Abe’s Market provides customer care to tens of thousands of buyers from around the world, 24/7, from an office in Jerusalem.
By Ariel Blum
For 50 years, Abe Polin owned a small neighborhood drugstore on the West Side of Chicago, where he sold health and wellness products and prided himself on the personal service of this most classic of mom-and-pop enterprises. Today, his grandson is doing the same thing. But the younger Polin’s storefront is the Internet and he provides customer care to tens of thousands of buyers from around the world, 24/7, from an office in Jerusalem.
Jon Polin is the co-founder of Abe’s Market , a natural and organic products e-commerce site. Polin launched the site in 2009 with fellow immigrant to Israel and childhood friend Richard Demb. Abe’s Market recently closed a $5 million investment, ensuring that consumers for whom fair trade and “BPH-free” are important qualities will have many years of continued organic and natural shopping.
Abe’s Market, the website, does its best to recreate the folksy approach of Grandpa Abe. In addition to ensuring quality by having staff members personally try every product, the site emphasizes the unique stories of its more than 1,000 vendors.
There’s Little Duck Organics, for example, which was created by a father who wanted to make healthy snacks his own kids would actually enjoy eating. And Montezuma’s Chocolates, a hot organic chocolate company from the UK. There are even a couple of Israeli organic firms on the site, such as Wisey, which makes natural and stylish diaper bags and other products for eco-conscious parents.
While it’s not possible to physically touch each item before buying, Abe’s Market does the next best thing by allowing potential customers to email and chat with sellers directly via the site.
The strategy seems to be working. Abe’s Market is doing some $3 million in sales a year and is growing over 100 percent annually. Some 11,000 products are listed on the site.
Playing in a $91 billion market
The company found its niche at the right time. Whole Foods Market, the brick-and-mortar leader, does over $10 billion in sales in its 300 stores but does not sell over the Web. That’s a big gap: the natural and organic products industry as a whole (including dietary supplements) is worth nearly $91 billion, according to Natural Foods Merchandiser.
At the same time as the most recent financing, which was led by Israel’s Carmel Ventures and included participation by OurCrowd, the new crowd-funding site for Israeli startups, Abe’s Market also launched a new filtering function that allows customers to find exactly the natural or organic goods they want by choosing from 220 different “qualities.” These include such specifications that a product must come in recycled packaging or that it be gluten-free and have no pesticides, petroleum or peanuts.
Sure, you can find many of the same products on Amazon.com, but searching with the same granularity is much more difficult, if not outright impossible.
‘I’ve done that too’
Polin is not just an organic-loving consumer with a good idea. He has some serious sales chops. He previously built consumer marketing campaigns at Capital One and Clorox (the Glad trash bag with the odor shield – that was his). His partner, Demb, was a former investment banker who founded Dale and Thomas Popcorn in New York, which now does some $90 million in sales a year.
Polin might never have built his own company, though, if it weren’t for his decision to immigrate to Israel in 1998. He arrived with a job at high-flying Israeli beverage manufacturer SodaStream. But before long, he was bit by the innovator’s itch.
Starting his own company was “something that always loomed in the back of my head,” he says. “But it was the culture in Israel that pushed me to do it. There’s a way that Israel embraces the entrepreneurial spirit; it feels very natural to do something like this here.”
Indeed, rather than be castigated by friends and family as taking on something too risky, “here people say, yes, I’ve done that too.”
The many customers and fans of Abe’s Market are happy that Polin’s risk-taking and interest in high fiber and Omega 6 coincided, as are the company’s 23 staff members – including 13 in the United States, where Demb has relocated to head the company’s main office. R&D remains in Israel.
As for the original Abe – Polin never met his grandfather. But the name of his eponymous corner drugstore continues to inspire those with a hankering for everything from Yumnuts (a line of naturally flavored cashews) to Grey Goose shot glasses made out of recycled bottles. Which proves that if it’s organic and natural, it will probably be listed at Abe’s. Honest.