Why do people shop at Shop N Kart? It's cheap.

The exposed air ducts in the ceiling of the warehouse-style store won't win any design awards, and there aren't any artfully arranged fruit pyramids. Still local customers know they can always find a deal.

But it's more than prices that keep people coming back several times a week and has helped the discount supermarket on Ashland Street earn a loyal following around town.

Customers tout the selection almost as much as the price. Both natural, organic foods and standard commercial products line the shelves, and an ever-expanding bulk section and supplement wall means there's always something new to buy.

"This is the best store in Ashland," said Teresa Olson, who came in one afternoon looking for pickles, tired of the taste and "gross color" of her old variety. "I've lived here 19 years, and I can get just about anything here."

She decided on a jar of Natural Value Baby Kosher Dills, which she chose out of a wall of six brands of pickles and scores of flavors. If she ever gets tired of cucumbers, she can always come back for pickled broccoli, okra or banana peppers.

Rebecca Moergen stopped in before a movie for a bag of jelly beans, or as she called them, "organic jelly treats," from the bulk section.

And Donna Verducci just needed some lunch &

natural fish, greens, peanut butter and apples &

all available at the Shop N Kart.

"This place makes it affordable for people without a big income to live on natural foods," she said.

Shop N Kart hasn't always been the cheap mecca for natural foods, though. When owner Steve Reid first opened the store 19 years ago, only conventional products lined the shelves, according to store manager Eric Chaddock. When Albertson's moved in down the street in 1993, things had to change.

"It almost ripped our teeth out and forced us to start over," Chaddock said. Shop N Kart started adding natural foods gradually, such that today their inventory is made up of 25 percent conventional products and 75 percent natural.

Departments the store is now known for &

the wall of nutritional supplements stretching to the ceiling, cheap organic produce and the ever-expanding bulk section &

were not part of that original plan. Now the wall of supplements alone contains more than $250,000 in inventory.

"We never ever thought we'd do the business we do today. Not ever," Chaddock said.

Still, even price and selection doesn't get to the heart of many Shop N Kart customers. Ashland is home to at least three natural food stores and two conventional grocery stores. And they all look a little nicer than the Shop N Kart. What is it that has created the cult following?

Ron Blood's answer is the people. "It feels like a real meeting place," he said, noting that he sees someone he knows on nearly all of his daily visits.

"I know of a lot of the long-time people that work here just from being here," he said.

Many of the hand-picked department heads, including Eric Chaddock, are still there after 19 years. Chaddock's son Ryan has since joined the team, and the store offers perks such as free employee lunches on Thursdays to keep the staff excited about their jobs.

Some of the rapport with employees comes being able to make special requests, Blood said, pointing to the Nasoya salad dressings and Kettle Chips that he requested earlier.

"If you ever want anything, they'll go out of their way and knock themselves out to get it," he said.

Blood's son Zame often tags along on the shopping trips, and he's already developing a connection to the store.

"I like the person that draws the faces on the coconuts," Zame said.

The Shop N Kart is just a place where people feel comfortable.

"You don't have to feel like you're a health food fanatic," Blood said. "You're just shopping," as he and Zame went back to selecting their Odwalla drinks for the day.

Joellen Meyeroff was "just shopping" too, charged with providing snacks for her writing class at Southern Oregon University. She picked up a bag of Buffalo Bleu Kettle Chips (there partly thanks to Ron Blood's request) because the flavor, "brazen spice mellowed by bleu cheese," was a good "poetic description for our colleagues looking for good words," she said.

Whatever people are looking for, they seem to be able to find it at Shop N Kart, whether it's a quick snack, the family's groceries, a friend or two, and sometimes even a little inspiration.

Staff writer can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or . To post a comment on this story, go to .