host of Mobile Alabama Business Podcast where we talk to local entrepreneurs and business owners about their businesses and how they got started. I'd like to thank you for spending time with us today.
For those of you listening to this on iTunes, I would like to ask a favor, if you could leave a review, it would really help us.
In today's show, I sit down with a good friend of mine, Jeff Sheldon, the owner of Health Hut, a locally owned health food and vitamins store specializing in whole food vitamins, minerals and herbs, sport supplements, weight loss products, and much more. They have locations in Daphne, across from Fresh Market, and in Mobile on Schillinger Road, just south of Airport. Jeff has a Master's Degree in Health and Fitness Management from the US Sports Academy and has been a personal trainer since 1997. He's been my workout partner for the last four years, so let's dive right in with Jeff Sheldon of Health Hut.
Marcus: Welcome to the Podcast, Jeff.
Jeff: Thanks for having me.
Marcus: So you and I have known each other probably for about 7 or 8 years, and we've been work out partners for probably about what, 4 or 5?
Jeff: Yeah, almost 4.
Marcus: Yeah. It's been really cool to kind of get to watch, from the sidelines, you grow your business. But before we get too far into that, why don't you just give us a little bio, if you will, of who Jeff Sheldon is.
Jeff: Okay, I grew up in Mandeville, Louisiana, played soccer, football, baseball, basketball, you name it. Broke my leg twice in high school, so I wasn't able to go any further with any sports like I wanted to, so when the orthopedic told me I wasn't allowed to do anything, the dummy in me decided to go play rugby in college, so I did that.
Marcus: That seems like a logical alternative. [laugh]
Jeff: I've always been the guy that goes against the grain. So, I went to college, went to Southern Miss, graduated. Got into corporate America for 3 to 4 years. And I did some bodybuilding back in college and I was always working out. I was actually a personal trainer starting my junior in college. When I got out into corporate America, I just realized with the type A personality I have, I had a hard time somebody in another state telling me how to run a territory a thousand miles away in a different place, different people, different everything.
Marcus: When they're not on the ground making calls...
Jeff: Right, right and my pay structure bonuses, commissions, were based on performance and if I do it their way my performance suffers, if I do it my way, not my way, specifically, but what I see to be the right way to grow the business and be the team player, it did, they just, they didn't jive so that's kind of when I realized that I had to do my own thing and be my own boss and I went back to graduate school, United States Sports Academy in Daphne.
Marcus: Very cool.
Jeff: Got a dual master's in sport management and exercise physiology nutrition and on the management side was so I could run a front office of a sport team like the Bay Bears or something like that or be information director at college something like that or in gym's facilities things like that. I actually graduated, I worked in Daphne at a wellness center, ran that for about 3 years. Again, had bosses is telling me to run things one way and have a tough time doing that and did well, I did very well at it as a matter of fact I grew their business by about 30% and then I just realized I couldn't do it anymore.
Jeff: Opened my own business in '05, shortly after I left the wellness center they folded, and we just have grown from there. Turned into retail, and as a strength coach and personal trainer, I would send clients and athletes to buy certain things for recovery and joint health and things like that, and they'd come back they bag full of stuff from a big box doors saying, 'I need this and this and this.' I'm like, 'Whoa, that's not NCAA compliant, so you can lose your scholarship if you get drug tested,” and they're going, 'Oh, well nobody told me that.'
Jeff: And that's when I realized it was a nitch to have, not necessarily the consulting side of things, but people need information, people are buying these vitamins and supplements and powders and all of the above without any knowledge of what they're buying. They're buying because of an advertisement or cause their friend is taking it or cause somebody get a commission off of it and sell it to them. So we kind of grew our business out of that.
Marcus: It's interesting that we've done a number of these interviews so far and one of the things that I'm hearing over and over again from folks is that mindset of an entrepreneur that it's just like you see something needs to be done in a certain way and it's not bullheadedness or just arrogance, it's just knowing that if you do it this other way that is really going to be that much better.
Jeff: Right and I can't, I don't know what's in other people's heads. I don't know what's in mine, and whether it's in nutrition or exercise or anything I sit in a building any business and I just think “how can I improve this, how can I could that”, and that's how my brain works. I'm driving down a highway and I see the back of the truck and an advertisement on it and I go, 'Gosh if I owned that business I would do this, this, this and this”, and that's just what brain does.
