by Sheila Julson
Mary Ann O’Dell, registered dietitian nutritionist and nutrition director at AKiN’S Natural Foods, along with her family, are natural foods trailblazers in Oklahoma. O’Dell’s father, Jim Hinkefent, owned and operated AKiN’S for more than 40 years—until selling it in 1999 to Nebraska-based The Healthy Edge, Inc.—and was responsible for the store’s growth throughout the state, as well as its expansion into Nebraska, Kansas, Arkansas and Missouri. O’Dell, who was raised around the business, was drawn to nutrition early on in her life. For the past two decades, she’s played a key role in implementing the nutrition educational aspect that sets the store apart from other natural grocers.
Bernice Akin started AKiN’S in downtown Tulsa in 1935 after she had experienced health problems and wanted to help others by offering access to healthy foods, O’Dell relates. Akin eventually sold the business to QuikTrip founder Chester Cadieux and his business partner, who happened to be friends with Hinkefent. “They bought AKiN’S as a side venture and hired my dad to run it. That’s how he got involved. Eventually, he decided to buy it, and we developed it from there,” O’Dell says.
Hinkefent had no prior background in the natural grocery business; in fact, he owned a liquor store. O’Dell reflects how her parents, who were from an era when cigarettes and cocktails were part of everyday life, were inspired to change their lifestyles because of their new business venture. “When he bought the store, he and mom both stopped smoking, and over the years I saw definite changes in the family’s lifestyle, such as the way my mom cooked. She used to use a lot of canned products, but she transitioned to salads and fresh foods,” O’Dell recalls.
As a teenager, O’Dell worked at the store. She was required to stay in one place at the cash register, but she could read books off the rack during downtime. She picked up a book about nutrition and immediately was intrigued by the topic. She went on to get a bachelor’s degree in nutritional science in 1990 from the University of New Mexico and a Master of Science in nutrition from Bastyr University, in Seattle. After a yearlong internship, she returned home and has been working for AKiN’S Tulsa headquarters location since 1995.
As nutrition director at AKiN’S, O’Dell does public speaking engagements, pens nutrition-related articles and tips for the store’s literature, and is very involved in the education of the staff. “We developed a staff education program, because that’s one of the things we feel differentiates us is that our staff is well trained,” she explains. “Even customers that buy their supplements from other stores come in to ask questions to our staff. That speaks highly to our reputation.”
In addition to knowledgeable staff to answer questions about products, AKiN’S hosts talks and aromatherapy workshops in several of the stores, including the Oklahoma City locations.
While many customers shop AKiN’S for the vitamins, herbs and supplements, the business is a full-scale natural grocery store. It offers pesticide-free and locally grown produce; dairy; shelf-stable items; a health and beauty department with several lines of essential oils and accessories; and natural pet foods. O’Dell says she’s seen incredible growth within the last 10 to 20 years in the natural foods industry, such as expanded varieties and flavors of tofu and more vegetarian choices.
Options abound for those with food allergies, and AKiN’S has a vast selection of gluten-free products and nondairy items, which has also expanded beyond just soy milk. “Now, there’s coconut milk, almond milk, coconut-almond blend, and all of that has transitioned to other dairy aspects, such as yogurt, sour cream, and even ice cream alternatives,” she observes.
O’Dell stays motivated by the positive feedback she receives from customers, and to continue to help people feel their best, she is tuned in to the health trends and makes sure AKiN’S can meet those consumer requests. Turmeric, known for helping inflammation and pain, is very popular now, so AKiN’S stocks turmeric herbal supplements, as well as turmeric milk mix, teas, and even turmeric chocolate. A remodel of the Oklahoma City stores is in the works, and plans include new smoothie bars.
AKiN’S has stores in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, as well as locations in Nebraska, Arkansas, Kansas and Missouri. For more information, visit Akins.com.
Sheila Julson is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and contributor to Natural Awakenings magazines throughout the country.