Building a Better Elephant 

Elephant Pharmacy wants to take its holistic approach nationwide. But getting to that point has not been pretty.

Alicia Rodgers still remembers the help-wanted ad that first inspired her to seek a job at Elephant Pharmacy. "It said something like: 'Be a part of the next Berkeley revolution,'" she recalled.

Rodgers learned the nature of that revolution once she secured an interview at the company's red brick corporate headquarters. Elephant Pharmacy would be a drugstore experiment, a coming together of Eastern and Western medicine. Its mission was to build a truly great store by promoting an agenda of herbal remedies and alternative healing. It would be, as one of its slogans puts it, "The drug store that prescribes yoga."

Elephant hired the 22-year-old UC Santa Cruz graduate in September 2002 and swiftly dispatched her to Shattuck Avenue to assist in the frantic rush to open the store before the holiday shopping season. There, she joined other young liberal-arts types who, like her, were inspired by the company's perceived anticorporate ethos.

Elephant's ever-present founder, Stuart Skorman, often spoke to them about "breaking the stranglehold" of the major pharmacy companies. "You are a part of something that's going to revolutionize the pharmacy world," Rodgers remembers him saying.

Skorman was very visible in those days. Dressed in his usual dark blazer or sweater atop a button-down shirt, khakis, and loafers, he would go down the block each day to Saul's Restaurant and Delicatessen and return with coffee for the start-up crew. In fact, the wiry 56-year-old talks so fast it's as if he's constantly jacked on caffeine. Skorman regaled his young colleagues with tales of, his first Berkeley success story. He told Elephant workers that if they helped make his latest revolution a success, they stood a good chance of being rewarded with stock options, just like his employees at

But the young workers' primary motivations were not monetary. In fact, most seemed happy to put in long shifts for just $8 to $9 an hour. "We were working long, long days -- heavy manual labor," Rodgers said. "Everybody got sick from working so much. They were handing out Wellness Formula, because everyone was just dead." Still, the food was plentiful and the music blared as they worked, joked, and danced together. "You should be excited to be here," Skorman told them. And excited they were.

The young workers were emboldened by management's promises of authenticity. The first employee handbook listed the company's core values: "No judgment, no bias, conscious choice, quality, integrity, respect, and customer- and team-member care." A company pledge to workers read: "Our organization will genuinely care for its employees, giving them what they need to take care of them." And one of Skorman's favorite quotes from George Orwell's 1984 was prominently paraphrased on the handbook's cover: "In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act."

But integrity, respect, and truth are not the words that a group of ten former employees now use to describe their experiences at Elephant during its turbulent first two years. Even Skorman tells a different story about the early months of his pharmacy experiment. By all accounts, the birth of Elephant Pharmacy was a painful collision of start-up growing pains, youthful naïveté, and bad management decisions.

Elephant Pharmacy has rebounded financially, and now appears well on its way to building a nationwide natural-pharmacy chain. But the store's evolution came at the cost of the good feelings between its founder and many of its employees.

When Elephant Pharmacy swung open its doors for the first time on November 25, 2002, it clearly was something new. The calming wooden tones, exposed ductwork, and open ceiling provided an immediate contrast to the brightly lit, sterile surroundings of its big-box chain-store competitors. Elephant is housed in the old Copeland Sports store in Berkeley's tony Gourmet Ghetto, but the 10,000-square-foot storefront was completely remodeled.

In its first two years, Elephant has undergone several wholesale changes, adding and subtracting entire lines of products. Today, it could almost be eleven separate businesses under one roof. It's a traditional drugstore that also features photo service, video rental, and a no-Hallmark card store. But alongside the usual over-the-counter medicines and prescription drugs, shoppers also find herbal supplements, natural cosmetics and body-care products, eco-friendly household cleaners, natural and organic foods, and a well-stocked wellness bookstore.

Walking past the large flower stand and into the Cedar Street entrance, Elephant at first appears to be a natural-foods store. Nearly a quarter of the floor space is dedicated to organic produce, healthy frozen foods, organic chips and cereal, juices, and upscale wines. Past a couple aisles of natural and biodegradable household items, Elephant's alternative-medicine identity becomes more apparent. There are four rows of herbal remedies, antioxidants, and homeopathic medicines fronting both the bookstore and what has to be one of the largest bulk-herbs counters anywhere -- staffed daily by a certified herbalist.

In the center of the store are five aisles of natural cosmetics, shampoos, and skin- and body-care products. Traditional pharmacy items then make up the back third of the store, from first-aid items to over-the-counter pain and cold remedies and greeting cards. Behind them is the prescription drug pharmacy. On the far side, up a couple of stairs from the massage area, is the DVD section and classroom.

Elephant's wide range of free classes is what truly sets it apart. Customers can learn about everything from yoga and massage to diabetes and dream interpretation, or attend workshops on subjects such as doing arts and crafts with their kids. "The free classes are our heart and soul," Skorman said in an interview. "People really want wellness, not just disease management."

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