Jeff: We are potentially getting out of our comfort zone in this fall, doing another project, still in the health industry, but away from retail and just because I was in Louisiana and saw this business and went “Wow! That business would really thrive, but they should do it this way, this way and this way and this way.”
Jeff: It doesn't mean I'm right, I just see it differently and it's a blessing and a curse, I'm not going to say everything I ever laid my hands on is turning into gold, but you learned as you go.
Marcus: Yeah. Well, in the tech industry we call that A/B testing so you try something two things and whichever one works better then you go with that and then you do it again and you keep A/B testing until you figure it out, you're dialed in completely where and you seem to have a knack for that so.
Jeff: Or business, when I first started was mostly sport and nutrition we dealt with not all athletes, but I would say 80% of our clientele were athletes, young and old. I mean we had a lot of professional athletes that would come to us for nutrition, training, but also 'Hey I want to optimize my nutrition with supplementation, what can I take, what should I take? What should I not take?' And then it turned into these athletes, parents and siblings would come in for the same type of help and business now shifted where sport nutrition side of my business is maybe 30%, maybe 28% and now it's the wellness longevity, much of our business has turned into the baby boomers, people trying to just live a longer life, healthier and less pain and...
Marcus: Have you noticed and we're kind of going down to bunny trail here, but that's fine. Have you noticed over the last however many years, an awareness that has grown in people just in general?
Jeff: No question. No question.
Marcus: And so, what do you attribute that to, is it just that the magazines and the media and stuff like that are doing a better job of sharing information or...?
Jeff: We have a lot better information, we have a lot of new science. So, nutritionally the human body hasn't change that much, but there's a lot of science going on as far as we testing this in people, we're doing this in people. We have longer studies on specific things now, but then, the Internet. I mean you got, let's say Marcus dropped his blood pressure by this many points or dropped his cholesterol by this many points or dropped weight by this much pounds and you’re gonna post it on Facebook. Well, how many people are following you going home, "Wait, what did he do? How's he doing it?" And all see that's so the awareness of things is not just magazines and Dr. Oz as much as I don't give him a plug, that guy reaches a lot of people, and everything he does does have science backing it. So I mean he has reached a multitude of people that we can never reach.
Marcus: Millions, yeah millions.
Jeff: So what happens is people walk into a health food store going, 'Hey what is this stuff (plugging any product you can think of), I heard about it on TV. What is it? What is it do? How much does it cost?' So we have people come in to health food store that have never walked into health food store before just 'cause I saw guy on TV talking about it...
Jeff: ...or they saw their sister in law in Facebook mention it and going, 'Oh I want to work that is, let's go find out.' The awareness by the TV and the Internet is bigger than you think from the magazine article 'cause I read trade magazines, so I get to see new science. My customers don’t see any of that stuff. They rely on us to give them that information.
Marcus: Well, and so I want to ask you a question. I know the answer to this, but, or at least I think I do, but I'll ask you for the benefit of our audience... Obviously when you go into the health food or health store industry, what did you actually call?
Jeff: Health food store, yeah.
Marcus: Health food store. So when you go into the health food store industry, there are a lot of different options for franchising, but you chose to start your own, which obviously is not an easier way of doing things. Was that more of the 'well, I think I just know how to do it a little bit better than...' or was there something else? What made you, what drove the decision to go down that line?
Jeff: No, and I actually had a chance to work for Smoothie King when I was in graduate school. Had a very good opportunity, the locals at almost Smoothie Kings here were very good to me and let me manage some stuff, so I got to see from the franchisees' eyes how to do things, and as the guy that walks against traffic all the time, what I saw, and I don't mean this in a negative way, but what I saw was if I wanted to this, I couldn't because of the franchise rules or regulations and I've thought....
Marcus: Protecting of the brand versus what you needs best.
Jeff: Well, exactly and legally when you have a thousand stores or more or less, I don't know, you have to do things, you have a legal department that you have to make happen, you can do this, you can do this, you can do this. You're not allowed to do this, and this and this.
