When Kay and Edward “Barney” Matheson decided to repurpose an indoor skating rink to build health food store Full O’ Life in 1959, the couple unknowingly took the first step toward pioneering an organic food movement that would become mainstream decades later. The market–restaurant hybrid on Magnolia Boulevard garnered a reputation as one of the first modern natural-food centers in the West, offering an abundance of organic produce, sustainably sourced meats, natural products and healthy meals.
“There wasn’t anyplace quite like it,” says Cindy Moon, the Mathesons’ daughter, who began working at the store after school at age 12. “My parents were especially proud of having an organic produce section because there weren’t many places that sold strictly organic at the time.” The fruits and vegetables available for sale were sourced daily from organic farms throughout Southern California. Barney would drive the family truck to Escondido and other cities multiple times per week to stock the market and restaurant. This do-it-yourself approach of partnering directly with local organic farmers meant the market always had the freshest produce possible, and it was a novel operation at the time because organic food distributors were few and far between.
This emphasis on local food brought in customers from all over Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. Full O’ Life became a favorite spot among celebrities like Gloria Swanson and Clint Eastwood, as well as studio executives who shopped for groceries and crowded the lunch counter to enjoy healthy entrees. The familial environment added to the appeal. Barney stood by the door to greet shoppers, Kay helped people navigate aisles and their two daughters worked across all departments, packaging bulk items, ringing up customers and bussing tables.
Fifty-eight years later, not much has changed. Full O’ Life still holds its own against the numerous other health food markets that have cropped up since the organic movement took off in the 2000s. At 96 years old, Kay Matheson is still the owner and “matriarch” of Full O’ Life, and she visits the store often to check up on business and enjoy meals at the community table. Taking over day-to-day operations is daughter Cindy, now general manager. She works alongside her husband and right-hand man, Gary Moon, and their son, Chris Moon, who is the store’s grocery manager.
“We’re still very much a family-owned business — even members of our staff have been here anywhere from 10 to 25 years,” says Cindy.
Chris represents the next generation to take part in the business, and an important part of his job is ensuring that the store stays at the forefront of organic food trends. “At this point, we’ve got all the staples down,” he says. “Now, I really want to stock products that people won’t be able to find anywhere else.” Working with local organic distributors, he looks for health foods that align with numerous diets, such as vegan and paleo, while also forecasting which items will top grocery lists next — like kombucha, raw chocolate and cannabidiol (CBD) hemp oil, all current fan favorites.
“If there’s anything new on the horizon, my son will find it,” says Gary. “Nowadays, in the health food business, you have to be on top of everything to beat the competition.”
Customers play a big part in determining what goes on the store’s shelves. “I really have some of the best people come in with the greatest ideas, and I almost always stock what they recommend,” says Chris, who focuses on obtaining unique items from local small businesses. “There’s a reciprocity that goes on — I really listen to customers and take them seriously.” Popular items like turmeric-infused honey shots, vegan “un-tuna” and handmade samosas are the result of constant collaboration with customers.
This interaction is also what distinguishes Full O’ Life from more corporate health food chains. The store’s friendly and knowledgeable staff goes out of its way to accommodate customers by taking special food orders, offering free information on diets and nutrition, and making them feel at home. “Customer service is and always has been number one,” Chris says. “Because of this, people go out of their way to show us gratitude. They love to be respected.”
Full O’ Life looks to continue building on its solid foundation of quality food and customer care as it heads into its 59th year this June. Much of last year was spent remodeling and expanding the restaurant. “We added new furniture, chandeliers, outdoor seating and a juice and coffee bar,” says Gary. Next on his wish list is opening up the ceiling to install eco-friendly lighting and expose the building’s original bow truss ceiling, a remnant of its skating rink architecture.
Reflecting on the impact Full O’ Life has had on the community, Cindy says that the business still being here is a testament to her parents’ legacy. She also says that Full O’ Life has never been better and shows no signs of slowing down, declaring, “We truly love and are passionate about what we do.”
For more on what Cindy, Gary and Chris have to say about health food trends today, check out “Green Eating and Living With Full O’ Life.” And don’t forget to check out “Spring Greens From Full O’ Life” for the perfect springtime salad recipe.