Jean Farbin — also known as MaMa Jean — has owned Jean’s Healthway in Ava for around 40 years.
AVA – Springfield’s health food scene wouldn’t be complete without MaMa Jean.
Approximately 200 employees, three markets and a standalone, grab-and-go deli proclaim her name. More than 8,000 people are enrolled in the company’s loyalty program. Classes and lifestyles and new ways to eat are also tied to the stores, the first of which celebrates its 15th year in 2017.
There’s just one thing: MaMa Jean has never owned or even overseen a store in Springfield.
Instead, MaMa Jean — formally known as Jean Farbin — has her own healthy living legacy in Ava. She started Jean’s Healthway, a store stocked full of healthy food, supplements and more, in the rural Ozarks community nearly 40 years ago. Ultimately, she led her daughter to open the first MaMa Jean’s Natural Market in Springfield.
“There would not be a MaMa Jean’s if not for Jean Farbin,” says daughter Susie Farbin, who launched the Springfield brand with business partner Diana Hicks. “She’s just been an incredible inspiration. I’m lucky to have had her as my mom.”
Eighty-two-year-old Jean Farbin, however, doesn’t necessarily continue in the business to be an inspiration. Instead, she strives to help locals achieve good health — and, along the way, supports her own as well.
“Why I keep doing this is because I just love every day,” she says. “I mean, every day you get another story. Every day. It’s in my soul. This is my juice.”
Jean’s Healthway specializes in a variety of organic and health-supporting food, products and supplements.
While Jean Farbin’s business goes back around 40 years, her interest in healthy living has been a lifelong passion.
“From the time I was a little girl, I was planting gardens in my backyard in Chicago,” she says. It was enthusiasm that continued to grow like her plants, blossoming even after she grew up and became a hairdresser.
“I’d have my poor customers trapped in the shampoo bowl, teaching them about nutrition,” she says with a laugh. “They couldn’t escape.”
Later, a move — from Chicago to Ava — gave her a chance to put that passion into practice.
“I thought, ‘What does this town really need?’” recalls Jean Farbin. “There was nothing like this, and there was no information. People did not have good health. They didn’t know about organic, they didn’t know about not growing things with pesticides.”
To remedy the issue, Farbin opened up shop in the basement of her home, five miles out in the country on Route 5. She didn’t know what the response would be; whether locals would be interested in shopping at a store dedicated to so-called healthy food.
She soon found out how they felt about it.
“And I mean, it was busy from day one,” says Jean Farbin. “There was a big hippie group here, and they were definitely into trying to eat healthy and organic. And I knew some of those folks, so that kind of opened the door a little bit.”
It was soon so busy, in fact, that Jean Farbin hired an employee before eventually picking up shop and moving to town. Several years later, as business boomed, she moved again. Even that place, however, didn’t provide enough space.
“Then it got too nuts, so I ended up buying two buildings on the square, breaking through the wall and did a whole renovation of these old (buildings),” she says of the store’s last move in 1999. It was an example of the community spirit that has supported the business since it began.
“When I moved into this building from down the way, there must’ve been at least 30 people (who) came to help me move,” recalls Jean Farbin of the quick relocation, which was completed by volunteers in less than three days. “Nobody got paid. It was like a big party.”
Even today, that community loyalty still shines, proven by times when Susie Farbin sees customers from Ava shopping at MaMa Jean’s stores in Springfield.
“They’ll look at their cart, and they’ll look at me,” says Susie Farbin, noting the next thing they say: “‘I promise there’s nothing in here that your mom stocks!’ Now that’s loyalty.”
Susie Farbin, Jean Farbin’s daughter, poses in the MaMa Jean’s Natural Market on Sunshine Street.
Susie Farbin recognizes those customers because she spent around 14 years working at her mom’s store. That time, she says, taught her valuable lessons about running a business.
“It was probably the best education I could have ever received,” says Susie Farbin, who mentions learning about the importance of stretching every penny. “Especially in such a tough economy as Ava’s, and being a unique company in a small town like that. You had to be so careful on spending.”
Of course, other skills such as customer service and product knowledge were also crucial takeaways. Eventually, she learned something else: That it didn’t make sense for her to commute from Ava to work at the store when Springfield would benefit from having one of its own.
That was the start of MaMa Jean’s Natural Markets.
However, the name took a little longer to develop. It wasn’t until Susie Farbin overheard her niece call Jean “MaMa Jean” that things really fell into place.
“I woke up the next morning and I just sprung out of bed and went, ‘MaMa Jean’s!’” says Susie Farbin, who called her business partner, Diana Hicks, to propose the name. “She goes, ‘I love it, because I call my mom mama.’ So we thought we could pay tribute to both women by calling it MaMa Jean’s.”
That first store, located on south Campbell Avenue, opened in December 2002. “That first year, I think the average number of employees we had was about 12,” says Susie Farbin, a figure that stands in stark contrast to the current one of around 200. “We just started getting busier and busier, having to add more staff.”
The brand’s footprint has gradually expanded since then, and it’s not done. Susie Farbin says that no more MaMa Jean’s will be added in Springfield, but they’re always looking to fine-tune their operations, and could see growing outside the community.
“I’m a project-orientated person, and I’ve got a little bit of that driving force that my mom has in her,” says Susie Farbin.
Jean’s Healthway stocks grocery items, supplements and much more. Often the store sells local products, as well as ones in bulk.
Meanwhile back in Ava, that driving force keeps Jean Farbin working to help her customers. She stocks organic products, fresh produce, supplements, grocery items — and educational materials. A library of books fills the store, some for sale, but all available to see and learn how to alleviate health-related issues.
“I mean, I don’t charge anybody, and I can’t prescribe. But I can show them in the books. ‘Read this, this might help you figure it out,’” she says. “We don’t tell anybody, ‘Oh, this is your problem.’ We help them discover their own issues and how to fix them. Getting people healthy is pretty cool.”
Jean Farbin is so concerned about helping people’s health that she adjusts prices so products are more affordable for rural families’ budgets. “We never charge recommended sale price. Ever,” she says, also noting that anything bought as it comes — such as a 50-pound bag to a 25-pound box — is automatically 20 percent off.
After all, according to Jean Farbin, “it shouldn’t make you poor to get healthy.”
Want to shop?
Jean’s Healthway is located on Ava’s town square. For more information, call (417) 683-3026 or connect on Facebook.