Darrow Montgomery

Stephen Huggins’ journey to MOM’s Organic Market began long before he had ever heard of the store. Growing up, Huggins felt sick, tired, depressed, and anxious. He wondered what could be wrong, and in his research found that the food he consumed might be the problem, but also part of the solution. He started exploring different organic supplements to try, from matcha powder to lucuma powder, and looked for a place he could find them. Huggins’ research pointed to one place: MOM’s.

After regularly shopping at MOM’s for a while, and feeling healthier than he had in years, Huggins struck up a conversation with an employee one day. In the course of that conversation, he realized he was no longer content with being only a MOM’s shopper. He wanted to work there, too. It took two applications, but Huggins, 26, now logs 38 hours a week as a team member at the MOM’s in Woodbridge. He spends many of his shifts in the same wellness aisle that first drew him to MOM’s. 

MOM’s, an organic grocery chain with more than a dozen stores in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, is a behemoth in the regional organic food market, employing nearly 1,000 people and bringing in close to $200 million a year in revenue, according to founder and CEO Scott Nash. It’s also been known by many names: Initially called Organic Foods Express when it focused on grocery deliveries, its name was later changed to My Organic Market before morphing once more into MOM’s Organic Market. Most people call it MOM’s. 

But MOM’s is not simply another place to pick up chia seeds and kale chips, like the Yes! Organic Markets scattered throughout the city. MOM’s just might be a cult. 

Or, according Nash, something close to it: “We were joking around a little bit when we called it a cult, but it’s really more of a tribe,” says the man who launched the flourishing chain in his mother’s garage in 1987. The company’s website, as recently as November 1, referred to job openings with a tab reading “Join Our CULTure.” Since then, all the menu headings on the site have been made uppercase. 

There’s something unique going on at the chain. The company takes a radical approach to organic food, and business in general. It sees itself as a vehicle for activism that just so happens to sell organic food, according to Nash.

This activism is accomplished both internally and externally. On the operations end, Nash has differentiated his chain from other organic giants by incorporating mindfulness into its operations. The central office in Rockville, for example, boasts a meditation room.  

Nash and his team also organize frequent employee outings, from summer barbecues to trips to local farms to learn more about the food MOM’s sells. Huggins, the 26-year-old employee, has attended trainings to learn more about the supplements he first found as a teenager. And managers take the company’s core values—commandments like “let go of your ego” and “compassion is the antidote to judgement”—to heart. Leaders frequently check-in with employees to see how they have been able to apply these values to their lives.

MOM’s emphasis on the whole person, not just an employee’s ability to produce, isn’t confined to the people they pay. Nash says the company has made strides to provide shoppers with a stress-free shopping experience. Part of their brand promise, he says, is offering customers a “stress-free oasis.” MOM’s accomplishes this by having purposefully wide aisles—no more ramming into other shoppers’ carts. The store also plays calming music to keep stress levels low, and instructs employees not to approach customers, also to keep the relaxation high and stress low. 

But perhaps above all else, what sets MOM’s apart the most is the role Nash sees the company playing in the world. 

Calling himself an “activist CEO,” Nash rails on big agriculture—complaining of government subsidies that he says make the cost of organic food disproportionately high compared to what he refers to as the “chemical food industry.” 

“It’s not just a grocery store,” Nash says. “If you go to our Facebook page, we hardly ever talk about our products. The product is the means. MOM’s has a bigger purpose.”

MOM’s takes big stands. They donate to Planned Parenthood and post about it freely on social media. They recently supported lowering Metro fares, Nash says, so the working poor will have a shot at economic security, and because it’s a good move for the environment. Appearing on a recent CNN segment, Nash advocated for raising taxes on the wealthy and raising the minimum wage. He received hate mail for those stances but shrugged it off.

“If we’re not pissing people off along the way, we’re not doing it right,” he says. “We take action. We put our money where our mouth is. That’s how we shore up our tribe, the community, the cult of MOM’s.”

On Glassdoor—a website that publishes employees’ anonymous reviews of the companies they work for—one of the three reviews left by former MOM’s employees highlights the generous employee discount (which, according to Nash, is 30 percent). But in a casual aside under the cons section, the same employee also notes that “MOM’s is a cult and proudly so as stated on their website so be prepared for that.”

Huggins, the Woodbridge employee, acknowledges the cult-like environment of MOM’s, but, like Nash, shrugs it off. At the same time, he uses eerily similar language as Nash to describe his job: “There’s a purpose,” he says. 

Since starting at MOM’s in March, Huggins says he strives to be more mindful at work during busy times and enjoys chatting with customers, even if some people perceive it as strange.  

“Some people will ask if I’m okay because I’ve been talking to a customer for a while,” Huggins says. “We’ll just get into a really deep conversation, talking about mindfulness and gurus … I’m willing to make that connection with people.”

Tyler McDaniel, a 23-year-old MOM’s devotee, has been on the receiving end of that kind of customer service during his regular pilgrimages to MOM’s, where he’s shopped since moving to Arlington.

“There’s just something about [MOM’s] that just kind of draws you in,” he says. First attracted to the store because of its proximity to his apartment, MOM’s has become his grocery store of choice because of its relaxing environment and the wide variety of foods available. A self-described “flexitarian” who rarely eats meat, McDaniel often finds himself in the produce section inspecting the latest kiwi berries before moving on to grab pea milk and veggie burgers with fake blood. The Arlington MOM’s has a heavy dose of the MOM’s spirit he loves so much, like a sign above an astronomy display that reads “perception changes everything.” 

But MOM’s hasn’t drawn everyone in. McDaniel says his roommates are a bit put off by the chain, and maintain a safe distance. “They don’t want to touch MOM’s with a 10-foot pole,” he says. McDaniel’s roommates even brought up how strange MOM’s is to McDaniel’s parents. But the last time McDaniel’s sister came into town, he made sure she paid a visit to MOM’s. He says she was intrigued, though his devotion to it may always be a bit of a question mark for his closest family and friends. 

The obsession with the brand comes from the top. When it comes to who decided the name of the job openings page on the MOM’s website should read “Join our CULTure,” there’s no question.

“Mine,” Nash says, without a shred of doubt.

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to lhayes@washingtoncitypaper.com