Jeff: And honestly in our industry we have to be very careful. We have trainings three or four times a year, why tell people and we have a training, we’re very adamant about, “you cannot diagnose, you cannot prescribe, you cannot treat”, what it says on the bottom your vitamin bottle these statements have been documented and regulated by the FDA not meant to diagnose treat, cure, prevent any disease, it's the same thing.
Jeff; You walk in and even if I know in the back of my head, “aw man, all this guy needs is blah and it will fix all his problems.” I can't tell you, 'Hey this will cure that.' because I'm making the claim right there and only a doctor can do that or only a product approved by the FDA could do that so what we do...
Marcus: Is that a verbiage then, you can say well my suggestion would be maybe to look it instead of this cures?
Jeff: Yeah. Exactly right. So what we do is we will say something like, 'Please check with your doctor - scientific evidence suggest this or research proves this” and we can lay out some facts where you can do your own homework or you can go ask your doctor and people they know that we have to work with the FDA in and around the FDA and people know “Listen I know legally you're not allowed to tell me what to do. What would you do if it was your wife or child?”
Jeff: 'Okay, it is my little girl, I'm going to do this.' and they'll say 'Okay, thanks for the help.' and they'll walk off and make their own decision and people always say 'You know I got this bone and this bone which one should I get?' I can't tell you which one to get, because I'm not your doctor.
Marcus: Well, it's int...you keep saying that and it's interesting to me and I'm not going to name any names, but I know a number of doctors and I had one doctor admit to me at one point in time that the things that I was bringing to him were very interesting to him, and that he had only had I guess maybe one class or he said one hour I don't know if you just meant one class or if he literally just meant one hour, but I mean either way, it's a very minuscule amount of training when it comes to nutrition and supplements. And then I have another friend who is a physician who has made it his passion to learn more about nutrition, because he is more of a holistic mind. Actually both of the guys were very holistic. I look for a physician that isn't against prescribing or suggesting something that I might find in your store versus something that I have to go down to the pharmacy to get, and so it's very interesting to me that you're still bound by that when even the people that you're saying that the person would have to go back to and get a prescription from would say that they really don't.
Jeff: Yeah so our medical “systems” are based on treatment not prevention 'cause we have so many people that go in sick or broken, need to be fixed and sent home, so that's how we focus our medical system for the last 200 years, I don't know, and we, are I see that turn in the prevention side of things but it's going to be a lot of years before we get to this medical system, this health care system as a nation that yeah, we treat that's what doctor's do but we also are here to teach.
Marcus: To advice.
Jeff: And that's exactly right but the hard part is...
Marcus: Getting the knuckleheads in the population to do what is...
Jeff: Something of employment...
Marcus: No, you can't say that.
Jeff: Yeah so as many...
Marcus: I'll say it.
Jeff: ...as many times as I can tell you pop tarts are bad for you, pop tarts are bad for you, pop tarts...
Marcus: It taste so good.
Jeff: ...it taste so good. Waahh, I'm not going stop eating that. And so I have a cousin who's a doctor and she tells me what time you know “when I first started my practice we would spend so much time talking to people, advising people how they can change things and fix things so they don't have to keep going back to us” and yet we keep coming back. It's like telling a smoker to quit smoking, you could always say it so much until it now it's just wasting our time. It's more real.
Marcus: Well, I think it's a generational thing right, so we a certain way because when we were kids that is the knowledge that we had, but as we get older, we learn more and so we 're passing on better eating habits hopefully to our kids and hopefully they'll take that torch and pick it up and carry it even further.
Jeff: What you said a little while ago about how the industry has grown and we talked about how the Internet has grown things and TV has grown things and part of that is people they understand, high fructose, corn syrup is bad they understand that okay maybe fat’s not so bad. I'm not supposed to eat the hydrogenated fats.
Marcus: Bacon rules! [chuckle]
Jeff: Right. So people are learning more and making better decisions, but they still just the overwhelming number of the population is not educated on it and then 50% of us that are just can't follow it like we're supposed to. Sugar's the most addictive thing on the planet.
Marcus: Before we go back into my normal line of questioning, I know that you're not prescribing when I ask you this question, but if you were to make a suggestion for things that the general population might want to take, what would be some things, is there anything that you would suggest?
