Written by Derek Halsey | Photos by Anthony Harden
“Supplements basically enhance the process of the human body’s natural healing abilities,” say Mike Rogers and Bill Cheek, of Nature’s Vitamins and Herbs, Asheville’s longtime source for high-quality natural products and, more recently, CBD extract.
For over two decades, since 1996, Dr. Mike Rogers and Bill Cheek have co-owned and operated the Nature’s Vitamins and Herbs store in the southern end of downtown Asheville, North Carolina. Located from its inception at 752 Biltmore Avenue, the business has evolved over the years, going from a working pharmacy to a source of vitamins, herbs, essential oils, and supplements that now include the popular CBD extract. (See “Farmers Are Fired Up For Hemp,” in the June 2018 issue of this magazine, for an extended discussion about CBD.)
Rogers and Cheek have seen many ups and downs along the way, based on trends in the supplement world as well as modern day business practices on the global scale that have changed the way people shop. Their store is also online. But what keeps Nature’s Vitamins and Herbs a busy store is the personal touch—and high standards—that Rogers, Cheek, and staff herbalist Amber Myers (a Certified Holistic Herbalist) provide for their customers.
When it comes to vitamins, herbs, and supplements of all kinds, quality is key. Yet there are a lot of vitamin brands available these days made by various companies that are full of fillers, shiny colored capsules, or low-quality ingredients. With issues to be considered such as customers seeking out the right dosages of supplements, concerns about the mixing of supplements, and the connecting of supplements with the right physical situations, a knowledgeable authority on the subject is what is needed.
During the 1980s and early 1990s, the career focus for Rogers and Cheek was the pharmaceutical business. Rogers (Pharm.D., Mercer University College of Pharmacy) is a lifelong resident of the Asheville area, and Cheek (B.S. Pharmacy, University of Florida College of Pharmacy) migrated here from his native Florida. The pair met each other through their mutually overlapping work at area pharmacies.
“Back in the late 1980s, Bill and I were both relief pharmacists, as in we worked in various pharmacies throughout Western North Carolina,” explains Rogers. “In other words, say, a pharmacist in Burnsville wants a day off. If so, we would go and work that day for him in his store. Or, say, a pharmacist in Robbinsville needed a week off. We would go and work a week for them in their store. So, Bill and I were working in the regular pharmacy world at that time, filling prescriptions. Then, one day, I went to a lecture by a professor from Chapel Hill, and she talked about homeopathic medicines, which is a type of natural medicine.”
Rogers’ interest was piqued during that presentation—it was a side of the medicinal world that he was unaware of at that time, and as he puts it now, “The lecturer explained how homeopathic supplements had little to no side effects, minimal contraindications, and they could be taken with any other medicine that people may be ingesting. Well, to a pharmacist, that is almost unheard of. Then, what eventually happened was, I began to meet with various homeopathic manufacturers who wanted to get their products into pharmacies. So, I set up a wholesale business where I sold homeopathic and herbal medicines to other pharmacies. Back in those days, pharmacies were looking for alternatives because just selling regular prescriptions was not very profitable. They were looking for something new.”
In the following months and years, homeopathic manufacturers began to sell their products to pharmacies all over the country on their own. The word was out and spreading quick. That is when Rogers and Cheek met to discuss creating a new future.
“Somewhere around 1996, Bill and I had a little talk at the Pizza Hut in Weaverville. He had a pepperoni and I had cheese, and we decided to open up a natural pharmacy,” remembers Rogers. “Part of the reason we went in that direction was that we started asking ourselves at that time, ‘What are we doing here? Fifty percent of the prescriptions that we are selling are some kind of mind or mood-altering anti-depressant or for anxieties or are pain pills. If people are walking in, getting 10 or 12 prescriptions at a time, there has got to be a better way. This is not right.’ We kind of got burned out on it. We were not prescribing the drugs, as the doctors do that, but we were dispensing them.”
An idea was hatched to start a business. Soon after, the two happened to be driving past the building at 752 Biltmore and spotted a “For Lease” sign on it. Deal done. They financed their new store, dubbed Nature’s Pharmacy, with their own credit cards. Yet at first, both of them still had to take turns working in the pharmacy business on the side until their own store became profitable enough to support the both of them, which took about three years.
