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Three decades of a healthier Savannah
Brighter Day Natural Foods celebrates with a tasting party
Peter Brodhead, cofounder and co-owner of Brighter Day Natural Foods, in the supplements section

A customer comes in, seeking not just any herbal supplement, but a specific kind used as a treatment in Thailand.

Peter Brodhead puts on his thinking cap. A certified nutritionist, he and his wife, Janie began their business, Brighter Day Natural Foods, three decades ago.

“When we opened the store, SCAD hadn’t even started. We were young kids, just out of college,” Peter says.

“We were 24 then, so young and idealistic,” Janie says. “If we had known what all was involved, we probably wouldn’t have started. But having a vision and dream was on our side at that point. As our family grew, the store grew, the neighborhood changed, and the store became more of a reality.”

There have been many changes over the past three decades – in the natural foods industry, in the Brodheads’ lives, in Savannah itself. Yet, even as things change, they still remain the same.

“Everything has changed in a huge number of ways, but we’re still in the same location,” Peter says. “We’ve kind of resisted the pressure to have multiple locations.“

“I can remember 30 years ago, the organic movement almost a political thing,” Janie says. “So many farmers were encouraged to use chemicals because it was big business. It was really hard to get established as an organic farmer, but now the organic movement is so strong. Now we’ve got farmers markets and we’re seeing organic farms begin to be more local.”

Peter was still in high school when his interest in natural foods and herbs was piqued. “In 1972, my brother started an organic farm in Pennsylvania with four friends,” he says. “They were into a macrobiotic diet when most people had never heard of it.

“When Janie and I were in Macon, we used to make our own tofu,” Peter says. “We were vegetarians, so we did all kinds of things.”

But the Brodheads had no idea they would become pioneers in the organic foods industry. A natural foods store in Macon offered Peter a job, and he took it. But there was a drawback.

“I hated Macon,” Peter says. “We wanted to live near the coast. We looked at Charleston, then came to Savannah.”

Utterly charmed by Savannah’s beauty, the Brodheads decided to move here. “There was only one thing I hated and that was the air,” Peter says. “Union Camp was going at full capacity, and Savannah smelled like a fart.”

The Brodheads looked for a natural foods store to patronize, and found Village Green in the same spot occupied by Brighter Day today.

“It was only open a few months when it got robbed,” Peter said. “This end of Forsyth Park used to be considered a really bad neighborhood. A lot of people were afraid to come down here.”

Thoroughly demoralized, the owners of Village Green decided to sell, and the Brodheads bought the store. “We ran the store all summer with no air conditioning,” Peter says. “People would open the coolers and put their backs up to them and just stand and cool off.”

The Brodheads lived in the area of the store that today is its deli. “We had a pull-out couch,” Peter says. “We’d go out to Tybee to take showers.”

They raised their three children there. Today, Ben, 28, is studying to become an acupuncturist in Seattle; Andrew, 23, is a senior in photography at SCAD; and Claire, 20, is a sophomore at University of Georgia.

Peter laughs as he recounts the day Ben opened a hatch on the molasses, making “quite a mess” in the store. “It’s really important to have family be a part of their parents’ lives,” Janie says. “It was a real adventure. When they were little, they were in snugglies or a playpen. They’d come after school to do their homework. It made us feel like a real mom-and-pop store.”

Originally, Brighter Day operated out of what is the store’s front half today. “We started with a basic inventory and just kept putting stuff in,” Peter says.

One tradition, the annual Brighter Day Tasting Fair, began 20 years ago, and will be held Nov. 2 from 1-3 p.m. “We used to cook a whole Thanksgiving meal,” Peter says. “We used to have people lined up with plates.”

Joseph Buttimer has been shopping at Brighter Day for 25 years. “When they first opened up, I was in Athens, so I missed their grand opening,” he says. “They were the only place in town that was organic foods.”

Ann Lee celebrated her 21st year of shopping at Brighter Day on Oct. 13. In September 1987, Lee went to the doctor for severe abdominal pain and was diagnosed with a malignant mass in her abdomen.

“Prior to that diagnosis, I ate practically anything I wanted thoughtlessly,” she says. “High fat, pastries, meat, the entire works.”

After the diagnosis, Lee and six ladies from her church began to pray for her recovery. “I had major surgery, and there was no cancer - no abdominal mass was found,” she says. “It was a miracle from the Lord.”

From that point, Lee decided to take better care of her health. “I went to Brighter Day and purchased three books,” she says. “I started reading and researching. I concluded I needed to change from a regular diet to an all-vegetarian diet.”

Today, Lee uses supplements from Brighter Day, including oils, vitamins and flaxseed powder. She looks much younger than her actual age and has no major health issues. “I am happy,” she says.

Employees tend to stay at the store a long time, too. “Marsha Westin has been with us for 24 years,” Peter says.

Barbara Harrison worked at the shop for a few years before starting her own business. “When her bookstore closed, she came back,” Peter says. “I remember she came in and bought yogurt on our first day.”

New customers are discovering Brighter Day every day. “We get SCAD students who say, ‘I’m so glad I found you,’” Peter says. “We’re like a little bit of California in a conservative place.”

“The main thing is we feel honored to be part of the Savannah community, to still be a growing business,” Janie says.

“When people from out of the area come into the store, we often hear them say, ‘There aren’t many mom-and-pop stores like this.’ I’m just glad Savannah supported that. We’re grateful.”