Jeff: Yeah. My top five I typically kind of go with people if I do a seminar kind of explain through food is are, unless you're eating organic, which you can eat organic but it's hard to eat everything organic. Yeah, it's very difficult. It's not impossible, it's difficult. Our farms, our farm and soil is overused, so the foods that we're eating, fruits and vegetables and great wise that are grandparents and further back were eating are totally different. A lot of the foods that we are eating are genetically modified and that's a conversation for a whole other day...
Marcus: Yeah, that's not. Yeah.
Jeff: ...but so what I have people, what I tell people is typically your based on. If you're already a perfectly healthy person, got no health issues, a food based multi-vitamin, omega 3s, unless you have a seafood allergy preferably from fish because that's going to be better as simple as it sounds, vitamins C, we kind of take for granted 'cause it does many things and probiotics and as a top five, coq10 is my top five but a lot of people don't know what coq10 is, so we got off on that tangent, but whole food malty, omega 3, probiotics and vitamins C, not necessarily in order but those are kind of my, my pieces.
Marcus: They're cool, yeah. Let's get back on you're talking about the business of it. So what have you been focusing on lately to build the business? Is there an area of the business that you're putting a lot of effort into or anything that you're really kind of trying to tweak?
Jeff: So this year, there's two different things that we're going to try to do, we actually had in our Mobile store, just brought in organic and sustainable wines. It's something that other health food stores do and if you find it like in your Whole Food markets, some Fresh Markets and things like that, we wanted to bring in some wines that were biodiverse, organic and sustainable and/or selection’s not going to be as big because I can go through a portfolio of one of the local wine vendors and if they have a thousand wines...
Marcus: They got five.
Marcus: Yeah. I know that 'cause that...
Jeff: Yeah so we've currently we got about 22 to 24 wines in the store that we’re going to grow from there. Our base business our people that coming all the time is very good. I mean we're now focusing 2015 on new business, what can we do differently to get some people in a store that never been in before? So twofold we're working on just outside the store getting people in the store to find out hey this is what we actually carry 'cause I have people still the store's been there for 30 years and I have people to come in, 'I've driven by here for ten years now I've just never been in I just want to pop in and see what you guys have.' Awesome and typically we are about 66% turn over of the rate that when somebody walks in the door for the first time, 66% of the time they’re going to come back because they either like what we carry or the customer service was great or they like our people.
Marcus: I just want to applaud you that you even know that percentage I mean that's just beautiful to me because we do so much in our world is measured, right? We're using analytics, we're using click-through rates, we're using all kinds of stuff to measure the effectiveness of whatever we are doing so the fact that you know that like even if it's not exactly 66% but if it somewhere in that neighborhood that just blows me away. So in the last say 6 months, what's the most important thing that you've learned as a business owner. (pause) Nothing?
Jeff: Hmm. Oh I learn some there over the day. But the most important thing I've Iearned is that my business is only as good as the people that work for me, and I've got some awesome, awesome people that work for me, but if one’s having a bad day and you catch that person and that's your first impression of my business that's the impression of my business in that instant. I'm really trying to focus a little more on keeping my people happy, keeping them enriched, make sure that they enjoy their jobs. It's not just about pay, sometimes, it just about the fact that they like it when they come to work.
Marcus: Much about appreciation and they're making a difference, achieving goals and...
Jeff: Yes, yes. Next Friday we we're all going to Cracker Barrel together, not because...
Jeff: Yeah you like that?
Jeff: Not... I wanted everybody to be able to sit at a round table we're going to see each other and not worry about, 'Okay, is Jeff wondering what kind of food I'm eating today?' Just to fellowship.
Marcus: So that means you're going to have them bacon and pancakes.
Jeff: I'm going to have some pancakes yeah.
Marcus: Yeah. This is a running joke in our little trio at the gym that if we’re not feeling a workout maybe we just go to Cracker Barrel or Dunkin' Donuts or something along those lines. But, so that's...
Jeff: For the record, which that hasn't happened, yeah.
Marcus: No it has not. Not, there's not been one morning where we've actually left.
Jeff: Never say never.
