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Back in time: Commonsense Organics

Long before organic food was hot property in New Zealand’s mainstream supermarkets, Commonsense Organics was offering organically-grown produce to everyday New Zealanders. Twenty-five years on, it’s seen the zeitgeist catch up to its vision.

In 1975 a bunch of ‘hippie dreamers’ bought 4.8 hectares of land in Te Horo, on the Kapiti Coast of Wellington.

Called Common Property, the collective farm was purchased with the aim of connecting youths with the land, through growing vegetables. Husband-and-wife team Jim Kebbell and Marion Wood, now of Commonsense Organics, were founding members.

Kebbell, a former Catholic priest of fifth generation farming stock, was sceptical of growing organic produce on the spot before he looked into the impact industrial chemicals have on soil and the supply chain. He then succumbed to his mother-in-law’s insistence that the land be farmed organically.

Around a decade later, the plot was producing more vegetables than the collective could eat. With early 90’s supermarkets turning their noses up at the scruffy, organic produce, Kebbell and Wood looked to sell the pioneering produce on their own.

Kebbell was looking for a sign, which came in the form of a ‘for rent’ poster on the window of 263 Wakefield St in central Wellington. In November 1991, the first Commonsense Organics store opened its doors here.

An independent family business began to grow and a niche group of consumers, who first saw the value in organic produce, began to shop. In 1995 the store broke even for the first time.

From the beginning there was a need to provide fresh, quality produce even if there were growing pains. In the early days, a lot of vegetables ended up at the soup kitchen because Kebbell refused to sell wilted greens.

The flagship store moved around Wakefield St, setting up shop four doors down, before finding a final home over the road in 1999 at 260 Wakefield St.

The manager of this freshly minted store resigned the same year. Kebbell took over the till while battling pneumonia, and Wood took over as manager.

Kebbell and Wood have been dedicated to providing quality health, beauty, house and garden products over the years. Ahead of the rise in food intolerences and allergies, all of Commonsense Organics’ products are clearly marked for those shopping with allergies.

Commonsense Organics started expanding in the early 2000s as organic food began to enter the collective consciousness of New Zealand consumers.  

To mark the new millennium, the business set up a professional board. Stores then opened in Lower Hutt, Kapiti and Kilbirnie from 2002-2006. The Kapiti store, in particular, was so well received it outgrew its premises within a year.

The team weren’t afraid of trying new things along the way. In 2005 they trialed a coffee truck in the central Wellington shop’s car park.

Salvaged notes from a progress meeting read: “Coffee caravan is on trial, but is moving slowly – apart from when the recycling truck backed into it, when it moved fast ­– through one of our windows…”

With a sense of humour and pioneering spirit, Commonsense Organics moved on with a mission to sell as many fair trade products as possible. Wood joined the Make Wellington Fair Trade campaign and in 2007 and Kebbell was elected as chair of the Organic Traders Association of New Zealand.

In 2010, all stores became BioGro certified, and in 2013, the head office outgrew the central Wellington shop, and the team moved to its own premises as they opened another store in Johnsonville.

Commonsense Organics spread its pesticide-free wings to Auckland in 2015, with their first store opening in Mt Eden.

The company now has six stores as it celebrates its 25th birthday. For customers outside of Auckland and Wellington, the store delivers to their door.

Over the years Commonsense Organics has been recognised with awards, including a Sustainable Business Award and a Wellington Gold Award this year, in the immigration category for global skills recruitment and retention.

The Te Horo market garden has changed from a cooperative of enthusiastic amateurs, with some spades and many children, to a professional commercial unit of 11.2 hectares.

Anna Pitches, the previous manager of the Hutt store, has been appointed CEO as the brand enters its first stage of a succession plan.

Kebbell and Wood are thinking about future generations as Commonsense Organics continues to champion a respect for the land and its resources while doing business.

It’s just common sense, really.

This story originally appeared in NZ Retail magazine issue 747 December 2016 / January 2017

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