Q & A with Scott Nash, CEO of MOM's Organic Market
Nash began delivering groceries out of his mother's garage when he was 22
Name: Scott Nash. Age:51. What he does: Founder and CEO, MOM's Organic Market. Grew up in: Beltsville. Lives in: Chevy Chase. Photo by Liz Lynch
A human skull sits on a table in Scott Nash’s office, a humble reminder to the CEO of MOM’s Organic Market of something Apple co-founder Steve Jobs said in his 2005 commencement address at Stanford University: Remember you’re going to be dead soon. Jobs told the graduates that the face of death was his most important tool in making the big choices in life, as it forces expectations, pride and fear of embarrassment and failure to fall away. “There is no reason not to follow your heart,” Jobs said.
With a passion to protect and restore the environment, Nash has been following his heart for almost 30 years. And like Jobs—who dropped out of college and started his company in his parents’ garage—Nash left the University of Maryland before graduating, and in 1987, at the age of 22, began delivering organic groceries out of his mother’s Beltsville garage.
In 1990, he opened his first retail space on Parklawn Drive in Rockville. Now, MOM’s has 15 stores in three states and the District, and employs about 1,000 people. Over the years, Nash—a perfectionist who likes to challenge conventional wisdom—has made MOM’s into a market with a mission. Made with sustainable building materials, the stores provide charging stations for electric cars and recycling for everything from batteries to blue jeans.
MOM’s banned plastic grocery bags in 2005, plastic water bottles in 2010, and doesn’t sell products with cartoon characters that are marketed to kids. All of its produce is organic. Last year, the company donated over $500,000 to more than 30 nonprofit organizations, ranging from the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay to the Maryland Forestry Foundation. MOM’s also pays a minimum wage of $11 an hour and offers a host of employee benefits, including subsidies toward the purchase of hybrid and electric cars, organic mattresses and Energy Star appliances.
At his Chevy Chase home near Norwood Park, where he lives with his wife, Suzanne, and their three children, ages 16, 14 and 11, he walks the talk. There’s a honey bee hive on Nash’s property, as well as a bat box and compost pile, and he personally picks recyclables out of park trash cans and puts them in recycling bins. He drives an electric car, and mows his lawn with an electric mower. “Much to my wife’s chagrin,” he says, “I keep the heat at 63 degrees in the winter.”
Outside of environmentalism, Nash is a big believer in reducing pressure on children and increasing their play and independence. He supports the idea of “free-range parenting.” When his 14-year-old son, Allan, was 9 or 10, a police officer drove him home because a motorist had called 911 when she spotted him riding his bike alone at night.
Nash is also an avid pinball player (and the owner of 12 pinball machines), who recently opened VÜK, a pinball arcade and pizza shop in Bethesda with a jukebox full of heavy metal and alternative rock. He’s also preparing to farm oysters commercially on Gwynn’s Island, Virginia, a project that was started under the dock at his Lancaster, Virginia, vacation home on the Northern Neck.
In his office above the MOM’s store in Rockville—now on Randolph Road—Nash spoke about his passions and personality, parenting and pinball.
What led you to be concerned about clean food and a clean environment?
I think I was raised with those values. My mother wanted me to be a naturalist as a career—whatever that is—maybe to be a park ranger, or I think she wanted me to be a writer on these issues. Growing up, we used to be members of the Audubon Society, we’d go on bird-watching trips, we went hiking a lot. Our family summered in Maine. So a lot of outdoors. But not just that, we were brought up knowing about pollution and environmentalism.
How would you describe yourself? Are you a progressive, an environmentalist, a radical?
Yes [laughs]. I’m definitely progressive/liberal. I think I’m fairly radical. I’m definitely a staunch environmentalist. I’m not going to hang off a bridge or put myself between a Greenpeace boat and a whale. I’m not an activist in that way. But I do think the number one issue facing this planet and this race of humans is environmental destruction.
How do you decide which issues to focus on at MOM’s? Do you have some personal priorities?
The biggest issue by far is climate change, which is why we’re so gung ho on clean energy here at MOM’s. The other big one here is plastics pollution—what’s happening to our waterways and the oceans with plastic litter. Then there’s toxins from conventional chemical farming and people’s lawns. You can put stuff on land, but it will end up in water eventually. We’re always looking for ways to protect and restore the environment. We do e-cycling [electronics recycling], inflate people’s tires. We recycle batteries. It’s never, hey we’re done. These are things we’ll always work for until we’re dead.
Do you have optimism about the world coming together to combat climate change?