Marcus: Well it's true. Always leave room for opportunities sound but that's good people... Kevin Mohler, whom we interviewed a week or so ago, said basically the same thing... that people are the most important, and I think that's, actually that's been a running theme with a number of folks that have said that. I think everybody has their own kind of tact on how they're handling that. So like in some people have maybe training and I know Steve Carrie mentioned bringing people in and having some time where they can better themselves by going through some sort of training and I know that with the guys that work with me, it's just letting them know that they're appreciated, listening to them. Occasionally just out of the blue, like if somebody mentioned so I'm really interested in X, finding a book and then sending them a book on that topic or a small gift or something just to let them know that they're appreciated so...
Marcus: Are there any books or blogs or anything like that, that have influenced you?
Jeff: It's an older one, but about 10 years ago maybe. I read a book called 'Why We Buy' and it was specific to retail and it kind of opened my eyes a little bit because it was the psychology of the human mind and how we shop, and it's a funny read because I can't recall the author, but the guy from probably 1970 on, he would walk around department stores - a JCPenney, or Sears - and he would just carry clipboard and just observe people and watch where they walk, what they touched, what they did, and just observe, and observe, and observe and he would go to these businesses and say this is what I found. And he built a business that all they did was observe, as they grew they did it better than what the clipboard obviously but then they would come back with all these statistics and as a business owner, or even somebody that works in retail or as a shopper, you can read what this guy is saying and they go, 'Heck I do that all the time that's so funny.' But there were certain things about what he said that just as a human nature, how we do things and what we do, and as Americans, how we do things to the right hand side so when you walk into a store if there's a cash register on your right and very close in, they kind of freaks you out because we're used to kind of walk in and stepping to the right, stop and looking almost in summer you just used to frequent in you know exactly where you're going but first time walking in, you kind of have this decompressions or we have to stand there soaking in for a second before you walk in and what they found is nobody wants a greeter in your face talking to you, asking you questions until you've had a chance to breathe in and soak in your environment. I just thought that was so interesting.
Marcus: Interesting, yeah.
Jeff: So when you walk in to my stores there's nobody at your right hand side. I try to keep that open so that, it's you got that space for a second...
Marcus: You've got some breathing room.
Jeff: Yeah, you're little personal bubble’s not infiltrated and our registers are on the left hand side 'cause people have the tendency to walk to the right. Customer service has been behind, he did everything from the colors red being the aggressive color, to the blues and greens being more tranquil. He did, they found and they timed it and put all these statistics to it, that people stand on carpet longer than they do on hard floors. And so he said if you want your people to shop longer, the softer the floor the longer they stand. These guy needs statistics, the book was just amazing to me because as a owner, and still new to the business I've been in retail for a lot of years just working a way through college undergrad and graduate school, I just thought it was really neat ‘cause you can watch people after it and just kind of giggle. It's like wow, we're so funny because we all do the same thing.
Marcus: That is interesting. I think I read that same thing many moons ago I actually had a retail store and thought that I might be able to glean something from that and you know the writing was on the walls pre-Amazon and then Amazon kinda took over, it was a bookstore so, but I do remember you know reading that and getting some of those same, cause you kinda, you're more self-aware when you go into those situations after having read a book like that so.
Marcus: So, what do you like to do in your free time and I'm laughing because I know you don't have any, but do you have any hobbies? Do you have anything that you like to do? Actually that's not true you do have some hobbies.
Jeff: No, I have too many hobbies not enough time, is my problem. Love saltwater fishing, don't get enough time to do it. I love adventure races. I love mountain biking and road cycling. I like golf, which I haven't played in a good year now.
Marcus: I did not know that.
Jeff: Yeah, I love golf just... if I have four hours to spare I'm doing something else, you know.
Marcus: Yeah, who has four hours to spare anymore?
Jeff: It changed things.
Jeff: I will get my daughter golf lessons in three years, so daddy can take one for the team after work and have to take her out for practice. So yeah, lots of hobbies, but fishing, weight lifting, adventure racing are probably up there.
Marcus: Very cool. And so tell me, what does the average day look like for you? Are there any rituals or any items that you do daily, that like wake up at a certain time? I know you are typically at a gym at a certain time. Give us a glimpse of your day.
Jeff: I am the king of consistency.