Rogers adds that while they obviously could not know in advance if they would get along as business partners, they both felt it was a risk worth taking: “We had been friends and we both seemed to have the same attitude about things. We’ve been business partners for 23 years now, and we have never had a big disagreement or a problem. Running a business like this with a partner is just like being in a marriage, with the ‘business’ being your child, in a sense. And there is always give and take. One of us may have an idea and the other one may not like it, but you try the idea and see what happens, and that goes back and forth.”
As their young business grew, to go along with the vitamins, herbs, and minerals that they were selling, Rogers and Cheek also made sure the store kept one foot in the pharmaceutical side by opening up a compounding prescription department. That is where prescription drugs are combined by hand in a way that cannot be found on the general market (Walgreens, CVS, etc.). In other words, they put together various prescribed medicines by scratch that were not being manufactured by an established drug company. (According to the Texas-based Professional Compounding Centers of America; “Compounding is the art and science of creating personalized medicine [such as] special flavorings, unique dosage forms, innovative delivery methods—using these tools and more, compounding pharmacies work with prescribers to fill a gap in health care through customized solutions for specific patient needs.”)
“We were the first store in the United States to do compounding and sell natural products only, which is kind of cool, I think,” says Rogers. “In other words, we did not fill regular prescriptions. We were a compounding pharmacy that also sold natural products. Now, there are thousands of them. It was awesome because we were not in there dispensing all of those prescription drugs and dealing with insurance companies. As a result, we were able to spend more time with our patients and customers.
“When we first started this business idea, the first thing we said to each other was that we were going to do what was right for the people, our customers, as opposed to how bigger businesses can get at times. For instance, we never knew until this week that we had all of these positive reviews on Google until a customer came in the other day and said, ‘I’m coming to you guys because of all of the positive reviews that you have on Google.’ I said, ‘What reviews?’ We never knew that folks were saying good things about us in that way, so we went and looked it up and we were happily surprised.’
Back in the pre-Google era, local customers were clearly responding to the pair’s approach, and the media was beginning to take notice, too. The Asheville Citizen-Times initially approached them about coverage, and national pharmacy magazines soon called as well, intrigued by the prospects of a pharmacy that also sold herbal products and natural medicines. Rogers and Cheek followed that up by giving countless lectures to other pharmacists and others in the field as far away as Greensboro, additionally lecturing to continuing education classes. They even spoke in front of 300 people at one point.
“We got a lot of publicity back then as the newspaper wrote about us, and even some national pharmacy magazines began to write articles about us,” says Rogers. “The next thing we knew, we had an influx of pharmacists from all over the country wanting to know about what we were doing.”
Mike Rogers is a unicorn, as in one of those rare Asheville residents who is a native. While growing up in Western North Carolina, Rogers witnessed the many changes that Asheville has experienced over the years, both good and bad. Asheville has become a go-to city for entertainment and the outdoor lifestyle, but it has also grown to the point where the number of traffic jams and the cost of living has risen exponentially. That has meant big changes for those who wandered these mountains as a kid back in the day.
“I grew up here,” he says, “and now it is a whole different ball game. I grew up here in the 1950s and ‘60s when it was your typical small town. When you were 16 and you got your driver’s license, the street that we would cruise up and down on was Tunnel Road. And the only place you could really go shopping then was downtown Asheville—and it was a vibrant place. The first businesses that opened outside of downtown Asheville were found at the Westgate Shopping Center. Then, eventually, the Asheville Mall opened as well. That is when downtown Asheville died. I mean, it was dead and boarded up. Then, they tried to revive downtown again with the Bele Chere music and arts street festival, and it brought people downtown again. The whole area was revived and now it is full of people that come here from all over the world.”
As for Bill Cheek, he moved north to the mountains so he could get a paddle in the water.
“I grew up in a little town called Live Oak in North Florida as the son of a pharmacist,” says Cheek. “My Dad owned an old-school drug store with a big soda fountain in it. I grew up in a rural drug store setting right across the street from the courthouse. The jail was right there as well. It was a real Mayberry-like setting. Sometimes the druggist is who would make the milkshake for you. The town is in the Suwannee River Valley, a big scuba diving area with a lot of natural springs. Eventually, I graduated from the University of Florida’s College of Pharmacy in 1978. And, I’m a big paddler. I’m a big river rat. So, I was always coming up here to Western North Carolina with friends and doing a lot of paddling on these rivers. I just loved it.”