Yes, but I still have lots of concerns. I think we might come together, but it could be too late. For example, I think gas cars will fade rather quickly, but basically we needed to be where we are now—Tesla’s Model 3, Leaf, Volt, etc.—about 15 years ago. Solar is coming on strong now, too—but it might be too late. I’m pretty sure that we will reverse carbon in the atmosphere, but not sure that we can reverse climate change. Who knows though, maybe climate change won't be catastrophic. Lots of unknowns for sure—but these are not risks we need to be taking.
How much do you worry about the world your kids are going to inherit?
A lot. No species on this planet is infallible—and the lifestyle we’ve grown accustomed to is certainly not guaranteed. I think our parents worried about the future of humanity, too, though—nuclear war, losing their sons in Vietnam, disease, etc.
How much of a difference do you think you’re making?
I think I’m making as big of a difference as I can, and that’s what’s most important. I think that some people think big corporations are bad. They’re not bad. They’re bad because they behave poorly, not because they’re big. The larger we are, the more influence we can have in the public eye. We don’t sell bottled water, for example. All our seafood is sustainable. The bigger we are, the more people will notice these things.
While 100 percent of your produce is organic, what percent is local? Which do you think is more important—eating organic or eating local?
The percent of local products varies with the weather. This is not a hotbed for local farming because the season is so short here, whereas California and Florida, the season is year-round. For a few months we carry tons of local stuff, so it’s seasonal. I think organic is by far the most important. Frankly, if someone is farming chemically, I certainly don’t want them residing near me or being part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Just because it’s local doesn’t mean it’s good.
What about local and organic?
People call that the golden standard. But I think things are more complicated than that. My favorite thing about local produce is just that it’s so fresh and good. I do like supporting smaller farmers, and usually that pairs with local. But people are people no matter where they live. Why not support a farmer living in Missouri or Alabama? Maybe they need the support more than we do. Is there a stronger economy in the U.S. or the world [than the D.C. metropolitan area]? We’re up there. I once got into a discussion with a guy who wrote a book on buying local. And I said, “It shouldn’t just be a knee-jerk ‘support the local economy.’ ” Do the assessment. Does D.C. really need more economic support?
Some of these issues can get volatile. Do you get into heated discussions?
I don’t think I get into heated discussions, but I’m sure that judgments are made when I say things like, ‘The local food movement is overrated.’ I’m not saying there’s no value to it. Farmers markets are great in that they’re able to incubate guys who are starting businesses. But sometimes the local stuff sucks. It’s expensive, it’s not good quality, or it’s chemically farmed. Again, bigger doesn’t mean bad. There are some fantastic, rather large organic farm operations. They’re doing great in every way—environmentally, with their product, with their pricing, their efficiencies. So it’s not just ‘big is bad, small is good, local is good.’ It’s all much grayer.
What personal qualities have made you successful in business?
Being anti-authority and challenging conventional wisdom. Adaptability and resilience. Those are the keys to being an entrepreneur. I would never be a good doctor, or an accountant or a good lawyer. I wasn’t the best employee. I thought every boss I had was an idiot. I was disgruntled. They’ve done personality tests and found that many entrepreneurs were juvenile delinquents.
Did you get into trouble as a kid?
Interestingly, I had a pretty good image as a kid and didn’t get caught. I started smoking marijuana when I was pretty young…12. My parents once found a pipe and pot in my pants pocket. I lied and said I was holding it for the neighbor kid. My parents either believed me or saw it as an opportunity to show faith in me—and let me off the hook. I did quite a bit of damage with my BB gun. Shot out a lot of windows. There was a reward posted on the telephone poles in my neighborhood [in Beltsville] for tips leading to the culprit, but I never got caught. I was not a good student in high school. I barely graduated. I really didn’t like or respect most of the adult authority figures in my life—the teachers, the coaches, my bosses at work, the neighbors. To this day, I tell my kids that just because adults have authority over you, it doesn’t mean they all deserve it—and that they need to make their own determinations and assessments.
Your email address is listed front and center on the MOM’s website and also on the store’s paper grocery bags. Do you get a lot of feedback?
I get tons of feedback. Not only do I get that feedback, but I’m cc’d on every correspondence that we have with a customer. They might send something in just to the website. Every time there’s a Yelp review, it’s sent to me by our communications department. We get ideas, we get people saying how great their experience was, and we get people saying how crappy it was. Like I know right now we have a bad cashier in our Ivy City, D.C., store.
What do you do with the information?
We investigate. And everybody who emails me directly…if it’s feedback—positive or negative—or an idea, or even a product request, I write back to all those people.
How do MOM’s customers differ from the people who go to Whole Foods?