Jeff: I wake up at 6 o'clock almost everyday. I am in the shower the same time everyday, I eat breakfast the same time everyday. The bus leaves, I head to the gym, I'm at the gym, outside of the gym almost at the same time or within ten minutes everyday. I am at work at the same time everyday. I eat lunch almost at the same time everyday. I'm very consistent with a lot of things I do. When I get to work my first half hour to 45 minutes are probably the most chaodic time of my day 'cause I'm finding out what happened yesterday when I wasn't here, what's going on, what I need to fix, what fires I need to put out, and once that all gets calm down then we start working on the business of the day, taking care of customers. The hard part with retail is when I am in the store, the hours that I am actually standing in the store. I could have the best laid intentions to do this, this and this, but everything we do customers come first. So if I am in the back paying bills and I hear this little, we have little bell the front counter that if we're get more customers and we have people on the floor, we ring that bell and everybody goes around and the sales for it. You drop everything to go help the customer, 'cause without them we don't have a business. My day gets blown on the water a lot, but my time... and I because we try to practice what we preach. We'll be talking to somebody about weight loss that day and I might be telling somebody about spacing out their nutrition or nutrient time or something and it might be 3:30 and I might point in my watch and say, 'I apologize if you hear my stomach growl because this used to eating at 3:30.' [laughs] And as soon as I finish with that customer, I am off to the back to eat something or make a shake or do whatever to try to keep that and most people they don't mind that and I allow my people, yes we have snack times, we have lunch times, but I don't mind them sneaking back to the kitchen and have a little snack and jumping back on the floor because I want them, this is what we're telling people to do, we need to practice what we preach and we don't need to be telling people one thing and do...
Marcus: Most especially when it comes to something as simple as whether they are hungry or not or maybe they just need five minutes just to clear their brain 'cause when you are dealing with people all day long, oftentimes you need that just so you are not distracted.
Jeff: Right and there's some customers we have, and I don't mean this as a negative way, that they will just take a lot out of you.
Jeff: Especially we have so many people that come in with just lots of problems. We have a lot of cancer around here. I mean I guess it's everywhere, but when you get a diagnosis like that most people are going to do everything in their power to increase their situation, so they come to us looking for advice, looking for help, or just saying, 'Hey I went online and I read about this, this and this or my doctor told me about this. Can you tell me about it?' It's almost like you're taking some of their negative energy on to help them, and when they leave it's almost like you got to go somewhere else to pass that energy somewhere else to keep yourself sane. It's interesting.
Marcus: Yeah. Now I can imagine there's definitely when it comes to people's health, there's definitely an emotional aspect to that.
Jeff: Right and like I said we're not their doctors, we're not here to cure them, but we're compassionate. We want to help and we're going to do everything in our capacity to give them the information they need or that they can use to make themselves better.
Marcus: Yeah. Just to wrap up, where can people find you? I know you have two locations and your Facebook page, things like that.
Jeff: Yup. So two locations we're on Highway 90 in Daphne, directly across from the Jubilee Square, is where O'Charley's and Home Depot and Dick’s Sporting Goods and all that is, and then in Mobile, we are at 680 South Schillinger, which is directly across street from O'Charley's and Home Depot, so if you can find O'Charley's and Home Depot you'll find us. (laugh) We're at the corner of Old Government and Schillinger Road. Both stores are open Monday to Saturday, 9 to 6 during the week, 9 to 5 on Saturdays. We're closed on Sundays.
Jeff: Facebook, I don't know… (we know... it's here!)
Marcus: Health Hut AL, I think. We'll look it up, we'll put in the share notes... (above)
Jeff: And you can go to the website, yeah.
Marcus: And yeah you can go to healthhutal.com, as in Alabama. So, healthhutal.com to find this website. I just want to thank you again for coming on the Podcast. I know this isn't normally your stick, and most of all I just want to say thank you for 4 years of friendship and helping me with my own issues, although I don't know that there's any hope. [laugh]
Jeff: No man.
Marcus: But to wrap up, are there anything that you want to share? Any comments that you'd like to make before we sign off?
Jeff: No, I really appreciate you having me.
Marcus: Yeah. Well I appreciate your willingness to sit with me and share your journey as a business owner and an entrepreneur. It was great talking to you.
Jeff: Thanks, Marcus.