After navigating Mastel’s Health Foods through the early stages of the pandemic, employees Lauren Gaffney and Alina Hornfeldt knew they were ready for their next step: becoming the store’s new owners.
Located at 1526 St. Clair Ave.,has been selling supplements, vitamins and foods to St. Paulites since it was founded in 1968 by John Mastel. New owners effective March 24, Gaffney and Hornfeldt plan to carry on the legacy Mastel created with products they believe in and a focus on customer service.
Mastel said that as a child he suffered from almost constant allergies and illnesses, which spurred his interest in natural supplements and plants to try to soothe his symptoms. After discovering what worked for him, he said he set out to teach others in hopes of helping them too.
When asked how he felt about selling the store, Mastel said with a smile, “I feel like a grandfather.”
Gaffney began working part-time for Mastel in 2002 as a student. “I’ve been here since I was 19 years old,” she said. “I love this industry.”
Gaffney now handles what she calls the “nuts and bolts” of the store, including payroll, licensing and accounting.
Hornfeldt joined the store in 2017 with the goal of creating an online presence for Mastel’s. She created a Facebook page, social media marketing for the store, and revamped storefronts, leading to increased profits in 2018.
Hornfeldt said changing social media trends make it difficult to predict which products will garner sudden, intense attention. Today it’s TikTok, but in the past she said a recommendation from Dr. Oz would send products flying off the shelves.
What sets his business apart, Hornfeldt said, is his dedication to product quality. She said Mastel’s is strict about what they bring into their store, checking label claims and certification channels.
They say they also reject products that are obtained in a harmful way. For example, Hornfeldt said the store doesn’t stock anything made with palm oil because it’s a driver of deforestation. “We don’t carry something unless we can fully support it,” Hornfeldt said.
Mastel’s 12-person staff is knowledgeable about the store’s products, Hornfeldt said. The nature of the store attracts employees with specific passions and knowledge around TCM, herbs, and Ayurvedic medicine, which is based on East Indian traditions, to name a few.
Trials and tribulations of the coronavirus
While many stores struggled to maintain sales during the first weeks of the pandemic, Gaffney said Mastel’s was extremely busy due to the nature of its products.
Customers continued to buy their usual remedies for ailments like colds and flu, Gaffney said, but as more information about the coronavirus came out, shopping habits changed. Instead of echinacea and vitamin D products, customers turned to lung supplements.
Gaffney and Hornfeldt also had to quickly transition the store to curbside-only and, due to its less-than-extensive square footage, limit the number of staff members who could be inside at any one time.
Fortunately, Gaffney said they were deemed an essential workplace and they secured two rounds of federal funding from the Paycheck Protection Program, which meant they were able to stay afloat and keep their staff.
The two owners, who have been friends since 2005, said that after the early hurdles of the pandemic they knew they could run the store together.
A little over a year ago, Mastel was approached with “a succession plan,” Gaffney said, and took over as official owners late last month.
Steve Pheneger, Mastel’s nephew, who helped facilitate the sale, said: “(Mastel) realized that a new vision is needed to continue driving the store forward.” Pheneger attributed much of his uncle’s willingness to sell to the trust he had in both Hornfeldt and Gaffney.
“They’ve done a great job working through COVID and they’ve done a great job focusing on the vision and keeping it alive,” Pheneger said.
Mastel, who turns 87 next week, said his motto was: “Find out the truth and make the best use of it”; she said that he believes Gaffney and Hornfeldt have the talent to do just that.
Having worked for Mastel’s for the past 26 years, Therese Goddard said she’s excited for what’s to come with the new owners, noting that they’ve all “been through the fire together.”
Pheneger said he keeps asking his uncle if he has salesman’s remorse, but said he “doesn’t look back.”
Pheneger said that if the store had been bought by someone other than Gaffney and Hornfeldt, there might have been some doubt. “He feels so good with Lauren and Alina … He knows them and trusts them,” Pheneger said.
While they haven’t officially ruled out expanding in the future, the owners said they expect Mastel to keep going for another 55 years.
“After learning how to buy a business, we are excited to get back to doing our normal work,” Hornfeldt said.