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Updated: March 6, 2023 / 2023 Business Leaders of the Year

Business Leaders of the Year: Cormier has grown her mother’s natural food legacy

Photo | EDD COTE Marieke Cormier and her longtime romantic partner Kevin Williams opened the cafe section of Roots Natural Foods together.

When the cafe at Roots Natural Food opened on Valentine’s Day 2023, after shuttering for the entirety of the coronavirus pandemic, it was a reopening with intention.

“We are reopening on our own terms,” said Marieke Cormier, owner of the natural foods store and cafe.

The market remained open, and for much of the pandemic, the cafe offered grab-and-go services; but for the lovers of the Leominster kitchen and juice bar, it was not enough to satisfy their cravings. Day in and day out, Roots staff members were asked when they would bring the cafe back.

Bio box on Marieke Cormier
Bio box on Marieke Cormier

Cormier wanted to do so only when the business was ready, and she needed a break after years of overwhelming growth, she said.

“It was a fast-moving train we had to hold onto,” said Cormier.

Cormier was born into the natural foods business, but grew into it in ways she never anticipated. When Cormier was a child, her parents opened and operated a natural foods store together in Gardner, starting her interest in the natural foods niche and biology in her youth. Her mother, Ellen Jonkers, moved them back to her home country of the Netherlands after Cormier’s father died, but returned to the United States and opened what is now Roots Natural Foods in 2002.

The business grew rapidly, said Cormier, getting consistently busier and busier as mother and daughter ran it in tandem until Jonkers was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The role of natural foods in their lives took on new meaning, said Cormier, as they played a significant role in her mother’s treatment until she died in 2011. Cormier has been the sole owner of the store since, something she does not take lightly.

“I feel like I am carrying my mom’s business through the world. I have now owned it longer than she ever did,” said Cormier.

This history makes Cormier hyper sensitive to serious health issues, she said. In turn, this gives her a personal stake in the integrity of Roots’ products. The market’s longevity in the area makes it a trusted resource, and Roots has successfully grown in popularity. The store had a line out the door almost every day before the pandemic, she said, despite the location being off the beaten path.

Roots fills a unique role, as well as provides a venue for other local businesses to retail their products, said Roy Nascimento, president and CEO of the North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce.

“They're a destination within the community; they have that niche,” Nascimento said.

Importantly for Cormier, Roots offers healthy foods in an area – in her estimation – lacking those options among an abundance of fast food.

Roots remains a family affair despite the hole left by Jonkers. When Cormier was seeking someone to run the kitchen, she met her longtime romantic partner, Kevin Williams, who helped launch the juice bar and eventual cafe. Cormier’s brother, Sebatian Fagan, is heavily involved in the business as well.

The cafe, now open again, is a scaled-down version of what it was prior to the pandemic, and intentionally so. With time away and hindsight offered by the break spurred by COVID, Cormier expressed her hopes for continued growth as the cafe builds back up to its full operational capacity.

“We’re 20 years in, and we’re still having growth,” said Cormier. “It’s not always easy, but we're definitely making it work.”

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