Cecelia Thompson is the only employee at the American Botanical Council (ABC) who has been in the herbal community for as long as the organization’s founder and executive director. She came to ABC 25 years ago to fill the position of finance administrator after almost two decades of owning and running several natural food stores with her husband, Gary. These businesses, Harthomp & Moran Natural Foods Store — later shortened to H&M Natural Foods Store — and a natural foods restaurant, played an instrumental role in bringing the natural food and organic produce movements to Dallas, one of Texas’s largest and most straitlaced cities.
“We started the first of our two natural food stores back in ’71,” Cecelia recounted over a Tex-Mex lunch and binders of old black-and-white photographs of the early days and newspaper clippings on the stores’ successes. “The Good Food Store was here in Austin, and we shopped there and we loved it, in fact we loved everything to do with natural foods. There were not any natural foods grocery stores in Dallas at the time, only vitamin shops that did not sell groceries.”
Cecelia’s stores specialized in providing bins full of bulk herbs and foods, such as brown rice, whole-wheat flour, and granola. She even had organic vegetables flown in from California, and eventually piqued the interest of one of the oldest produce house buyers to have shipments delivered by truck for less money. At the time, the produce house brought in produce from California on a weekly basis, and Cecelia convinced them to bring organic produce at the same time.
“Long before the advent of the organic foods movement, Cecelia would purchase organic fruits and vegetables via air freight from California, specifically for the patients of a local physician who ‘prescribed’ organic food for his chemically sensitive patients,” ABC’s Founder and Executive Director Mark Blumenthal wrote in a 2004 HerbalGram profile on Cecelia. “He was one of the pioneers in environmental medicine, and Cecelia and her store were part of the therapeutic program.”
It was during this time that Cecelia met Mark at the H&M Natural Foods Store in Dallas’s Lower Greenville Avenue neighborhood. She estimates it was around 1974.
“The first time Mark came to the store, he came in his van,” she recounted. “He was a traveling merchant. And he traveled in his van and pulled into the back parking lot of the store, he opened it up, and we would shop for merchandise, buying various items like bulk herbs, Korean and Chinese ginseng extracts and pills, herbal incense, and sandalwood soap. It was great. Mark used to say we were the first [store] to buy two pounds of goldenseal powder from him. He was fabulous.”
In 1978, Cecelia and Gary started their second store — this one in North Dallas — and not too long after that, opened the first natural foods restaurant in Dallas to serve wine and beer. They later decided to start selling franchises of the store, including one that opened in an old Safeway location.
“We worked seven days a week,” she said. “All seven days. And then at night I would do all the accounting. I had an office at home. I’d get home at night around 10, and I’d do accounting until two or three in the morning, and then get up and get the kids off to school and head back to the stores or the restaurant. It was the pioneer days in the natural foods business. And it was great.”
Eventually, Whole Foods Market came into the Dallas area and talked the various franchise owners into joining their company network of stores. Around that time, Cecelia and Gary decided to move back to Austin. When they moved back to Austin in 1986, she and Mark crossed paths again at his CPA’s office where she happened to be working. It wasn’t long until Cecelia joined his team. She started as part of Bee Creek Botanicals, one of Mark’s former herbal products businesses, which merged with ABC in 1989 shortly after the nonprofit was founded. She brought with her the invaluable knowledge gained while running her natural foods stores, including considerable accounting skills, as well as previous experience in data-processing. Back then, as now, every ABC employee wore many hats. So Cecelia was the finance administrator who also packaged bulk Bee Creek herbs for shipment, fixed broken toilets, and stapled together publication mailings.
“It was just Margaret, myself, one other lady, and George,” Cecelia said. “George would bottle oils. Mark had an almost 5,000-square-foot house on Spicewood Parkway, and when we started we were working in two rooms. When we moved to the Case Mill Homestead [ABC’s current location], we had occupied the entire house — including Mark’s master bedroom.”
“Cecelia is an old friend and a trusted employee; she is a true blessing for me,” Mark said. “Not only was she (and her husband, Gary) my biggest and most loyal customer in Dallas in the 1970s and 1980s when I owned Sweethardt Herbs, Inc., one of my former herb-wholesaling businesses, but she has become an integral and highly valued part of ABC since its inception. The successes and longevity of ABC are due, in part, to Cecelia’s (and Margaret’s) invaluable contributions.”
Cecelia and Margaret Wright, ABC’s accounting administrator (who was profiled in HerbalGram issue 98), soon became lifelong friends who go out for happy-hour margaritas and meet on the weekends for brunch. In 25 years of working together, they have seen each other’s children and grandchildren grow up, and they both share memories of the same funny stories, like the reason they make sure there is never an extra chair in their shared office (to discourage all-too-easy-yet-distracting chat sessions) and the time a new receptionist went out for a Coke on her first day and never came back.
“Anytime anybody says they’re going out for a Coke, we’re like, ‘No! You can’t go out for a Coke!’” Cecelia joked. “The good part about ABC is we’re like a family. [Margaret and I are] great friends. We always have been; we’ve always gotten along. It’s been such a joy to work with her. Margaret is incredible.”
Throughout the years, Cecelia continued to serve as the organization’s finance administrator. Because accounting principles largely stay the same, so has her job, although aspects of it have become more sophisticated, such as using various software programs. She also co-manages ABC’s human resources operations.
Cecelia is known around the office for having a keen eye for picking out unique and personal birthday cards for staff members, cooking addictive spinach pies for staff luncheons, and giving on-the-mark recommendations for Austin restaurants or cocktail bars. When not at work, Cecelia enjoys being out and about in Austin, cooking at home, and spending time with her children and grandchildren. And on special occasions, such as her 25th anniversary at ABC, she likes to sip on Veuve Clicquot, her favorite champagne.
“To know that I’ve been working here for 25 years,” she said, “it’s just amazing to me because it seems like it’s gone by so fast.”
—Lindsay Stafford Mader