Tri-City family celebrates health food store success

Loretto J. Hulse, Tri-City HeraldFebruary 23, 2014 

Highland Health Food

Nelita Lull opened her first health food store 50 years ago in Pasco. Her gradson Nathan Lull is the general manager of both the Pasco store and this store in Kennewick.

PAUL T. ERICKSON — Tri-City Herald Buy Photo

For more than 50 years, Tri-Citians wanting healthier options to high-fat, high-sodium and high-caloric foods have known where to shop -- the health food stores founded by the Lull family.

There were once three stores, but they consolidated the Pasco and Kennewick operations decades ago. Now shoppers have two choices, Highland Health Foods in Kennewick and Richland Health Foods.

Nelita and Gene Lull founded the first health food store, Pasco Health Foods, in 1963 on Lewis Street. They closed it in 1989. The idea was Gene's brainchild.

"He wanted to get out of teaching and was interested in healthy foods, not necessarily vegetarian," Nelita said. "We opened the Pasco store, it was tiny, maybe only 20 feet by 30 feet, on a shoestring with two knots."

She explained her joke: During the Depression, if a shoelace broke you didn't buy a new one, just tied a knot in it and kept going.

While the majority of the foods they stock appeal to vegetarians and vegans, meat isn't banned completely.

"We have all kinds of customers and do stock a few meat products -- at Thanksgiving we bring in organic, free-range real turkeys," Nelita said.

And they stock some processed meat, but it's nitrate-free.

"Which is why our stores are called health food stores, not vegetarian stores," said Nathan Lull of Pasco, the general manager of the stores and Nelita and Gene's grandson.

Both health food stores carry meat analogs -- tofu, soy crumbles, veggie burgers and hot dogs -- that mimic the look and texture of beef, chicken and other meats as much as possible, Nathan said.

"They're transitional foods for people becoming vegetarians. They give you something to eat while your taste buds adjust to your new lifestyle. And people who just want to cut back on the amount of meat they eat, but not necessarily go completely meatless, buy them too," he said.

Nelita raised her three children as vegetarians and eats meatless dishes at home, but admits that meat does occasionally pass her lips, mainly when dining out. Her grandson follows a similar diet.

Many members of the Lull family have worked at the stores through the years. But only Nathan and one of Nelita's daughters, Sue Doss of Kennewick, are still on the company payroll.

Nelita, 88, retired last year. Yet you'll still find her several times a week sitting in the office overlooking the sales floor of the Kennewick store.

"I like to lend a hand and hope to pass on the nutritional knowledge I've gained over the years," she said.

The stores were incorporated years ago under Pasco Health Foods Inc. Another longtime employee, Bob Ballou of Kennewick, is a partner in the corporation. He also drives the delivery truck and does the accounting.

Nelita hasn't always worked in retail. She graduated from nursing school in 1946 and worked as a nurse for more than two decades before taking over the day-to-day operations of the Pasco store.

Gene continued teaching in the Pasco School District until 1970 but helped out at the stores when he could. He was active in the business until his death in 1997 at the age of 73.

Knowledge of nutrition and healthy food has come a long way in the past half-century, Nelita said. "In nursing school I was taught that 'health foods' was quackery. I've learned differently over the years."

In 1946, nutritionists had yet to discover some of the vitamins we know today, she said. And finding healthier food options to those available in grocery stores was difficult, unless you grew or made your own.

Even herbal teas were a novelty. She remembers buying Celestial Seasonings teas from a salesman selling them out of the back of a truck in small, brown, handsewn bags.

"Now it's everywhere. We were certainly in on the ground floor of health foods," Nelita said, laughing.

Nowadays, healthy alternatives to mainstream foods laden with sodium, sugar and preservatives are easier to find. Even big chain grocery stores have a health food section.

Dairy-free foods -- including cheese and sour cream -- are common and gluten-free foods are getting more so.

"It just proves nutritional knowledge and research is an ongoing thing," she said.

They buy directly from farmers, orchardists and producers whenever possible.

"We have Peterson's Honey from West Richland. We buy our filberts from an Oregon grower and our Fuji apples from a local orchardist. Many of our beans come from farmers in the Upper Columbia Basin," Nathan said.

Both stores stock a wide variety of non-irradiated spices and herbs in bulk so customers can buy as little or as much as they want. And have a diverse selection of vitamin supplements.

"There's nothing in here that can cure a disease or medical condition but we have things that may help. I don't diagnose, my first question is always, have you seen a doctor," Nelita said.

"Basically, we give good food options to anyone who has dietary concerns of any kind," Nathan said.

-- Loretto J. Hulse: 582-1513;

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