In 1968, Mastel’s Health Foods opened in St. Paul near the intersection of Fairview and Saint Clair Avenue (now at Snelling and Saint Clair since 1977). Originally owned and operated by John Mastel, the store became known as a source of knowledge in the health and wellness industry, providing customers with personalized recommendations and quality care. Alina Hornfeldt and Lauren Gaffney took over as co-owners in March of this year, as John retired long ago and the store needed fresh leadership. Together, the two women hold big dreams for the future of Mastel’s and one main goal: keeping this small business thriving for its loyal customer base.
Gaffney began working at Mastel’s in 2002 while attending Macalester College. After graduation and some time spent abroad, she found herself back at Mastel’s and hasn’t budged since. “It developed into a passion of mine,” says Gaffney, “enjoying retail, enjoying people… It’s really rewarding.” Hornfeldt, a long-time friend of Gaffney and self-proclaimed lover of retail, joined the team in 2017 and jumped into marketing and customer service management.
After winning retailer of the year from Vitamin Retailer Magazine in 2021 (amidst the pandemic chaos), Gaffney and Hornfeldt felt ready for the next big step. “We thought to ourselves, well, our owner is in his eighties,” laughs Hornfeldt. “We thought it was a good time to approach the family about us buying the store and building.” After a two-year long process, the women took ownership this past spring and haven’t looked back once. “There really was no succession plan for the store,” explains Gaffney, “so just knowing that the decisions we make benefit this place and bring security to the staff, that we’re not going anywhere, it’s really nice to know.”
Originally from Oklahoma City, Gaffney, who recently won Top Woman Grocer from Progressive Grocer (an industry leading magazine), stresses the importance of their customers. “We have that reputation in the community of being a very knowledgeable group of people, with supplements specifically, but we end up helping our customers with all kinds of things, and being able to be that to somebody is really important.”
Keeping a small business alive is no small feat. Gaffney continues, “Keeping an actual independent small business going has only become more and more important. as there are less and less around. So part of me feels a very big sense of responsibility not just for our financial success, but to keep the business viable, so that the community has a small business to shop at.”
Hornfeldt, born and raised in St. Paul, sees Mastel’s as bigger than just a retail store. “Our health care system is kind of messed up in America,” she says. “It’s a huge deal for a customer when they find success with products, whether they’re looking for complementary medicine to their medical doctor or looking for alternatives, or they’re looking for something that fits in their budget. It’s something that they can control [for their health].” Hornfeldt goes on to emphasize the importance of training for the two of them and their entire staff. “We train constantly, we are always, always learning and then sharing that information. It’s really empowering when somebody can come in, and then they leave with a product that they choose, that’s going to work for them.”
When these two say they’re always learning, it’s not an exaggeration. They’re constantly receiving (and reading) publications from the industry, traveling to trade shows, and many of their brands and vendors offer webinars and in-store trainings. Hornfeldt and Gaffney are all about transparency in the brands they sell, vetting each one to make sure their standards align with the integrity of Mastel’s.
Gaffney’s extensive experience helped over twelve years as the purchasing manager under her belt. “Because we’re small and independent with no board of directors,” she explains, “if something doesn’t line up with our values, we drop it.” The two women mention how they recently stopped selling a leading collagen brand because they were connected with deforestation practices in Brazil. “There’s five shelves of it down at Whole Foods,” laughs Gaffney, “so the person that really wants to buy it still can, but we don’t have to have that compromise at our store.”
With a staff of twelve, a footprint less than 1,000 square feet, and over 5,000 products, Mastel’s success is tied to talking one-on-one with customers to provide clarity and answers while also building relationships. “People really respond to that,” says Gaffney. “People trust that we’ll tell them what we know or find the answers together. It’s a collaborative thing and we take everyone seriously, never making them feel small or stupid for asking.”
While some stores jumped on the online store bandwagon, Gaffney and Hornfeldt adamantly kept their business face-to-face. While they offer shipping if you call into the store, a vital piece to the store’s success is creating relationships and helping customers find success. “That doesn’t happen online,” states Gaffney. “You’re getting the service with your supplement,” explains Hornfeldt, adding that the second and third generations still shopping at Mastel’s come for more than just the products.
While Gaffney and Hornfeldt are set on keeping the integrity of the store alive, they’re not against change in other areas. Future dreams at expanding and building on a second floor get the two of them giddy. “We’d love to have a window!” laughs Hornfeldt, looking around her at their basement offices. Their “big, big goal” would be creating a community and event space where they could provide education to customers and incorporate other health practitioners into the business.
While the challenges of new ownership keep coming (an increase in paperwork and complex online software), Gaffney and Hornfeldt agree they’ve never had a boring day—especially with their desks right next to one another. Their friendship is clear to see as they easily point out each other’s strengths (like Gaffney’s cooking skills and Hornfeldt’s decorated Christmas tree she entered into the State Fair this year), laugh about their kiddos, and get excited about what the next ten years will bring.
When I ask what’s brought them the most joy the past few months, Hornfeldt puts her hand up to keep Gaffney from looking at her and making her cry. “The biggest reward,” she says, “is we get to keep doing what we love to do and provide a space that our employees and customers love as much as we do. That’s a pretty amazing feeling.”