When Cheek decided that it was time to get away and go off on his own, he made the move to the high country. “I was ready to do my own thing, so I moved to the mountains in 1981 and never looked back. I still have family down in Live Oak, but this is home for me now.”
After he settled in, as stated above, Cheek was doing relief pharmacy work, following in his father’s vocational footsteps. Then, after the discussion with Rogers, a new business path was considered.
“I got frustrated with the state of the pharmacy world then,” recalls Cheek, “and I began to think, ‘Well, how can I use my pharmacy degree and all of my experience to make a living without filling prescriptions all day?’ In the late 1980s, we began to hear about herbs such as St. John’s wort and ginkgo biloba and other supplements, which began to get good press in mainstream newspapers. People started talking about this subject, and we began to get questions about it in the drug stores. ‘Can I take St. John’s wort with my medication?’ I didn’t know at the time. So, it hit me, as in what a great opportunity it would be to be that herbal pharmacist guy. So, I started learning about it.”
Once Rogers and Cheek combined forces, the goal was to open a professional herb shop run by professionals with a pharmaceutical background.
“We wanted to sell high-quality supplements and give people good advice while keeping our feet in both worlds,” said Cheek. “Six weeks later—boom—we were open. We were right here on Biltmore Avenue selling vitamins, and it worked. The business took off. Then, about a year later, we opened up our compounding pharmacy in the back-room lab, where we filled prescriptions from scratch. We made our own creams, we made our own capsules, and we made our own lotions. That supplemented our herbal business. We eventually sold the compounding prescription business four years ago, in 2015. Now, we just sell vitamins, herbs, minerals, and oils.”
It was after Rogers and Cheek sold their compounding business that they officially changed their store name to Nature’s Vitamins and Herbs.
As you walk through the store, you will notice a wonderful collection of antique medicine bottles and equipment found on the shelves and on top of the display tables. A lot of these boxes and bottles of medicinal products were made in the 1800s. When you take the time to read the old labels, you realize that there was a botanical and herbal-based medicinal movement that happened 150 years ago in the United States and in Asheville specifically.
On one antique bottle, the medicine contained within is called gravel root, an herb that was used back in the day to battle urinary problems and kidney stones. The product was made by the Lloyd Brothers of Cincinnati, Ohio.
The Lloyd Brothers Company was formed in 1885 and they were a part of that era’s botanical medicine movement. On the bottle above the gravel root title is the phrase “Specific Medicines.” According to the Herb Museum located in Vancouver, Canada, specific medicines “were an extremely popular line of eclectic medicines designed for pharmacists who were compounding prescriptions for physicians.” These medicines were botanical in nature, derived from plants as an extract.
Another antique medicine bottle reads, “S. B. Penick and Company – Purveyors of the World’s Botanical Drugs – New York, NY – Plants at Jersey City, NJ, and Asheville, NC.” The S. B. Penick Company was created in 1914 in Marion, located 35 miles from Asheville. They began as “millers of drugs of a vegetable origin gathered from nearby fields and woods.” When World War I began soon after, the demand for various medicines sadly grew exponentially and the company went big time, eventually making their headquarters in New York City.
What is fascinating is that both the Lloyd Brothers Company and the S. B. Penick Company made and sold medicinal cannabis tinctures and solutions in the early 20th century right up until marijuana was made illegal in 1937.
Fast forward about 80 years later: Rogers and Cheek begin to hear about the positive, medicinal effects of CBD oil, which stands for cannabidiol. An extract of marijuana or industrial hemp, cannabidiol is used to combat pain, seizures, nausea, and more.
“One day, a lady came into our store who was a nurse that worked at a local hospital, and she asked us if we could get what she called a ‘CBD product,’” says Rogers. “At that point, we didn’t know what she was talking about. But, she told us that her daughter had this rare condition and how CBD oil helped with her pain, and she wanted to know if we could stock it for her. So, we called a company up who made it and we began to stock it, and that led us to learn all about cannabidiol. That was 2015. After we studied it and learned about it and recommended it, we began to see unbelievable results from people using it. It was a bit crazy, because when I was a regular pharmacist, no one was thanking me for giving them Prozac. But almost every day, we heard about someone having amazing results from using CBD.”