We get a little crossover. We think our shoppers are more dedicated to organics and the environment. We don’t need to educate our shoppers; they’re already experts. But Whole Foods incubates our customers—it’s a perfect bridge between conventional markets like Giant and Safeway and us. People don’t get struck with organic kale one day. They start with Whole Foods and get exposed to organic food. After three or four years, they come our way.
How important is taste in all this?
Taste is very important. People can’t come out with poor tasting food anymore and expect to survive. In the old days, you could.
Have things really improved with organic foods?
When I got into the industry almost 30 years ago, there was one kind of organic spaghetti sauce. You had one kind of organic salsa, no ketchup. The industry has been amazing in its response and evolution.
Describe your eating habits.
I swear, adding this Naked Lunch kitchen downstairs [a vegetarian lunch bar in Rockville and other stores] has probably extended my life 10 years. Every day I go downstairs and get a huge kale salad. Almost everything I eat is from my store—except for Berger cookies.
Are you a vegetarian?
No, but I’ve cut back on my red meat a lot as I’ve gotten older, mainly because of the environmental impact of beef. I was behind a lady the other day in Bethesda who had a bumper sticker that said ‘abuse animals, go to jail.’ I instantly thought to myself, I wonder if she eats factory-farmed animals, which endure abject misery and suffering from the minute they're born. Pigs are even more intelligent than dogs. And yet, you have all these people passionate about their pets—who are willfully eating pigs. I really respect a vegan who’s an animal rights person. That makes sense. But to sit there and love a pet like a child and then eat a bunch of intelligent pigs—that’s contradictory at best and hypocritical at worst.
I know you have a dog, but do you have other pets? And do you eat pork?
Yes, our family has two cats and a dog—and I eat bacon that we sell, which is humanely raised.
Do you cook?
I pretty much do all the cooking. Right now we’re eating a lot of great local trout. It’s just the best quality stuff. Cauliflower is a kick right now in our family. We eat tons of berries, especially in season. Sometimes we have waffles for dinner. I still have three kids. We’re not doing gourmet, complex things.
I read in an article about you that you don’t let your kids watch TV, listen to the radio, go online, or play video games. Is that true?
It was more true when that was written, when they were younger. But we watch very little TV. I think TV is partially responsible for the downfall of modern culture. And video games—I’m a big 1980s gamer. But the way they are today, there’s a lot of violence, the same with TV. If we watch TV, it will sometimes be educational, and sometimes humorous. Now that the kids are older, we police it very closely. We might do some Doctor Who, some Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, we like Modern Family. TV is allowed on Friday and Saturday.
How are you raising your children to be unconventional thinkers?
Their education is very unconventional at the Washington Waldorf School, for starters. It’s a real throwback, and we believe in the throwback. But basically through healthy debate, and then books. My kids are avid readers; they’ve read thousands of books. We do let the TED Talks come into our house, and certain interesting things on YouTube. So it’s usually educational. We’re big into science, we’re big Trekkies. We’re always introducing them to new concepts. We walk the dog and talk about big philosophy issues, one-on-one.
Do they feel that they’re being raised unconventionally? Do they like that?
I think my 16-year-old daughter loves it. My 14-year-old, I think he sometimes feels like he’s too much of a misfit or outcast, and he’d like to be a little more normal. Yesterday, he was talking about how down he is on humans. I said, ‘Don’t think humans are so bad.’ We watched an osprey capture this fish and start with the head first. The thing flapped for minutes afterwards. It was torture, disgusting. I said, ‘That, my friend, is life. That’s not good or evil. So don’t just pin this on humans. Any life form is going to act like we do if it has the capacity.’ Life is both incredible and brutal. As a matter of fact, we’re about to get into that—why does evil exist? It’s these kind of discussions that I think make us think differently.
Tell me about your pinball obsession.
It’s that itch that always needs scratching. I can compete against myself or compete against others. It’s such a beautiful melding…there’s the visual artwork of the game, you also have sound that’s very creative. Also the way the game works—is it a really intricate deep game or a simple one? It’s so satisfying for some reason.
You’re kind of an interesting mix of things. Would you say you’re unpredictable? People might make certain assumptions about the way you might think about something, but I’m not sure they’d be accurate.
I think that’s probably true. I do have to watch out a little bit. I don’t know, actually. I think people might think I’m sometimes wacky, or a little nuts or radical.
What kind of wacky or radical things do you do?
I bragged on Facebook this morning that yesterday on the Northern Neck [at his vacation home] I did seven loads of laundry and I never used a dryer. I used the clothesline. I’m sure that my 250 friends on Facebook think I’m a nut. They’re probably thinking, ‘Don’t you have more important things to be doing than hanging laundry?’
Contributing Editor Carole Sugarman lives in Chevy Chase.