Soon, CBD became a mainstay on the shelves of Nature’s Vitamins and Herbs. When cannabidiol is extracted from industrial hemp, those plants are already only 0.3% THC or less (a necessary legality in states where marijuana, with its much greater THC content, is still illegal). Meanwhile, when extracting cannabidiol from marijuana, the parts of the drug that get people stoned are removed from the final product. Yes, chemotherapy patients as well as recreational users still prefer the real deal when it comes to smoking weed. But CBD oil offers the benefits of the natural medicine without the inebriation, and that’s a significant distinction.
“We sell CBD oil for those who are dealing with the side effects of various treatments and those that are dealing with pain who want to get off of the opioids and pain pills,” explains Rogers. “This isn’t like a hippie thing. These are people with severe medical problems, yet they don’t want to experience the high of marijuana. They get the same medicinal effect from CBD oil without the high. The main thing is that they are not using opioids, so this may be a partial solution to the opioid epidemic.”
Once again, as with their vitamins, herbs, and essential oils, Rogers and Cheek sought out the best sources of CBD oil that they could find. Quality, as always, was the main ingredient.
“Charlotte’s Web is the main brand that we carry, as they were there in the beginning of the whole CBD oil movement,” says Rogers. “Their story is about a little girl named Charlotte Figi, who was having about 300 seizures a week (Dravet Syndrome); this company grew a strain of cannabis that was low in THC and high in CBD, and it relieved her seizures. So, they named their product Charlotte’s Web. We also carry a CBD oil from South Carolina called Palmetto Harmony. That company was created by a mother named Janel Ralph who has a daughter named Harmony that also suffers from seizures. South Carolina had yet to legalize CBD, so Janel started this company with very high standards and worked to change the law. We also carry Kingdom Harvest CBD oil made by the Carolina Hemp Company, the first ones to make it here in Western North Carolina.”
The keys to the success of Nature’s Vitamins and Herbs are high standards, product knowledge, and the individual attention that comes with every in-store visit. All vitamins, herbs, minerals, and oils are not made the same, so a little education offered to the public goes a long way.
As for Rogers and Cheek’s business model, there have always been hurdles along the way. After they began to sell CBD oil, many fruit stands, art district stores, and flea markets soon had someone selling a version of cannabidiol. And, as with all brick-and-mortar stores, giant online companies like Amazon and others have consumed a large percentage of overall sales. That affects local businesses much in the same way that the national chains began to gut the mom and pop stores of old.
Still, the personal touch and real-time guidance that is given to the clientele of Nature’s Vitamins and Herbs is why Rogers and Cheek have stayed successful for all of these years. Yes, you can go and buy vitamins at the local box store, but are they stuffed with fillers? What is the quality of the actual supplement that you need? Did you know that there are two different types of vitamin B-12 formulas, one that needs the liver to break it down and another one that is better for being absorbed by your body?
“I think that a healthy human body can typically heal on its own,” says Cheek. “These supplements basically enhance that process. You are enhancing and helping your own physiology to do what it already does. If you have a common cold, you are probably going to get over that cold whether you take cold medicine or do nothing. While your symptoms may be relieved a bit, the cold itself is going to last about seven days no matter what you do. As you get older, your body changes. I figure that about every ten years or so, you need to do something different. We have to reset what we do, as in, don’t eat as much, eat smaller portions, don’t eat as much crap, and take vitamins like B-12. If you are over 50, it may be better to take a sublingual version of B-12 (the kind that dissolves under your tongue), so you can successfully get more of it into your body.”
Cheek’s daily 60+ regimen includes a B-complex, fish oil, magnesium for the heart and nervous system, trace minerals, vitamin C if under the weather, and CBD oil occasionally to relieve pain in his outdoorsman legs.
As with all products, it pays to read the label. It will help you even more to come in and get some one-on-one advice from either Rogers or Cheek as they walk you around the shelves of Nature’s Vitamins and Herbs.
“As long as business is good and we are still making money, I could do this another ten years,” says Cheek. “It is a laid-back atmosphere and I love what I do. I’m healthy and I feel good, so I don’t want to stop.”
Rogers says he feels the same way.
“Bill and I talk about this all of the time, as in, there is no way that we want to retire because we love coming to work just as much as when we first opened up. It’s fun. Most of our customers are just great people. They come in here because they want to get healthy.
“So many people out there are not healthy, and part of what we have done over the years is to be able to help and guide people, in a small way, towards better health.
And, not that I am involved in everybody’s life or anything, but I really love to hear about what is going on with them and what they are doing because people’s lives are just interesting.”
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